I had written the draft of this post a few months back but was not getting a relevant enough context to push the publish button. But it wasn’t long before the subject of this post handed me the context on a platter.
Unarguably, the greatest test opener ever! His record against the West Indies is nothing but out and out heroic. Legendary stuff. Every bit deserving of the Caribbean calypso songs written for him. And as an Indian my chest fills with pride seeing some of his innings against the fast and furious foursome — Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Joel Garner. The hooked six of Marshall at the Feroz Shah Kotla, Delhi after the paceman had creamed us at Green Park, Kanpur in an earlier match gave me goosebumps. Those are incidents that have defined my unstinted admiration for this batsman.
And this was notwithstanding the perceived differences he had with the undisputed hero of my growing up days — India’s greatest natural cricketer ever — Kapil Dev. (Perhaps this was also the time I may have matured as a person — being appreciative of someone who was at odds with my hero. Objectivity holding its own against emotion.)
And then came the dropping of Kapil Dev from a test match against the visiting English team in 1984. This was a punishment for playing reckless cricket. The same reckless cricket that he played when he hit Eddie Hemmings for 4 sixes, when India were nine wickets down and needed 24 runs to avoid follow-on. The same reckless cricket he played when he hit that unbelievable 175 against Zimbabwe. The Calcuttans hated Gavaskar for Kapil Dev being dropped for quite some time. My memory is a little fuzzy here — but Gavaskar vowed never to play at Eden Gardens again after being booed by the crowds.
But soon, Gavaskar relinquished captaincy after winning the Benson & Hedges World Series Cricket championship in Australia. And a few years later he stuck to his decision to retire from cricket even when the fairytale farewell didn’t happen — India, one of the favourites — crashed out in the semi-finals of the Reliance World Cup. This was clearly the sign of a man of dignity and someone who chose to walk out rather being eased out.
Around that time, he also appeared in Sunil Gavaskar Presents — an outstanding programme, where Sunil Gavaskar — the batting legend and one of the sharper brains in world cricket — picked out and analyzed for us, some of the best cricketing performances in world cricket.
He also authored three books, Sunny Days, Idols, and One-day Wonders, the first two doing reasonably well.
Everything till here is fine.
And then something went bizarrely wrong. Sunil Gavaskar who had a newspaper column and ran a syndication service till then, became a television commentator.
Sunil Gavaskar, the commentator — notwithstanding the fact that he truly was a great cricketer — is incredulously and unfailingly petty!
He started as a very bad commentator. Hmmm-ing his way throughout. His English at best grammatically correct. Neither entertaining like Henry Blofeld’s; nor with a sense of drama like Tony Greig’s; nor is it brutally honest like Geoff Boycott’s. So much so, it is not even blatantly one-sided like Imran Khan’s (except when talking about Tendulkar during Tendukar’s not-the-best years). Now before you pounce on me with ‘why should it be any of these?’ — I am saying all this because it in any case is not what it could have been — worthy of such a genius of an opening batsman!
It gets my goat when any commentator, of course including Gavaskar, makes statements like, “The non-striker walked up to the batsman and told him to focus!” Oh! How on earth do you know that is exactly what was said? Or the contradictory clichés — “xyz should get back to basics. There is nothing like sweating it out in the nets.” Opposed to, “there is no practice like match-practice. Nothing like getting into the middle and fighting you way through it!”
Perhaps the only time he got it right was when he backed Pakistan during the 1992 World Cup, when Pakistan got off to a bad start.
Then one witnessed his anti-English statements which were clearly playing to the galleries. What I call juvenile jingoism — which he toggles with faux urbane statesmanship. In simple English? He’s a hypocrite. (BTW, this is EXACTLY what Ricky Ponting said recently when out of the blue, Gavaskar commented on the Aussies being ‘unpopular champions’). Not may people may recall this now, but Gavaskar had advised Tendulkar not to appear as a batting role model for an MCC coaching manual. Geoffery Boycott eventually appeared for that.
Incidentally, he was also the most vocal and ostensible backer of Tendulkar even in the days when Tendulkar was doing hopelessly as a captain! Of course there are very few people in India who have the courage to call a spade a spade in the context of Tendulkar — unlike a Boycott for example. But Sunil Gavaskar is the number one person I would expect to say something like — “Tendulkar is so passionate about his game that he contributes to the team’s cause in every way” when Tendulkar throws from the outfield into the wicket-keeper’s gloves on a day when Tendulkar gets out for zero!
Perhaps what substantially influenced my current opinion of Gavaskar — the commentator & writer — was his response (or lack of it) to the death of Raman Lamba. Lamba was one of the superstars of the Delhi and North Zone teams, and had successfully made it to the Indian team by the dint of tons and tons of runs (literally) he scored in the domestic tournaments. And it was he who should actually be credited for India’s first six over third man and not Virendra Sehwag! Raman Lamba after his retirement from international and domestic cricket, was helping Bangaladesh as a cricket mentor. He was fielding at a close-in position when he was hit on the forehead by a full-blooded shot. He immeditely went into coma and died a few days later. As tragic an end as possible! Sunil Gavaskar, never wrote a word of condolence about this. And I believed this was yet another instance of his pettiness against the backdrop of a traditional rivalry between North Zone (Delhi/Haryana/Punjab) — vs West Zone (Mumbai/Baroda/Maharashtra) players.
And then some days later the headline for Gavaskar’s weekly column said, “A true lover of the game”, and I said to myself, I was wrong. Gavaskar indeed was an honorable man!
BUT, the article was about Raj Singh Dungarpur’s return to an active role in the cricket administration of India. (Read as politics of BCCI!) It was Raj Singh Dungarpur who was “A true lover of the game”.
Perhaps as a reward for his feting of such “true lovers of the game” — Gavaskar has been in some key administrative positions as well. E.g. on the ICC panel of umpires. Or as the stand-in coach of the Indian cricket team when Ajit Wadekar had a heart attack mid-series. How much of a difference did he make in those roles isn’t anything worth writing about! Oh yeah, let us not forget how his son Rohan Gavaskar, was selected for the Indian team when he (Rohan) was actually past his prime!
A few more examples of his petty-mindedness were his reference to the death of David Hookes (which he subsequently apologized for, apparently); or of trying to defend Sreesanth’s provocative gesture upon taking a South African wicket, “he is just saying a namaste, which is a form of greeting in India!” Huh?
Ironically, Rohan Gavaskar, who was one of the guests on TV show on cricket a few days back, was so much better and perceptibly more honest than his father!
I realize, this is turning out into an endless rant, so let me wind off with this bit of partially related trivia. Ravi Shastri was once asked to comment on the commercial endorsements by cricketers — and he said something to this effect: ‘If we (Kapil Dev and Shastri) are accused of being the leading cricketers in terms of commercial deals, then Sunil Gavaskar is ‘hum sabka baap’.