The curtain fell on the Reliance World Cup it was time to salute a retiring hero whose final game was played in its urgent rush. Sunil Gavaskar has never been a run machine. Despite those 10,000 Test runs he did not like things to go too smoothly. Something in his spirit recoiled at the regularity of churning out nuns.
He’d tease the crowd in one-day internationals and enchant them the next. In 1975 he grafted to boring 36 not out in a 60-over game at Lord’s by way of idle protest. In the 1987 World Cup, he followed an infuriatingly timid inning against Zimbabwe with an astonishing hundred against New Zealand.
As captain he could slow the game down, adopting tactics barely within the rules—as he did when India bowled nine overs in an hour against Fletcher’s England side. Off the field, he’d “chuckle” and so people forgave him. Yet he never stilled this streak of non-conformity which could rarely find its expression in his batting.
Maybe if he’d been a few inches taller he’d have been a swashbuckler. It used to frustrate him that he couldn’t slog because he believed that prevented him from tearing into attacks in the manner of Viv Richards or Clive Lloyd. If his effort against New Zealand was anything to go by, he has corrected this weakness at the end of his career. Sunil Gavaskar created for himself a character he could enjoy as if it compensated for his ruthlessness on the field.
It amused him to appear hopelessly impractical. At Somerset in 1980, he could scarcely boil water, and once he was found in a telephone kiosk, trapped by dogs, of which his fear is well documented and (given the incidence of rabies in India) well-founded. If Gavaskar saw a dog on the field he’d invariably lose his wicket. It was a fatalism he adopted to protect himself from the apparent infallibility of his work at the wicket.
In the dressing-room, he’d pass dry comments, observing that our bowling wasn’t quite as good as theirs and asking if Rose — who was in a particularly exuberant patch that season — always batted in this way. Later he blamed his experience in that damp summer for a loss of commitment on the grounds that Somerset players didn’t worry if they failed or if the team lost (which wasn’t quite the case — that he thought we didn’t mind showed how much he’d minded previously).
Sunil Gavaskar thought this sense of perspective had undermined his singularity of purpose. He was a certainly amusing company, understating his character to counterpoint Botham’s effusions. His colleagues were charmed but not fooled. This was a tough man, a determined man who didn’t drink or smoke, who rose at dawn, sipped ginseng tea, and led his life with modesty. We realized he wanted to score runs but he did not want to die a run-scorer.
For all this chuckling humor Gavaskar’s dedication could not be mistaken. He was out for a duck a few days before the Bicentenary game at Lord’s, a ground on which he’d never previously hit a hundred. He spent the next three hours practicing his backlift in front of a mirror in order to eliminate a weakness he’d detected.
This after he’d scored 34 Test centuries. Of course, he hit 188 runs in that farewell appearance. His hallmarks as a batsman were this attention to detail and meticulous preparation. Denied power and stature, his game depended upon precision. He could not afford to make mistakes to the crease Gavaskar could summon BA: the ferocity of effort rivaled in my experience only by Viv Richards and Martin Crowe.
If his mind began to wander he’d hood his eyes, focusing them upon the batting strip, eliminating everything else, for this was an empire and he was the emperor. He never looked at the scoreboard or the clock, considering them to be irrelevant. In this power, to the tunnel, his concentration lay the secret of his greatness. It was a single-mindedness against which his puckish and irrelevant temperament was occasionally allowed to rebel. Not often but occasionally.
In his retirement from international cricket, Gavaskar will be a considerable star. Already he runs a sports manufacturer, a sports agency, is a marketing executive, writes books and articles, and appears as a model on television advocating the merits of particular brands of toothpaste, hair dye, aftershave, and footwear.
His image is that of a smart, sophisticated, and yet humble man. One of the wonders of the world is the way in which Sunil Gavaskar’s hair has gone from grey to black. Usually, these things occur only in Scunthorpe. Some people resent the way in which Sunil Gavaskar and other Indian stars appear in advertisements, for Florence Nightingale’s spirit is supposed to prevail in cricket.
In fact, of course, the World Cup itself was not much more than an advertising campaign for cricket, and as such, it was a resounding success. In the torrent of rupees, only a remarkably monkish cricketer could be counted on to be abstinent. In the first 12 pages of November’s India Today, a political magazine, there were five full-page advertisements. Featured models were the Nawab of Pataudi, Sunil Gavaskar (twice), Ravi Shastri, and Kapil Dev.
Throughout the sub-continent cricketers are heroes. Two recently departed Test players, Sandeep Patil and Mohsin Khan is a famous film star. Nearly every other cricketer still in the game is using his name in one way or another. It is churlish to criticize Gavaskar’s typically methodical approach to his business career.
He has the reputation for reliability and practicality. Businessmen say he is neither spoilt nor greedy. Though effectively Maharajah of Bombay he has lived in the same ordinary flat and has driven the same old car throughout his career. His hair might have changed color, but his head has not been turned. His son is named after Rohan Kanhai.