The day Sunil Gavaskar converted a nine-year-old into an incorrigible cricket fan

Sunil Gavaskar © AFP

The peerless Sunil Gavaskar was born on July 10, 1949. A starry-eyed Abhishek Mukherjee recalls the day —Tuesday. March 17, 1987 — when he was converted to cricket for good thanks to the last innings played by one of his earliest heroes.

March 17, 1987. It was the most significant day of my life till date. As I look back, this was a day that made me take a decision that has stuck with me for over a quarter of a century now. And I’m proud that I took the decision on that day. Had I not taken the decision, my life would probably have shaped in a different manner altogether.

Let us go back in time.

The nine-year old

1986.

There was this stubby guy called Diego Maradona who ripped through his oppositions to guide Argentina to their second World Cup Football victory in three attempts. Doordarshan had shown the matches live; the Kolkata book market was flooded with books about the newly formed legend; all of a sudden everything else was forgotten. Everything else.

Even the 2-0 factor.

Kapil Dev’s Devils had actually ended a superlative campaign of England virtually at the same time. Dilip Vengsarkar had top-scored in each of the four innings in the two victorious Tests, and beating England in England was an achievement that typically even the greatest captains are proud of.

But Maradona took the glory away. In a sport we never played (well, whatever India played in the 1980s was not really football), the image of the guy with the square face kissing the World Cup was suddenly a more familiar household picture than Vengsarkar holding the willow aloft after reaching the greatest hundred scored by an Indian on English soil for a long time.

It was a tough ask warding off the Maradona effect. The Chennai Test could not, despite Dean Jones’ epic 210, Kapil’s amazing hundred and a heck of a last day, culminating in only the second tied Test in history; the Mumbai run-fest could not (where all three Mumbai batsmen scored hundreds); neither did the Kanpur one (only the second occasion where three batsmen scored 150s in the same innings); nor did Kapil being the first Indian bowler to reach the 300-wicket milestone; and as 1986 rolled into 1987, when the Pakistan series had started, this little guy (possibly shorter than the ubiquitous Maradona himself, possibly not) rumoured to announce his retirement shortly.

I did not care a lot for Sunil Gavaskar till that point of time. I had read as much as a nine-year old could, and knew he was great, but I did not actually see him doing anything special. Nevertheless, I took everything on face value and kept admiring him silently. Come on, almost 10,000 Test runs don’t come just like that!

Mind you, both my parents were ardent Kapil Dev fans, and in the Kolkata of 1980s there was this strange unwritten rule that you can support and oppose exactly one of the two alternatives: Congress or CPI(M); hilsa or prawns; East Bengal or Mohun Bagan; Gavaskar or Kapil Dev; North or South Kolkata; Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak; Uttam Kumar or Soumitra Chatterjee; Hemanta Mukherjee or Manna Dey; and so on.

I tried to explain to my parents, somewhat in vain, that I admired both of them a lot, and since Vengsarkar was the new phenomenon (remember, this was when he was actually hailed as the best batsman in the world) I was a huge Vengsarkar fan as well, and I loved watching Mohammad Azharuddin bat and field.

That was out of the question, they said. One cannot have so many idols especially when it came down to the same field; more so when it came down to Gavaskar and Kapil. The logic defied my puny brain, but then, I decided to hero-worship both legends anyway (and Vengsarkar and Azharuddin to boot); and possibly Maradona and Michel Platini and Karl Heinz Rummenigge, and a few other people who ran around in shorts.

The drab build-up

The first four Tests ended in drab draws (well, the second test was a somewhat excitable draw thanks to Roger Binny’s excellent spell on the third afternoon — and I was there!). They went like this:

Madras: Pakistan 487 for nine declared and 182 for three, India 527 for nine declared

Calcutta: India 403 and 181 for three declared, Pakistan 229 and 179 for five

Jaipur: India 465 and 114 for two, Pakistan 341

Ahmedabad: Pakistan 395 and 135 for two, India 323

So basically, in three of the four Tests, the fourth innings wasn’t even required. This was killing off the Test matches, the experts said. Why exactly, I wondered. I mean, a draw was a result, wasn’t it? This was also the time when I started copying scorecards from the newspapers into Mikado or Nalanda notebooks, so it wasn’t really that boring for me.

There was a lot of speculation regarding what the pitch at Bangalore would be like. Some said it would be as placid as those used in the first four tests. Some said it would be a rank turner. Some others had suggested a green-top.

