Sunil Gavaskar: I would’ve been a doctor if not a cricketer

The all-time icon maintains a busy schedule, traversing different continents to watch and promote cricket, and creating awareness on social causes.

“Though there is too much of cricket happening all over the world, I think teams are playing the right amount of cricket,” feels Sunil Gavaskar.   -  Prashant Nakwe

Sunil Gavaskar continues to command the respect of the cricket fraternity with his insightful views on the game.

He is much appreciative of the changing trends and the approach and skills of modern-day batsmen. He is a rare Indian cricketer who holds no rancour and bitterness and goes out of the way to recognise the contribution of the current generation. A stickler for traditions, he has sometimes taken a critical view of the behaviour of some cricketers but he often finds words of encouragement for those who display the spirit of the game.

The former India opener, captain and one of the all-time icons of cricket maintains a busy schedule, traversing across different continents to watch and promote cricket, and creating awareness on different social causes. Despite a hectic schedule, Gavaskar, 70, found time to speak to Sportstar in this wide-ranging interview.

Is cricket a side-on game..

Very much. The more side-on you are the better your chances of being in a position where you will be able to negotiate as a batsman.

The importance of having a proper stance? Tiger Pataudi once told me that it does not matter if you stand upside down as long as you meet the ball with a straight bat. He said stance was important but it can change.

Stance is clearly an individual thing. It generally has to be where your back eye is. If you are a right-hander, your right eye is the back eye, and if you are a left-hander, your left eye is able to see where your off-stump is. And therefore you take your guard accordingly. Whether you take leg-stump, two-legs and a middle-stump, the idea is to know where the off-stump is. That’s what you try and do. The stance becomes crucial because it is important to know where do you stand in relation to the off-stump. But today, of course, people stand with their bats raised up in the air. It’s a slightly different thing but then the guard also becomes important, whether you take a leg-stump guard or a middle-stump guard. If you are a taller person, you would take a leg-stump guard. If you are a shorter person you take two-legs. Depends.

“Andy Roberts would come in the 55th or 65th over and still bowl the unplayable ball that would get you out.”   -  The Hindu Photo Library

This concept of bat speed, is it a modern phenomenon? Did you ever give a thought to this aspect?

It’s a modern concept because of the limited-overs format that you see. Therefore the bat speed has to be that much greater for you to be able to hit the ball into the stands. You can’t hit the ball into the stands with a gentle push. There is no speed. You want the bat to come down with great speed.

How important is having a still head?

Just see, if you are standing and shaking your head, you will never be able to see the ball. You won’t be able to judge the moment. If you have a still head, you know which way the ball is coming and what is the trajectory. You would still make a mistake, otherwise the bowlers won’t be playing this game. Everybody would be a batsman. The general thing is stiller the head, the more chances you have of being able to negotiate the ball well.

How do you develop the art of judging the length?

Straightaway. The moment the ball is released. It’s an instinct. It comes naturally. The instinct gets better over a period of time. The instinct and the ability to know what the pitch is going to do after the ball pitches in that length, becomes that much better.

Guard, stance, balance, grip, shot execution... How do you coordinate all these qualities?

Guard is to tell you where your off-stump is. Tells you which deliveries to play and which to leave. Once you get into a situation where you want to look to be playing shots and maybe you can change the guard too from leg-stump to off-stump. All those things can be done.

Did you tend your bat?

I did look after my bat. Cleaned it whenever I could. Whenever there were spots on the bat. Sure, you have to look after your bat. You definitely do. That’s the instrument with which you are going to score the runs.

How did you choose your bat and how many bats did you keep at one time in a season? One or two bats?

I was lucky. I generally had two bats. And very seldom did I need a third. So, the bat manufacturers were very good. I used to get a Duncan Fearnley bat. Outstanding equipment. For three years I played with another. I don’t want to take the name because the bats were not of a great quality. So I used to just put their sticker. Then came my last, second half of my career virtually. And Sanspareils Greenlands came in. They were even better than Duncan Fearnley in terms of the balance, everything.

We were told your bat did not have chipped edges because you always played straight and almost everything hit the middle of the bat?

