Tribute to Sunil Gavaskar on 50th anniversary of his Test debut


Today on March 6th we commemorate a landmark day in the history of India being the 50th anniversary of legendary Sunil Gavaskar making his debut in test cricket. For the first time ever the immortal Sunil Gavaskar stepped on a cricket pitch to set sail for one of the most illustrious careers ever of any sportsman. What set him apart was his amazing powers of concentration, phenomenal willpower and impeccable technique. In terms of temperament he was Sport’s ultimate colossus. When batting in the middle he was the ultimate embodiment or epitome of concentration, reminiscent of a Monk meditating. His batting was the ultimate coaching manual for a schoolboy posessing the technical precision of a surgeon or architect. Without doubt one of the greatest cricketers ever to have set foot on a cricket field. Sunil played in an era of the greatest pace bowing attacks and yet had staggering statistical achievements reaching heights of the sublime. In his day he virtually broke all the test batting records inviting comparison with Bradman. After Don Bradman if I ever selected a batsman to score a test century Sunil Gavaskar would be my first choice. I do not have a word in the dictionary which could do full justice to the magnitude of Gavaskar’s achievements.

It is difficult to describe the depth to which Indian cricket’s fortunes depended on Gavaskar who often literally weaved the entire team around him carrying the entire burden on his shoulders.Gavaskar was not as artistic as Vishwanath ,as talented as Viv Richards or Tendulkar or as aggressive as Barry Richards. Yet in amoral sense he was equally impactful.Whether on the seaming English pitches, the turning wickets on the sub-continent or the bouncy tracks in Australia,Gavaskar was equally at home. Above all unlike contemporary greats he never donned a helmet, that to facing pace bowling of speed  lightning.

It is virtual irony that Sunny did not even make his school team or college team at first. It proves that cricket and sport is not only about natural talent but determination and mental tenacity.Gavaskar had determination as few Indians, let alone cricketers ever had to rise to glory.


His debut series in West Indies in 1971  was more glittering than any batsmen ever  making a debut in the history of the game.Gavaskar compiled 774 run sat 154.8O which even Don Bradman or Sachin Tendulkar never even came close to in a debut. Unlike his later years Gavaskar revealed no inhibitions or restraint hooking, driving and cutting the Calypso bowlers all over the place. Above all he was with Dilip Sardesai the architect of India wining it’s 1st series ever in West Indies. Ironically it was statistically the best batting of his entire career. It was virtually the equivalent of a comet arriving in the game of Cricket. Till this day Gary Sobers maintains that he never saw an overseas batsman bat better in the Carribean or anywhere. In Trinidad he scored a double century with a toothache, revealing the bravery of a soldier. It was a virtual revelation for fans to witness Gavaskar hooking, a shot which he virtually eliminated for a very long part of his career later. It was also unbelievable that the great Rohan Kanhai even though playing for West Indies encourage Sunil in the middle to reach his century, When Gavaskar made his errors it was Kanhai who rebuked Gavaskar for losing concentration. Rarely has a batsman resembled a sculptor as Gavaskar did on that tour as though he was building a historical monument.

For a long time after his debut in 1971 Gavaskar lost his sparkle,hardly revealing the same consistency Still he gave occasional flashes of brilliance when scoring 100 and 57 at Manchester in 1974.Arguably they were two of the finest exhibition sof batting against the moving ball by an overseas batsman in England. He also scored a classy 86 at Mumbai against West Indies.- in 1974-75. In the 4th innings.

It was in West Indies that Gavaskar ressurected his 1971 glory scoring 2 centuries at an average of 55.71. He was the architect of India making the then record run chase at Trinidad when India chased 406 runs in the 4th innings. His 156 in the 2nd test all but won India the test but for intervention of rain and bad umpiring decisions. In the final test at Kingston he scored 65 against the fieriest bowling on a wicket with cracks. He may not have been the best of entertainers but he was still the master craftsman, technical skill personified. Till then no opening batsman played the likes of Andy Roberts or Michael Holding with such impeccable skill. Gavaskar was a model of consistency in New Zealand against a lesser attack, but still tackled the great Richard Hadlee with great skill. He was not so successful against England in 1976-77 at home inspite of a marvellous century at Mumbai.