Kapil Dev, Indian captain, reigning world champion and recent victor in England, took a close look at the pitch. He picked Roger Binny, Shivlal Yadav, Maninder Singh and the two all-rounders — Mohinder Amarnath and Ravi Shastri.

Imran Khan, greatest captain and cricketer I have ever seen, thought it would assist the seamers; he picked himself, Wasim Akram and Salim Jaffer. He also picked Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed on form, and left out his personal favourite, the woefully out-of-touch Abdul Qadir.

If only he knew.

He won the toss, though.

I was down with fever. Yes, yes, a real fever. An absolutely real one, involving high temperature and all that. Ask ma. Ask Dr KN Sen. Ask anyone.

Day One: Maninder stuns Pakistan

After Kapil removed Rizwan-uz-Zaman in the first over (as was quite customary), Rameez Raja and Saleem Malik held fort. We saw Binny bowl, then Amarnath; Kapil carried on from the other end. No one had a clue of what was about to happen next.

Maninder never wore a turban (and neither does Harbhajan Singh, despite the name Turbanator). It wasn’t a turban – it was a patka, as Navjot Singh Sidhu has reminded us countless times on air. He also bowled into the camera (for the uninitiated, Doordarshan in the mid-1980s had only one camera, so every alternative over was seen from the batsman’s back). As a result we never got to see what happened. But what we could clearly realise was the fact that the batsmen were not at comfort at all.

Maninder got so much turn that even though the camera was placed behind the batsman, you could actually see the ball pitch somewhere (out of vision of the camera), and then suddenly emerge at a sharp angle past the edge — sometimes into Kiran More’s gloves, and often past them.

All on day one. Before lunch.

Kapil immediately took himself away and allowed Shastri to take over. Shastri flighted the ball even more than Maninder and hence (probably) extracted a greater amount of turn. The batsmen struggled, hung around for a few minutes and departed. Thirty nine for one became 74 for eight in no time, and it was some flaying of the bat from Qasim that eventually took them to 116. Maninder eventually picked up seven for 27 and looked utterly perplexed as he left the field.

A three-digit score was big, we thought. But then, we had Srikkanth. He carted Imran and Akram for boundaries, and Qasim had to be brought on in the sixth over. Tauseef in the 11th. And they bowled unchanged, even on the next day.

We ended the day on a confident 68 for two. Though Tauseef had removed both openers late in the evening, Kapil did not send in a night-watchman, and Amarnath and Vengsarkar looked in control at stumps.

Day Two: Pakistan claws back

Tauseef removed Amarnath early on day two; and then the spinners bowled brilliantly in tandem. I clearly remember Tauseef bowling into the camera, varying flight, just outside the off-stump. Of course, there was no doosra, just the conventional off-spin and the straight ball. Qasim, on the other hand, bowled away from the camera. He was impeccable in his length, and kept on changing the flight.

The Indian batsmen showed immense concentration. Vengsarkar’s footwork, I still remember, was incredible. Both Azharuddin and Shastri struggled, and when Vengsarkar fell for fifty, the rest fell in a heap, and from 130 for five we were bowled out for 145 — a lead of 29 runs; or, well, 25% (you see, they had taught us percentages in Class V).

There was no Binny business this time. Kapil gave the new ball to Maninder. But then, Imran being Imran, had already gone one up: he had sent Javed Miandad to play out the new ball and to get his eyes in before the ball had got old. The nimble-footed Miandad managed to blunt out Maninder, and even though Shastri removed him and the hapless Rizwan in quick succession, Pakistan had started a fightback.

Rameez scored a gutsy 47, possibly the innings of his life. As he fell to Yadav, Imran displayed another card — he promoted a pinch-hitter this time. Qasim, after his lusty blows in the first innings, came out at five. Both batsmen played really well, and though India chipped away, Pakistan managed to secure 155 for 5 at stumps – a healthy lead of 126. Another hundred runs and we were history.

Day Three: Gavaskar holds fort

Maninder struck early the next morning. Akram hit a massive six, but fell soon, and with Imran’s resistance ending as well, we were suddenly in with a chance at 198 for eight.

Like the West Indies had found out to their peril just over a year later, we had not accounted for Saleem Yousuf. Yousuf’s career was not founded on massive scores. However, when it came to batting under peril, few batsmen from Pakistan matched him in the second half of the 1980s.