No, no. There would be edges. Definitely. But the bats were so well made, the edges won’t generally chip away. The other bats earlier on, the wood would chip away.

Is it true that no one could touch your bat? Would you allow a colleague to play with your bat in a Test match? You also did not want to be disturbed before your turn to walk out to bat.

Of course, I would allow. Why not? Once I would put on my box, that’s when I would start thinking about the innings. Even as captain I would keep speaking about the batting order and all but put the box on only when the umpires’ bell would ring. Because it would be five minutes before the match started, or the innings started. It would take me two minutes to be ready. Box, thigh pad, leg guards, not more than two minutes.

When should you change from a high back lift to a low back lift? Or is it a habit?

No. It’s instinct. You have a low back lift and it’s a yorker coming at you so obviously you can’t have a high back lift. You see the yorker coming at you and your back lift becomes shorter immediately.

At which stage of your innings did you decide to play the cut or the cover drive? They were said to be avoidable shots. Can one play a cut off the first ball one faces?

Nothing wrong with playing a cut off the first ball. Nothing wrong. It’s a matter of your confidence. If it’s your best shot to score runs off, then why not. You have to play it. In my case, the cut was not my best shot. It was always the drive. The cut was something that I would be more comfortable playing after I felt I had got a sense of what the pitch was doing, how much bounce was there. I would not mind playing a cover drive off the first ball I faced.

How much of net practice would you recommend before a match?

It’s an individual thing. The problem with the nets is the pitches are not always good. Because they are not covered. So what happens is you could get injured. Not injured in a way that it would stop you from playing the match the next day, but injured in a way that would hamper your batting. For example, if you got bruised on your fingers, or you got hit on the thigh pad, or you got hit just between the leg guard and the thigh, that would definitely have an effect on your batting. So I avoided playing in the nets before a match in the later part of my career.

Did you practise your shots?

Of course, I did. In the nets.

Your favourite shots and one which you did not master...

Favourite shot was always the straight drive. Because you are presenting the straight bat. It was always a great shot to play. There was nothing like a difficult shot. Every batsman will have certain comfort levels playing certain shots. You are good at certain shots and you play them far more frequently. Other shots you don’t. But I think generally, for me, because of my height, the pull shot would have been difficult. Often the ball would be up in the air because the pull shot, if you are a little taller, it would be easier to get on top of the ball and play it better.

How did you approach fast bowlers without a helmet?

Never thought about it. If the equipment (helmet) was not there, what do you do? Never thought in terms of a helmet because we all started our careers without helmets. No question of thinking about the helmets.

Then, was it technique?

You don’t necessarily need good technique to succeed. You need good temperament. You need to be confident about yourself. You must be wanting to take on the challenge of playing fast bowling.

You were a brilliant judge of ‘leaving’ the ball and avoiding the bouncers. How did you master this technique?

I think it’s a bit of practising. Because of my height, I would be bullied by all the fast bowlers. They would try to bully me. For them the bouncer was the main weapon apart from the usual out-swing and all that. So you had to practise more at the school and club level. More at club level. And then translate the experience to succeed at the Test level.

President Zail Singh interacting with Indian team captain Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar and other team members when they called on him after winning the 1983 cricket World Cup. “I can’t call it (winning the World Cup) an incident. It is the best memory,” says Gavaskar.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

What attracts you most in modern day batting?

What I like about the modern game is that 99 times out of 100 there is an electricity about it. So infectious. The electricity and the energy of modern cricket. I love that. There is, very seldom, even in Test cricket, a patch which is a dull one. It’s always very entertaining. I just love watching modern cricket.

Was Andy Roberts the best fast bowler you faced?

Fast bowlers with the new ball are expected to get you out. Because they have a hard, new ball, brand new ball. The pitch is something that you don’t know much about if you are batting first. So there is no big deal if they get you out.

But if a fast bowler can come back in the 55th or 60th over and still bowl the unplayable ball, because by that time you are well set and probably closer to your 100, if not a 100 at that stage, and he gets you out, that makes him special. The ball is not new, not hard. That’s what Andy was about. He would come in the 55th or 65th over and still bowl the unplayable ball that would get you out.

Can you recall the fastest spells you faced?

