Of short men and TALL DEEDS

S. DINAKAR

Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar... their contribution to Indian cricket is phenomenal.-V. GANESAN

THEIR paths to greatness and beyond might have been contrasting, but shining through is the kind of single-mindedness that can slice through roadblocks, melt down obstacles and swim across turbulent seas.

Their footprints remain untouched by surging waves casting a blanket over seashores. Eternity sits lightly on Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar.

So do their efforts that will not be clouded by mists of time. Short men with tall deeds, they have constructed monuments, scripted epics, broken through barriers.

Gavaskar presented a glorious sight when he met the ball with full blade, eyes fiercely focussed, frame beautifully balanced, body and mind in harmony. Freeze the picture and store it in your mind... forever.

Tendulkar defines perfection as he wades into the bowling, his batting wrapped in technical purity, his willow engaging the sphere in captivating conversations, his methods a lovely blend of sunshine and steel.

But then, a cricketer's career is invariably dotted with moments of agony and ecstasy — brightness and shade are often locked in a furious interplay — and Tendulkar too has suffered, the cause for concern being a tennis elbow.

However, neither injuries, nor conditions, nor situations, nor bowlers have dented his resolve. Even on those days when fitness concerns and a resultant loss of rhythm hamper his ways at the crease, Tendulkar oozes determination.

And his cricketing canvas is brush-stroked with bright and bold colours. The maestro went past Gavaskar's Test record of 34 hundreds at the Ferozeshah Kotla, but then you cannot measure their contribution in numbers. Their batting, a quest for excellence, stretches way beyond mere figures.

It's about integrity and sacrifice, desire and hunger, commitment and pride. It's about a quest that has put India and Indian cricket in the forefront. It's about cricketers whose combative instinct was stoked by adversity. It's about men of substance.

Indulging in comparisons will be an exercise in futility, for, every era brings with it different demands. Instead, this is the time to celebrate their achievements, revel in their significance, recognise their impact on world cricket.

Gavaskar's eyes carried with him everything — joy, anger, pain, a sense of serenity and even a hint of mischief. He also carried enormous burden in the era of the great fast bowlers. That weight of expectations he shouldered as only someone with immense self-belief and conviction could.

In the 70s, when much of India's batting revolved around him and Gundappa Viswanath, the Indian line-up looked fragile. Wearing the hat of a key man at the top of the order, Gavaskar weathered on-field storms with the sort of assurance that left bowlers staring into the sky in exasperation.

Mean speed merchants produced chin music on green-tops, but not once did Gavaskar flinch; he would frustrate them by swaying away from the line. Crafty pacemen swung the ball under a cloud cover but Sunny's judgment and his subsequent response were impeccable.

When lethal seamers probed him on pitches offering pace and bounce, he, often rising on his toes, replied to searching questions with answers that were emphatic. In the corridor of uncertainty, he was certain.

On wickets where spinners turned them in right-angles, Gavaskar's soft hands, decisive footwork and the ability to play the ball late were his allies as he clinched duels. His astonishing 96 against Pakistan on a mine-field in Bangalore in 1987, showed the extent of his skill and the countless hours of practice honing it.

The essence of his batting was a `still head' and everything else stemmed from that; he was seldom caught `falling away' as lesser mortals are from time to time. And there were no exaggerated movements in his batsmanship. His batting was all about precision and poise, from stance to completing a stroke.

Gavaskar's powers of concentration are legendary and he could bat through hours, sessions, and days, without tiring in his mind and body while accumulating runs. Those were not the days of the physios and the fitness trainers but Gavaskar talked of `cricketing fitness.'

A stroke-maker who relished hooking and pulling the pacemen in the beginning of his journey, Gavaskar curbed his shots in the interests of the team. Too much hinged on his scalp. For India, it was often the difference between a match saved or won and a defeat.

It was only in the 80s, when the Indian middle-order emerged stronger did Gavaskar free himself from self-imposed shackles.

He also had the cricketing acumen to change stripes, think his way out of difficult times. His 128-ball 121 against West Indies in New Delhi 1983 — Gavaskar equalled Sir Donald Bradman's then record of 29 Test centuries with this innings — was a classic instance of an opener meeting fire with fire.

Michael Holding, exceptionally quick in the air, and Malcolm Marshall, terrifying off the pitch, steamed in. Gavaskar counter-attacked. The Indians had been battered and bruised in the first Test in Kanpur. And in international cricket the `psychological' scars can run deep, and those shafts of light may just not break through the layers of darkness.

In Gavaskar's case, the solution did not take more than an innings. He realised he needed to be aggressive, knock the bowlers off length. He adopted a game that may have been out of character for him, but emerged triumphant.

Otherwise, Tendulkar is more dominant and this is indicative of a different era and a shift in the cricketers' approach and outlook towards the game. When in mood, he pounds the bowlers mentally, striking good deliveries to the pavilion. Gavaskar would wear them down. In Gavaskar's days, a draw was an honourable option, now it is the pace of run-getting that sets up wins.

The dynamics of the game have undergone a transformation and the runs are made faster; some might argue that the pitches have flattened out and the standard of fast bowling, as a direct consequence of ODI cricket, has dropped.

Both have fought some famous battles. Gavaskar duelled it out with Imran Khan's scorching pace and prodigious swing, Marshall's speed and thrust and Abdul Qadir's spin and guile. Tendulkar has taken on the bounce and seam movement of Glenn McGrath, Wasim Akram's swing and cut and the tantalising flight and deception of Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne; the manner in which he prepared against Warne by getting leg-spinners to bowl on a rough out-side the leg-stump in the nets ahead of the 1997-98 home series, provided us an insight into his sharp cricketing brain.

Glimpse their straight drives and the striking similarity between the two becomes obvious — the still head, the high left elbow and the timing. Tendulkar — 5489 runs in 69 Tests at 56.58 — has a slight edge over Gavaskar — 5055 runs in 60 Tests at 52.11 — in away record but it must be considered Gavaskar was an opener, often guiding his team on fresh pitches and against charged-up pacemen.

Like Gavaskar, Tendulkar is a great survivor; Gavaskar lasted 16 years, and Tendulkar is now into his 16th year. As in the case of Gavaskar, the nation expects from Tendulkar and the pressure to perform is enormous. And like Gavaskar, he keeps his date with destiny.