I would have called the unbeaten 41 the innings of his life, but he actually bettered this effort in West Indies next year against a superior attack. Tauseef also hung around, and eventually they took the score to 249.

The target, hence, was 221. Exactly the same number of runs The Little Master had scored at The Oval, all by himself, when we had scored 429 for eight chasing 437 (the Kapil Dev fanatic parentage in the household never highlighted these — but ask them anything on World Cup 1983, and they were there to pounce with the answer).

Imran Khan, one of the greatest fast bowlers the world has ever seen, did not, I repeat, did not bowl the first over. For that matter, he did not bowl at all in the second innings. Neither did Saleem Jaffer (who had not bowled in the first innings either and batted at eleven twice in the match) — oh, didn’t Imran miss Qadir on this pitch!

Akram had the new ball. He measured his run-up. Wasim Akram, destined to become the greatest fast bowler in the history of the planet, bowled a few overs to Sunil Gavaskar, already the greatest opening batsman in the history of the same planet. He knew it wasn’t working. He reverted to a shorter, different run-up.

Akram’s release was different, and so was his follow-through. But the ball darted and moved and we knew we were in serious trouble. Qasim started at the other end and turned the ball virtually at right angles. Srikkanth took a few mighty hoicks, the ball often hit the pad, and he survived. But not for long.

One of them hit him straight in front of the stumps. Plumb. He was given out. To Akram, who had reverted to bowling seam-up now, and was bowling really fast

Amarnath walked out. They said it was an experience watching Viv Richards walk out to bat: sheer masculinity in motion with every step; the body language was enough to kill the psyche of the bowler. Amarnath was the exact antitheses. He walked in so slowly that the psyche of the bowler was often demented out of sheer boredom. We were reassured by Amarnath’s presence. We always were. Nothing could go wrong with Amarnath around.

He snicked. First ball. Yousuf shouted. Caught behind. Fifteen for two.

But we still had Vengsarkar — not only the best batsman on form in the current world, but also the hero of the first innings. Akram, meanwhile, was taken off after his weirdly effective spell that was a combination of lethal pace and unconventional left-arm spin. Imran brought on Tauseef.

It was an amazing contest. The balding Iqbal Qasim tossing the ball up in the air and turning the ball at improbable angles; the Lionel Richie-doppelganger Tauseef Ahmed turning the ball the opposite way using the straighter one as a variant. Vengsarkar, standing upright, chest stuck out, using his height to smother the ball in any conceivable way. Gavaskar, short, playing forward or back depending on the length, always using the bat, never the pad, and playing virtually every ball with the middle or leaving them alone: no edge; no pad; and hence, no appeal.

The runs, however, had dried out. It was a sultry March afternoon. This being (probably) a Sunday, baba had dozed off. Ma was still awake, going on with the impossible and hobe na with amazing consistency after virtually every ball. Dadu was also there, amazingly silent for a man of his nature. You could sense the tension. Even bhai, all of three, had the sense to be playing with his whatevers and not bother the grown-ups of the house.

And then, the inevitable happened. Tauseef got one past Vengsarkar’s defence. 64 for three. As one tall man turned towards the pavilion, we expected another to emerge (no commercials, remember?). Ma went ballistic with her bolechhilam, hobe na (I told you, it would not happen). Baba snored on. Dadu kept quiet. I never moved.

Only that it wasn’t Azharuddin. It was, for whatever inexplicable reason, More. It was too early to send a nightwatchman, so he was possibly sent in to up the tempo. That is something he did not, or rather, could not. He hung around, missing virtually everything, and we knew that a wicket was on the cards. He got bits of advice from the equally short man at the other end, but he simply wasn’t capable enough. He perished shortly afterwards to Tauseef. Eighty for four.

Azharuddin handled the spinners differently. A couple of quick flicks meant men had to be sent out to square legs. The commentator (Ravi Chaturvedi or Sushil Doshi, can’t remember which of the two) kept on mentioning that it was risky, but Azharuddin persisted. A few runs got scored in the process, the short man looked relieved, and we ended the day on 99 for four, Gavaskar on 51, already the highest score in the match.

Down, but not yet out. Still in the match.

Day Four:

The next day was a Monday. It was also the rest day of the match. I was sent off to school, and suddenly the discussions had changed. Suddenly it was the Pakistani spinners who formed the topics of discussion — and, of course, Gavaskar — and Azharuddin. Suddenly we had drifted from the antipodeans in blue and white stripes.