There were two. One was by John Price at Old Trafford. My first ever experience of a green pitch. It had drizzled slightly. Umpires don’t take you off the field for that kind of drizzle. The pitch was fresh. And the ball was flying around. John Price and Peter Lever were tough to tackle. It was very good fast bowling. And the second one I thought was Jeff Thomson in Perth. Jeff Thomson in Sydney. He really bowled like the wind. He was always quick. But these two innings he was exceptionally fast.

One fast ball which left you wondering what it was...

Yes, I do remember. It was in the second innings of the Kingston Test in 1976. Anshuman (Gaekwad) was injured and Dilip (Vengsarkar) opened the batting with me. It was Dilip’s first season, first tour actually. He had batted well in the first innings. So when we went out to bat in the second innings he mentioned to me that he wanted to take the strike. I said to him NO. I told him his time would come. Let me take the strike. I was taking strike anyways. And the second ball of that first over from Michael Holding just pitched on a good length, not short of a good length, and it just took off. I had no chance. It went over my head and missed it by four inches. I had no chance to move. Nothing. And I looked at the other end. Dilip had his tongue out because if it had been Dilip, 6ft tall, the ball could have hit him on the head.

Do you remember the first ball that you faced in Test cricket?

Of course, I remember it. It was a bouncer by Vanburn Holder.

What are your views on computer analyst training and coaching?

I have no idea about it but I am pretty certain it has its uses. Because if you are able to go back and quickly check what, in a particular over, how well you bowled, why you haven’t bowled, or why you have not played a particular delivery or shot well, you would get a quick analysis, which would be pretty useful. As long as it is not overdone, I think there’s a place for it.

Players walk back to pavilion in the backdrop of empty stands. “Major challenge is attracting crowds to the venues. They have got so used to the limited-overs version. The excitement and the big shot-making in these limited-overs formats is making them watch less of Test cricket,” feels Gavaskar.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

 

Anything that today’s batsmen lack in general...

I think the only thing they lack is patience. I won’t say they lack it. You can say patience is in short supply. There are exceptions, of course, and they are in the top five or top 10 in the rankings. But otherwise, the quality of patience is not there.

Any misconceptions about you? You were arrogant and not approachable.

Honestly, nobody has ever told me. I don’t really know. But I guess the two things that you mentioned perhaps could be the misconceptions about me!

Your test of character? Was it the 221 at the Oval in 1979 or the 129 at Kotla (in 1983)?

I honestly really never reflected on such a thing. This is the first time you are making me think. I really wish I could tell you what it was.

One incident that has stayed with you.

There are many. The greatest incident was us winning the World Cup. Can’t call it an incident. Best memory.

Your idea of a perfect innings. Can there be a perfect innings?

No. But during the course of an innings, you can have a perfect hour, a perfect couple of hours. In the chase against the West Indies in 1976 (403 to win), at the end of the day we were (134/1) and I was (86 not out). That, to me, was the most perfect patch of an innings that I have played. Next day, I struggled to get those 14 runs to get to the 100. I just didn’t find the same rhythm that I found after the (West Indies declaration). The chase was an over-nighter. Sometimes you could be at the non-striker’s end, you may have been in good flow, you could be hitting the ball well, but you may be just getting one ball in an over because your partner would have been hitting the ball well and getting runs. That can upset the rhythm and the flow of your innings — not getting the strike for some time.

Why did you always caution against extending the drinks break?

Because in the process you are giving the tired opposition fast bowlers that extra bit of rest, the tired fast bowlers that extra breath. That’s the reason I would get upset if the non-striker — say, after the fast bowler would have bowled four balls — he would try and tie his shoe laces, or try and do something to his pads and give the bowler that extra resting time. I would get very angry.

What are the major challenges facing Test cricket today?

Major challenge is attracting crowds to the venues. They have got so used to the limited-overs version. The excitement and the big shot-making in these limited-overs formats is making them watch less of Test cricket.

One thing you are proud of...

The 1983 World Cup win. Not the 29th Test century or the 10,000th run. World Cup is the ultimate.

Anything you would like to do differently...

