Sunil Gavaskar – The Perfect Opener

Sunil Gavaskar is another in a long line of prolific run-makers to come out of Mumbai. Sunil Gavaskar was a little man with immense talent and determination. He had a wonderful technique, wonderful balance, and a wonderful eye for tracking and maneuvering the ball. Sunil Manohar Gavaskar was born on July 10, 1949, in Mumbai. In 1966, young Gavaskar was named India’s Best Schoolboy Cricketer for playing his school cricket.
He made his test debut against West Indies at Port of Spain, scoring 65 and 67not out, eventually India won the first-ever Test Match in West Indies by seven wickets. In the third Test Match at Georgetown, he scored his maiden Test hundred by scoring 116 runs. In the fifth Test match at Trinidad, he helped India to create history by winning the first-ever Test Series in West Indies. He scored brilliant 124 and 220 in this Test Match. The 5 ft 5-inch little man never look back after that.
He played some games of lesser importance, and he approached them all in the same way. The MCC Bicentenary match at Lord’s in 1987 was a festival fixture but for him, it was an opportunity to finally score a hundred on the famous old ground – an opportunity he duly took (he scored 188 for good measure). Even in charity matches and there on display was the same thoroughness as always.
More than most, batsmen who open the innings cannot leave things to chance and Sunny certainly wasn’t one to do that. Perhaps the innings of his that would be remembered most vividly was his double century at The Oval in 1979. His reputation was already made by that stage.
That was his 20th three-figure score for India in his 50th Test match, an amazing record – but he had previously spared England’s bowlers the worst punishment. But this was a performance that summed him up. Therefore, India had been set 438 to win or more likely around four sessions to survive, although the pitch was still good.
England gave them little chance to escape. England was in for the rudest of shocks. With the help of Chetan Chauhan and Dilip Vengsarkar, he very nearly pulled off what would have been an incredible victory, and only thanks to the late intervention of Ian Botham did the game end in the tensest of draws.
They did everything but win the game. Sunil Gavaskar provided a template as to how to construct a long run-chase but then perhaps we should not have been surprised. Three years earlier he had played his part in India successfully chasing down what was then a record 406 to beat West Indies in Trinidad.
In this memorable match, he scored 102, and India won by six wickets with something to spare. Like many great players, he thought nothing of rewriting the record books. Sunil Gavaskar is one of the shrewdest, most analytical men you will ever meet. As one indication of how carefully he thought about things was the skullcap he chose to wear at a time when helmets were coming into the game but were not quite the things of comfort they later became.
The early helmets could be unwieldy and as much an encumbrance as an aid. His solution was a molded ‘lid’ that sat under his cap and protected the temples but did not hamper his vision. It was a slightly weird solution to the problem, but it worked very well for him.
He was, of course, small enough at 5ft 5inch to duck out of the way of many short balls but that was only part of the challenge and his record against the fast bowlers was outstanding. Gavaskar’s performances against the West Indies formed the stuff of legend. In his very first Test series, aged 21, he took 774 runs off them in four matches at an average of 154.80 (a record for anyone in their first series).
This included a single and a double century in the same game. The double century scored while suffering from severe toothache. On his next tour of the Caribbean in 1975–76, he scored two more centuries, including the one in the record run-chase mentioned above. When West Indies toured India in 1978–79, he plundered 732 runs in six matches.
These were not against the strongest attacks – West Indies in the early 1970s did not possess quite such nasty fast bowlers as later and in 1978–79 most if not all their best pace-men had defected to Kerry Packer. But they were at full strength when in 1983 he scored 147 against them in Guyana, 121 at Delhi and 236 not out in Chennai. The Delhi innings showed another side to his personality.
Having started shakily against Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding, he decided his best course of action was attack and he raced to his hundred off just 94 balls. A few years earlier You’d seen him hit John Lever over long-on for six in the first over of the innings before then batting in his conventional fashion.
Perhaps it was this same contrariness that led him to bat slowly through a 60-over one-day innings during the 1975 World Cup. In that match, he did not believe India could win, and he scored 36 runs in 174 balls. Sunny, attempted to lead his batting partner off the field after he had been given out to a questionable lbw decision at Melbourne in 1981.
He could be quirky for sure. When we opposed each other as captains on England’s tour of India in 1984–85, he took the very odd decision to allow India’s first innings in the third Test in Kolkata to meander into the fourth day. Had the pace been quicker, England could have been under more pressure, and it must have been something he regretted when we went on to win the series.
Sunil Gavaskar was unimpressed when at the rest day press conference, he’d already gone on too long and he dubbed England ‘The Preacher’. It was a rare case of him getting something wrong, although as a captain he was perhaps too defensive. His immaculate defense always challenged bowlers. His powerful concentration with the perfect technique was virtually unbreakable.
Sunil Gavaskar and Javed Miandad at the toss at Sharjah first friendly in 1981
Sunil Gavaskar and Javed Miandad at the toss at Sharjah’s first friendly in 1981
Once India went one-up against us on our previous tour in 1981– 1982. Sunny Gavaskar was happy to sit on the lead, which resulted in some stultifying cricket, but India was by then without their great match-winning spin bowlers and the price of failure in Indian cricket was high (especially if that failure came against Pakistan, as he subsequently discovered). His captaincy was less successful and sacked just six months before Kapil Dev led India to a sensational victory in the 1983 world cup.
Sunil Gavaskar retired having scored more runs (10,122) and more hundreds (34) and having played in more Tests (125) than anyone to that point. He was a cricketing deity long before Sachin Tendulkar came along. Indeed, he advised and encouraged the young Sachin Tendulkar to believe that he could break the records he himself had set (which he duly did). He played his last Test match against Pakistan at Bengaluru in 1986-87, scoring 96 runs, but could not escape India to defeat.
His legacy goes deeper than just playing. Since retiring, he has remained a constant presence behind the scenes, involved with the Maharashtra Cricket Association in Mumbai and the Indian board, even being appointed the BCCI’s temporary chief executive. He continues to influence the game hugely, as befits the stature of the man.
His son Rohan Gavaskar also played some cricket for India. But he could not continue his father’s legacy and played only 11 ODI’s in 2004. His brother-in-law GR Vishwanath was also a great Indian cricketer, who scored more than six thousand in Test cricket. Sunil Gavaskar was awarded Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri awards and then included in the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame in 2009. Also, awarded Col CK Nayudu Lifetime achievement awards.