Gavaskar, the torchbearer of Indian batting

As an opener, he walked out to live the dreams of millions of Indians as hopes rose and crashed with his batting.

Sunil Gavaskar had an impeccable technique, he could even bat against hostile bowlers without helmet because of that.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

He was the reason for many – players, writers, broadcasters – to inspire a career in cricket.

Sunil Manohar Gavaskar was the torchbearer of Indian batting during times when there were illustrious partners like G. R. Viswanath, Mohinder Amarnath and Dilip Vengsarkar bringing quality to the art of making runs.

As an opener, he walked out to live the dreams of millions of Indians as hopes rose and crashed with his batting.

Standing up to the most ferocious fast bowlers and tackling the most beguiling spinners with exemplary skills, Gavaskar epitomised correct batsmanship. As youngsters, we all wanted to become openers. The neighbourhood `Tests’ witnessed some fascinating clones of Gavaskar, imitating his gait, stance, mannerisms at the crease – bat resting on the thigh, easing into position just as the bowler began his run up. It was a sight. Every team had its Gavaskar but obviously minus the class.

Personally, my first close encounter was watching him practice at the ‘nets’ at Kotla No. 2 before the Ranji Trophy final in 1977. He was so meticulous. Those were days when there were no restrictions, no anti-corruption staff to menacingly drive away fans and scribes. Surprisingly, there were not many admirers of the Bombay team on that warm April day.

I subtly placed myself behind the ‘nets’ — a feet behind the wicketkeeper’s position. It was a privileged spot to watch him bat from hand-shaking distance. At the end of a round, two fast bowlers and two spinners, I would quickly collect the ‘well-left’ balls and roll them back. A “thank you” from Gavaskar was a priceless reward earned to make up anecdotes for friends and also folks back home.

Gavaskar’s footwork was so precise, so nimble. Not once was he hurried and I remember Karsan Ghavri and Abdul Ismail trying to make an impression. Leg-spinner Rakesh Tandon beat him a few times, the crafty Padmakar Shivalkar and Avadhut Zarapkar hit his pads on a couple of occasions. But Gavaskar was unperturbed. One saw some well-timed cover drives and his trademark straight drive.

At the end of his stint, he threw a smile as he picked his spare bat and retired to the makeshift dressing room. “Really!” was his warm response many years later when one met him as a journalist. Thanks to that practice session, I perhaps watched him bat more than any spectator at the match for Gavaskar made just 5 and 10, falling to the wily Bishan Singh Bedi in both the innings.

Standing up to the most ferocious fast bowlers and tackling the most beguiling spinners with exemplary skills, Gavaskar epitomised correct batsmanship.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

  He gave a new dimension to opening the innings. His technique was flawless, from ‘leaving’ the ball to getting into position to play an exquisite stroke. Facing hostile bowlers without helmet was possible only because of his impeccable technique. He was hit a couple of times though.

Ravi Shastri’s favourite anecdote involving Gavaskar is how he was struck on the head by Malcolm Marshall in a Test in the West Indies. “The next ball, when most expected another bouncer, Maco fired aiming the block-hole but Sunny, having anticipated, unleashed a stunning straight drive. Marshall applauded too.”

India’s fortunes in far away lands depended on how long Gavaskar batted. If he was at the crease there was competition in the game. Viswanath, Vengsarkar, Amarnath and Kapil all drew motivation from his battles on the cricket field. His endearing nature and willingness to guide youngsters always made him the most sought after expert in Indian cricket.

Gavaskar is a delightful raconteur and itinerant cricket reporters are privileged to enjoy his company, his humility often flooring the young brigade. He is held in awe by youngsters and seasoned in the cricket fraternity but he goes out of the way to make them feel comfortable.

As his fans, friends and admirers wish him on his birthday, I cherish that wonderful afternoon at Kotla when I was treated to a masterclass in batting from the best possible position.