Maybe, if I had not asked Chetan (Chauhan) to walk off after being abused (by the Australians in Melbourne in 1981). The only regret, and I say that firmly with my tongue in my cheek, is not saying after performing, not saying that I did it for the team, or I did it for my country. Maybe I should have said it. But again I am saying it with my tongue firmly in my cheek.

For you what is grit? For us, you were grit, standing on the pitch against the best of fast bowlers.

What is grit is to be able to stand your ground. Be it against the opposition on the field. Be it against the opposition off the field. That’s grit. Taking them on is grit.

The batsman you admired the most?

More than one. Obviously Garry Sobers, Gundappa Viswanath, Rohan Kanhai. I admired these guys a lot. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar. I admired these guys too. Viv Richards was sensational. These guys were so good. The guys I loved to watch were Virender Sehwag and Mahela Jayawardena. They were very nice to watch. Great fun.

Gavaskar describes Vivian Richards’ batting in one word...sensational.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Are we playing too much cricket?

You get this feeling because there is too much of cricket happening all over the world. Not necessarily that one team is playing too much cricket. I think teams are playing the right amount of cricket.

Did you also play that much of cricket...

Not really. Maybe the last four or five years.

Do you think the West Indians and South Africans have declined?

West Indians, certainly. Their batting has got no consistency, no concentration.

Have the batsmen become better or bowlers have become poorer?

Actually, both have improved because there is a lot more variety. Look at the number of new shots. Look at the number of new deliveries. The back of the hand ball, the knuckle ball, the Dil-scoop. The ramp shot was there, the upper cut was always there, but some of these new shots like reverse sweep and switch hit have made cricket so attractive. Add to that the all-round athleticism. There is hardly a fielder you have to hide anywhere. That makes cricket so much more attractive now.

Does it pain you that there is little interest to play the Duleep Trophy, Deodhar Trophy, Ranji Trophy or Irani Trophy?

It does pain me. But what can we do? It’s the same with Test cricket, the longer version of the game which people don’t seem to have time for. Today, with everything being taken care of because of the TV rights, whether international cricket or domestic cricket, I think they should be able to make the entry very nominal. Should bring down the ticket prices. Give children below 15 free entry.

Will T20 cricket gobble up Test cricket?

No. I don’t think so. Thanks to T20, more people are watching the game now. We must be thankful to T20 actually. The connoisseur might argue that cricket standard is not the same, but as far I am concerned the game has become more attractive.

How can you watch so much day in and day out?

Who says? Actually it gives me a wonderful opportunity to see how the game has evolved. How the modern player is adjusting and adapting his game to it. It is a terrific opportunity (to commentate). And then to get paid for it and then to be recognised for it is a bonus.

Can you analyse Steve Smith. Does he have a superior quality of technique?

That’s why I have always talked about temperament, and not just technique. To me, temperament separates the men from the boys. Technique is fine. You must have reasonable technique. Decent technique. But you are most likely to succeed if you have great temperament.

What would you have been if not a cricketer?

I think I would have been a doctor. It is the greatest profession in the world. You are easing people’s physical pain. You are curing people. You are waking people from death. Doctors revive them. You are Godlike if you are a doctor.

Gavaskar at the Sri Sathya Sai Sanjeevani Centre For Child Heart Care at Kharghar, Navi Mumbai.   -  Yogesh Mhatre

 

What is your association with the Heart to Heart Foundation?

I am very fortunate to be asked to be the chairman of the Governors of Heart to Heart Foundation. The H2H Foundation, in collaboration with the Sri Sathya Sai Sanjeevani Hospitals (in Raipur, Palwal and Khargar), performs free surgeries for children with congenital heart defects (CHD). CHD is almost like an epidemic. More than three hundred thousand Indian babies are born with this.

Ninety thousand might not survive to see their first birthday. And they all come generally from the poorest sections of our society. Unable to afford the cost of surgery, barely able to make two ends meet. That’s why the free surgeries. To see the joy on the parents’ faces when they know their child is going to lead a normal, healthy life. Seeing that expression is worth more than scoring a double hundred. At the Sai Sanjeevani Hospitals, there is only dil (heart), there’s no bill. No billing counters at all.