A legend in two lands

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

THAT he is a legend in India is well known. But his popularity in Trinidad has to be seen to be believed.

"I've not known any other sportsman command such popularity for so long. Sunny has remained a great ambassador for his country and I want you to convey this message to your people," says Ispahan Ali, a close friend of Sunil Gavaskar since 1971.-V. V. KRISHNAN

For Sunil Gavaskar, it is a fact that Trinidad is a home away from home. "More than the cricket I look forward to seeing my friends," says the master. But what of his fans, thousands of them, who still narrate tales from that famous tour of 1971?

On his debut tour, at just 21, Gavaskar announced his potential to the cricketing world in a big way. Seven hundred and seventy four runs in his first Test series was a sensational start indeed. And the splendid saga continued for 16 years.

Gavaskar gave Indian cricket respectability. Of course, there were others too, but then he stood out because of his consistency. When people hailed his 29th Test century, Gavaskar was the first to point out that it should not be treated as a record since he had taken more innings than Sir Don Bradman to reach that mark.

Now, sitting in the commentators box, Gavaskar analyses the game for the benefit of arm-chair experts, but seldom does he discuss the past. Ask him of his playing days, he would quickly change the topic. I have not known him discuss any of his innings.

In Trinidad, this legendary cricketer is received with warmth and affection by one and all. His following is not restricted to just the Indian community. When you talk of Gavaskar, the appreciation comes from all quarters.

Not even Sachin Tendulkar can match the fan following of Gavaskar, who quit playing in 1987. Of course, comparisons are drawn between Tendulkar and Brian Lara, but Gavaskar stands out. He does not even figure in such discussions because he is rated above them both.

Tendulkar's humility lies in acknowledging Gavaskar's greatness everytime a mention is made of the older master. Thirty-one years ago Gavaskar had the West Indian bowlers at his mercy and maintained his supremacy in subsequent meetings between the teams.

The Queens Park Oval at Port of Spain became Gavaskar's favourite ground. And his exploits created a fan following which has remained loyal even today with no contemporary cricketer being able to displace Gavaskar from the top spot that he occupies in the heart of the Trinidadian.

When Gavaskar comes to Trinidad, he has countless invitations from his fans and it becomes a task for him to sort them out. One of his closest friends of that 1971 tour, Ispahan Ali, recalls, "I've not known any other sportsman command such popularity for so long. Sunny has remained a great ambassador for his country and I want you to convey this message to your people."

Now, Ispahan is just one of many of them. At the Queens Park Oval, I met countless fans of Gavaskar, some his contemporaries and some younger, who have grown up listening to his batting exploits from their elders. "You can imagine the plight of the bowlers today had Gavaskar been batting," said Maneck Harkisson, who watched the 1971 Tests from the stands as a 15-year-old.

To record Gavaskar's feats, Lord Relator composed a song in his praise. It was Calypso at its best as Lord Relator put things in the right perspective by penning the famous line, "We couldn't out Gavaskar at all." It was an appropriate sum up of Gavaskar's domination.

Ispahan, whose nephew Inshan Ali represented the West Indies, became nostalgic when he recounted some anecdotes highlighting Gavaskar's popularity. It is said that had he contested in Trinidad, Gavaskar would have won an election in that glorious era when Indian cricket took a grand leap after having remained stagnant for a long, long time. Well, back home too Gavaskar would have won an election at any given time.

As we sit in the lobby of the Trinidad Hilton, a few members of the current Indian team pass by. Ispahan is shocked. "You know, in this very lobby, 31 years ago, it was impossible for Sunny to have just breezed through. The lobby was swarming with fans and it was not possible to just walk past them. It has changed so much now. This team is not popular at all," said Ispahan.

In the West Indies, it is said that no cricketer would have signed as many autographs as Gavaskar. "It was a very tiring exercise," the master recalled, but no fan would have returned disappointed. Even today one can see Gavaskar being mobbed by his fans. Needless to say he enjoys it. "It's a nice feeling," he says. And why not?

Along with Gavaskar, another Indian cricketer who commands respect in the Caribbean is Mohinder 'Jimmy' Amarnath. "No one played fast bowling better," the late Malcolm Marshall had said of Amarnath's tremendous batsmanship.

Gavaskar has his own place in history, but Amarnath too has earned a name with his brave stand against the fast bowlers in 1983. For the Trinidadians of Indian descent, these two names stand out for the joy they brought to the game with their quality batting. No odes were composed for Amarnath, but the best praise for him came from Gavaskar who once said, "I was often inspired by Jimmy's handling of the fast bowlers."

Even as Gavaskar enjoyed the attention heaped on him, Ispahan wished the Trinidadians would honour the great cricketer by naming a road after him. "He deserves it," says his Trinidadian friend. If only people back home would remember to bestow such an honour on Gavaskar, a living legend, and the most popular Indian in Trinidad and Tobago.