There is something about Sunil Gavaskar that makes him a permanent presence in our lives. He burst onto the international scene 50 years ago and has never stopped being a part of our lives ever since. Barring Lata Mangeshkar and Amitabh Bachchan, there is no other Indian public figure in any sphere that has had the same longevity as him. If for the first 16 years it was as a cricketer who was India’s ticket to be considered a rival worth respecting, for the next 34 years it has been as a commentator who has become the voice of Indian cricket, through all the changes that it has seen.
If Virat gave to Indian team a ruthlessness of spirit, and an ability to win and keep on winning, Dhoni made victory feel like a right to be accepted as a matter of course, Sachin showed us that we could not only win but dominate the best, Kapil proved that we had it what it takes to win at the highest level, Gavaskar was the one who made us feel that we belonged on the world stage. At a time when the Indian team had a fragility about it that endured in spite of occasional flashes of brilliance, Gavaskar was the one pillar that could not be shaken, not even by the very best that the world could throw at him. And he did this not by grit or determination alone but by showing the kind of technique and class that the game valued the most. He played the game the classical way, and he played it better than almost anybody else at the time.
For years the only person standing against pace attacks of the world and India was Sunil Gavaskar. To be sure there were others. We had the artistic flair of Vishwanath, the brave obduracy of Mohinder Amarnath, and the willowy brilliance of Dilip Vengsarkar, but none of them came close to matching the consistency and the sheer volume of runs that Gavaskar racked up.
To be an opener in the time of Roberts, Marshall, Holding, Garner, Lillee, Thomson, Imran, Willis and Hadlee was to be a gladiator in the time of tyrants. Relentless hostility was the defining trait of fast bowling then, and nothing we see today comes close to that. Unprepared pitches, no helmets, shoddy protective gear, no restriction on the number of bouncers, this was not a time for the faint of heart. Fear was a palpable emotion experienced by even the most seasoned batsmen. Being an opener was then perhaps one of the most unenviable jobs in the world.
For some correctness is a prison, a set of confining rules that limit one’s freedom and provide a formulaic answer to everything. For Gavaskar, correctness was a source of freedom. The technique seemed an inborn trait rather than an acquired skill. Balance, posture, poise, patience, certain straightness of carriage, these came naturally to him. Which is what imparted beauty to his game, rather than mere technical exactitude.
Gavaskar made smallness feel like a work of art. Everything flowed smoothly, in a compact package. The cover drives, the straight drives, and the flicks were a combination of precision and elegance as if they were always meant to be. His height seemed to offer him protection against the quicks, and once he cut out the hook, he looked relatively undisturbed by all that was dished out to him. Watching Gavaskar play was a lesson incorrectness made beautiful, the technical turned fluid.
He was perhaps the only cricketing superstar who left the stage on his terms, without having the big question that has so dogged others dangling ominously in front of him. He retired while having a good run with the bat, and he stayed retired thereafter.
As a sporting hero who has stayed relevant for over 50 years, Gavaskar paints a complex picture with many shades. At one level, he is the voice of palatable wisdom that has managed to stay effortlessly contemporary by avoiding the old-fogginess that can afflict the wisest of the accomplished. He is the one constant in a world that has changed beyond recognition. Cricket is nothing like what it was in his time, and yet Gavaskar goes on. He plays the role of providing a sense of continuity to Indian cricket without it lapsing into sepia-tinged nostalgia. His inherent pragmatism makes him comfortable with young and old alike, and it helps that he looks pretty much the same as he always has.
What is interesting is that while he has played the role of the person bridging generations, he has always very much been his own person. There is a streak of individualism, of always knowing where his interests lie and a willingness to exercise a certain part of his personality to maintain distance from others. He was the first player to recognise the commercial potential of cricket and has never shied away from fighting for what he believes is his due. He is also politically adept; the fact that he managed to stay relevant even through all the muddy transitions that the BCCI has gone through speaks for both the respect he commands as well as his ability to stay on the right side of things.
His career too has been dotted with instances both of uncharacteristic loss of self-control as well as difficult relationships with some teammates. The inexplicable 36 not out compiled batting through 60 overs in a World Cup Match, the petulant walk-out against Australia that could have led to more serious consequences but for the timely intervention of the Indian manager are well-advertised cases of these lapses.
He is not a cardboard cut-out of a hero, as no human being is. But 50 years ago, he began the journey that has culminated today in India being the top-ranked team in the world. It all began with Sunil Gavaskar.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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