It was the 1977-1980 period that marked the golden era of the little maestro. Since the advent of Don Bradman statistically no batsman broke as many batting records or made such statistical domination emcompassing the globe. Never did any batsman since Bradman score test centuries at such a frequency with Gavaskar scoring a century in every five test innings. Since Bradman I can’t remember any batsman be it even Tendulkar,Virat Kohli or Steve Smith break records with such frequency.Gavaskar scored a thousand runs more than any batsman ever in a single calendar year and became first batsman to score a hundred in each innings of a test three times.

In Australia in 1977-78 he scored three centuries at an average of 50.Sadly inspite of his hundreds India lost 2 tsets there by the margin of a whisker.

In Pakistan facing Imran Khan at his fastest he scored 447 runs averaging 89.80.It was a revelation witnessing Sunny battle to ressurect India from dire straits ,even if India were defeated 2-0.No batsman ever played the great Imran as clinically as Sunil.I challenge anyone to confront Imran at full throttle with as much pugnacity as Gavaskar with the odds stacked against a team who were locked down in the barrel.

Facing West Indies at home in 1978-79 Gavaskar came close to incarnating Bradman scoring 732 runs at an average of 91.50. His 205 at Bombay was close to the ultimate epitome of perfection in batting.

On the 1979 tour of England Gavaskar batted better than any overseas opening batsman ever in England ,Scoring 542 run sat an average of 77.42.In the final test at the Oval is 221  with India chasing a record 438 in the 4th innings,  was arguably the best innings ever by an opening batsman or close to the most majestic innings of all time. For 8 hours or 443 deliveries he did not commit a mistake, resembling a sculptor carving a  great monument .I have never seen a batsman so focussed or flawless as Gavaskar that day who took batting perfection to heights rarely reached. India was virtually ressurected from the grave to come within a whisker of reaching the pinnacle of glory. Every boundary Sunil executed that day touched the very core of the soul of fans In India hearing the radio .commentary, lifting the entire spirit or morale of the nation .Every good ball was played on merit and every bad ball dispatched for four. India was on the verge of attaining untold glory before Sunil’s exit at 221,with dubious umpiring decisions robbing India of achieving a record winning  4th innings total. In a home series against Australia he scored 2 centuries averaging above 57 .Later playing against a strong Pakistan team he averaged over 52,scoring a match-winning 166 at Madras and fifties at Bangalore and Mumbai.

Gavaskar was the architect of India winning its first series agaisnt Pakistan for 28 years. Even if not as entertaining as Kapil Dev Gavaskat grinded it out for eight hours to score 166 at Madras, to win the match for India

For the first time in his career Gavaskar faced such sensational loss of form on the tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1980-81,scoring only one 50.It was as a  sight to behold witnessing Gavaskar repeatedly struggle against the likes of Lillee,Pascoe and Hadlee.Arguably a bad umpiring decision at Melbourne denied Gavaskar a century, but ironically India went on to win the test and square the series.

In 1981-82 Sunny made a welcome return to form against England averaging over 62 with a monumental 172 at Bangalore, match-winning 55 at Mumbai and match-saving unbeaten 83 at Kolkata. In England in 1982 he was unsuccessful but for classical 48 at Lords against the moving ball. It was a sight to behold witnessing Gavasakar fend off the short pitched balls of Bob Wilis bowling in full steam, scoring 48 out of a score of 111.

Facing Imran Khan at his best in Pakistan in 1982-83 Gavaskar was not at his best as in 1978-79 but still compiled a classical unbeaten 127 at Faisalabad and elegant 83 at Lahore. He was a failure on the tour of West Indies in 1982-83 apart from a classical 90 in the 2nd ODI and unbeaten 147 at Georgetown.

In the home series v West Indies Gavaskar gave vibrations of  Dr Jeyky and Mr Hyde.He looked completely out of touch at Kanpur, Mumbai and Kolkata but in Delhi,Ahmedabad and Madras he batted perhaps better than he ever did. His 121 at Delhi was scored in scintillating stlye reaching his hundred of a mere 94 balls At Ahmedabad his 90 was close to the best ever innings by an opening batsman ever on bad wicket. I simply can never forget his rattling drives and crafty pull and hook shots of Malcolm Marshall. His double century in dead rubber at Madras was concentration and technical skill personified.Gavaskar for most of the series made a virtual metamorphosis of his batting style, from defensive to an attacking batsman. He proved his prowess in attacking agression. At his best he launched a virtual blitzkrieg against Marshall, Holding and Daniel.