I had to fall ill Monday evening — ill enough to convince ma that I should take Tuesday off. Yes, I know what you are thinking. I know you’re suspecting my innocence, my honesty, my integrity, my commitment towards school. As if I would bunk school to watch cricket. Hmph.
Day Four: The conversion happens

So things started off. It was a surprisingly silent grandfather and a, well, suddenly-all-illness-forgotten grandson in front of a Nelco Maestro colour television set. Tauseef Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim set off proceedings for what would definitely be the last day of the series.

The pitch did not seem to have rested over Monday. It had virtually turned into a minefield now. The ball turned at improbable angles amidst prominent puffs of dust, and they also bounced high, often to chest-level. Azharuddin looked clueless for a while, and missed quite a few trying to play across the line.

Gavaskar, however, realised that runs were not going to be easy. Along with punishing the rank long hops (which were rare to come by), he also ensured that every ball was either comfortably left alone or played with the middle of the bat. As Yousuf came closer and closer to the stumps, Gavaskar adopted a new strategy — something I have never seen anyone execute, before or after.

He put his entire body behind the line of the ball, went as back as was humanly possible without being hit wicket, and then, if the ball turned or bounced awkwardly, he seemed to play them — but only took his bat away at the very last moment. This meant that Yousuf, standing up to the stumps, had no chance of collecting the ball, resulting in priceless byes. This was particularly effective against the off-spinner, where Yousuf seemed all at sea.

Azharuddin fell, trying to flick one and giving Qasim a catch back. One hundred and twenty three for five. Shastri walked out, and hung around, somehow, using his bat, pads, boots and everything. He stooped so low in his forward defence that he could even have used his helmet.

Runs were by now virtually impossible to come by; yet, Gavaskar kept on scoring singles and twos and acquiring byes at will. It was like watching batsmanship on two different pitches. Gavaskar seemed so at ease that it almost seemed fair to curse the batsman at the other end for his incompetence.

Shastri gave a catch back to Qasim, and when Kapil fell too, things looked pretty much hopeless at 161 for seven. The ball had now started to turn the other way as well, and wasn’t quite dependent on what the bowler wanted it to do. All the bowler had to do was to place it on a proper line and length, and the pitch kept on doing the rest.

And then, on 180, Gavaskar played forward to one from Qasim. The ball hit the pad (yes, I can swear that it never hit the bat), and lobbed to Rizwan-uz-Zaman at slip. They yelled, and then… then… they gave him out.

Did I yell? Did I cry? Did I sit back like an imbecile? No recollection. All I remember is Gavaskar walking back to the pavilion – as it turned out, for the last time in Test match — and the entire ground giving him a standing ovation. Even the Pakistanis joined in, amidst their celebrations.

I had possibly cried. I think I did. Funnily, I cannot remember. All I know is that I was converted to cricket — permanently. The Maradonas, with all their skills and achievements, did not matter anymore. The Samba remained only a tune. Tennis remained only a, well, tennis ball sport. NBA or Formula I refused to register at all when they came along at a later stage.

There was only sport that I knew I would follow. I knew I was born to follow cricket, and only cricket, as a sport.


Brief scores:

Pakistan 116 (Maninder Singh 7 for 27) and 249 (Rameez Raja 47, Saleem Yousuf 41 not out; Ravi Shastri 4 for 69) defeated India 145 (Dilip Vengsarkar 50; Iqbal Qasim 5 for 48, Tauseef Ahmed 5 for 54) and 204 (Sunil Gavaskar 96; Iqbal Qasim 4 for 73; Tauseef Ahmed 4 for 85).
Postscript

Gavaskar scored 96 in the innings (missing the 35th hundred by four runs — eerily the same number of runs that has gone down in history as the most famous margin by which a landmark was ever missed). India went on to lose the match by 16 runs.

I have often been asked how a lost match ended in being an inspiration for me at the age of nine. I have a tough time explaining that it was never about the outcome of the match. It was about cricket — the only creation of mankind that can hold a nine-year old to a magic of this intensity over a span of half a week; it was about Gavaskar, who showed an entire generation what they had missed out on for committing the unpardonable fault of being born a decade late.

Wherever you are, Sunnybhai, in case you’re reading this, thank you for making me take the decision on that day. Oh, and a very happy birthday as well!

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)