He failed at home against England in 1984 but in Australia in 1985-96 matched the magnitude of his earlier best performances, averaging over 100.

In his farewell series playing Pakistan at home even if he averaged under 50, Gavaskar gave touches of his mythical career. On a broken pitch he scored 96 at Bangalore where he resembled a surgeon performing an operation on patient considered incurable with success. I have never witnessed any batsman display mastery in such sublime proportions on a pitch with devils, with the ball literally turning square. Sunny dropped his hands down the bat in the manner of a sculptor meticulously carving a monument. I doubt even Don Bradman,Viv Richards or Sachin Tendulkar would have batted better than Gavaskar that day. India lost the game by 16 runs, with the exit of Sunil literally calling the curtains and sealing the hopes of an Indian win. There could have been no better illustration of the extent to which Gavaskar carried Indian cricket on its shoulders. putting curtains on a win

Gavaskar set seal on carer with a monumental 188 in a match between an MCC XI and World XI in match commemorating the bicentenary.He was fortunate to be given a reprieve when looking plumb leg before to Malcolm Marshall before setting any runs on the board. However in that knock he simply wrote an epic taking batting technical virtuosity to its ultimate crescendo as though giving an exhibition.


Where would Gavaskar rate amongst the all-time greats? Amongst cricketers overall I would guarantee Gavaskar a place in the top 25 His rank may be debatable but his place unquestionable. Gavaskar would rank amongst the 4 best opening batsmen ever, and ten best batsman ever. Statistically with 34 centuries and 10,122 run sat an average of 51.12 he is the best opener of all time. However he did not equal the attacking, match-winning prowess of Barry Richards, the mastery of Jack Hobbs or Victor Trumper on wet or bad wickets, or technical correctness of Len Hutton. Considering the first class records of Hobbs and Barry Richards and best performances at International level, by a whisker I rate them above Gavaskar.I would declare a virtual dead heat between LenHutton and Gavaskar at third place.

Compared to all great batsman I would rank Sunny just a notch below the likes of Bradman, Hobbs,Lara, Tendulkar, Viv Richards ,Walter Hamond  or Gary Sobers in test cricket who all had a more staggering strike rate more merciless than Gavaskar. I rank Gavaskar at ninth place overall in test cricket I do not  put him in contention for  challenging Don Bradman or Jack Hobbs for no 1 spot because of his inability to win or turn games as much those I rate ahead of him. Combining cricket overall Gavskar inspite of not such a great record would constitute my top dozen batsman.

Amongst Indian batsman I rank Sunny Gavaskar only 2nd to Tendulkar in test cricket. I rate Tendulkar marginally better because he dominated bowling to a greater extent and also dominated at the top for a longer period. Afterall Gavaskar was overshadowed by Viv Richards for a long part, while Sachin for sustained periods was at no 1 spot., contending with Brien Lara. No doubt in a 4th innings or in a crisis Gavaskar was better player than Sachin Tendulkar and also against electrifying pace bowling.

It is pertinent that Gavaskar did not average so highly in matches won when you compare with likes of Viv Richards,Greg Chappell or even Gordon Greenidge or Gundappa Vishwanath in his era. Still apart from Vishwanath Sunny had no support from the middle order, so often having to retrieve a sinking ship. Somehow I am still critical of Gavaskar often not stepping the gas or elevating the tempo of the game and just grinding it out too laboriously. I can’t forget how Greenidge or Sehwag turned the face of games on countless occasion with exhilarating strokeplay. Of course with Len Hutton I rate Gavaskar as the best defensive batsman of all time. Also noteworthy that Gavaskar has three innings ranked amongst the Wisden all-time 100,while Tendulkar does not have a single one. In terms of temperament and concentration no doubt he overshadowed Tendulkar or Viv Richards.

How did Gavaskar compare with Bradman? No doubt Sunny faced much better bowling and I doubt that opening facing the same bowlers the Don would have overshadowed Sunil. However Gavaskar’s batting strike rate was not in the Bradman class .Some rate Sunny on par because of his performances against West Indies. I wish to highlight that Gavaskar was prolific against the weaker West Indies bowling attacks and not so successful against the top paceman as batsman like Greg Chappell, Alan Border, Graham Gooch  and Mohinder Amarnath. Gavaskar benefited to an extent by facing lesser pace bowling attacks of West Indies in 1978-79 and Australia in 1977-78 without the likes of Dennis Lillee,Michael Holding ,Andy Roberts or Joel Garner. He scored around 1200 runs and 9 centuries against the weaker attacks. Also most of his test centuries against West Indies were scored against the weaker attacks and not against the quartet of Marshall. Holding, Roberts and Marshall. In 1983-84 facing the greatest pace attack he averaged around 43 scoring a fifty or century 4 times in 21 innings. Sunny averaged around 45 against this top quartet against his overall average of 65.80 against West Indies. To me against the express pace of West Indies at his best England’s Graham Gooch eclipsed Sunil. Calypso pace bowling great Andy Roberts felt Sunny was not at his best on bouncy tracks where in his view Vishwanath was the better player. Pertinent that many of his centuries came in the 2nd innings, with the venom reduced on the track.

I would have loved  to have witnessed Gavaskar at his best from 1977-1979 facing the  greatest West Indies pace attack  which Greg Chappell did or later Alan Border and Mohinder Amarnath..Then my findings could be more conclusive. It would have also been  a spectacle seeing Sunny play in WSC Packer supertests facing the likes of Lillee, Imran,Roberts and Holding

Sunny  did not have inborn genius but was the ultimate master. Technically I rank Sunny on par with Hanif Mohammad and Vijay Merchant and a whisker below Barry Richards ,Len Hutton and Sachin Tendulkar For pure defence against the short ball noone was Gavaskar’s equal. Very few had a more classical cover drive or shot through mid wicket.Gavaskar was not so artistic or inventive but applied grammar in accordance with circumstances as none did. No batsman was more a manifestation of mediators on the cricket field.

As a skipper he was shrewd but at times ultra-defensive. We did defeat Pakistan at home in 1979-80 and England in 1981-82 being led by Sunny and draw a rubber for the first time on Australian soil. However India also faced humiliating defeats in Pakistan in 1982-83 and series losses against England at home and away. I feel Sunny could not bind or nurture a team like Tiger Patuadi,Saurav Ganguly or Azharuddin.Still he has to his credit leading India to win the World championship of Cricket tournament in Australia in 1985 which is  a remarkable achievement.

Still I have to respect the words of greats like Imran who classed Sunny as the most compact batsman ever and of Viv Richards or Gary Sobers who ranked Sunny as the best batsman of his time. Legendary allrounder Ian Botham rated Sunny the bests opening batsman of his day and so did Malcolm Marshall. Cricket experts like Cristopher Martin Jenkins and John Woodcock placed Sunny within touching distance of  Bradman.Don Bradman may have been unfair in excluding Gavaskar from his all-time XI but by a whisker my first choices would still be Barry Richards and Jack Hobbs. English legend late Len Hutton described Gavaskar as the best batsman of his generation, above even Viv Richards. Pakistani batsman Saed Anwar and Javed Miandad rate Sunny the best of all Indian batsman and so do the West Indies paceman Andy Roberts and Michael Holding.To me most unfairly Dennis Lille does not rank Gavaskar amongst his very best.

A very enjoyable commentator with most insightful and balanced perspectives Applied the same discipline and application to commentating as when playing Cricket. I loved Gavaskar’s  choices of Rohan Kanhai and Gundappa Vishwanath as the best batsman he ever saw, and Andy Roberts as his best fast bowler ,which respects the art or grace of cricket rather than the magnitude of statistical numbers,

However what I  remember most in Gavaskar’s life was his gesture during the Mumbai riots in 1993 when he jumped out of his car to prevent Shiv Sena cadre from murdering Muslims by stating ‘Why don’t  you kill me first”.This was humanism at its zenith by a sporting legend shimmering the flame of secularism. I wish this spirit would be rekindled today. by this icon.Today he never raises his voice against the gross injustices perpetrating or Saffron Communalism.

Neverthless we must remember that even the greatest monuments have their flaws and the greatest of men are not Gods. That could be more relevant to Sunil Gavaskar than anyone on his 50th birthday in the glorious game of test cricket.

Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has travelled around India and written on blogs like ‘Democracy ad Class Struggle’, ‘Ottos War Room’ and ‘Frontier Weekly.’ Mainly written on politics of mass line in Communist Movement , Maoism, peasant struggles but also on blogs on Cricket and films.

[email protected]



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