Sunil Gavaskar

Gavaskar: India's Greatest Cricketer

Print edition : September 13, 2002

Sunil Gavaskar's success against the world's best fast bowlers, on their own turf, was magical. He single-handedly elevated the status of Indian cricket.-ALLSPORT Photo: ALLSPORT

Kapil Dev arrived on the Indian cricket scene like a breath of fresh air. His natural talent, offensive spirit and extraordinary fitness enabled him to scale the heights.-V.V. KRISHNAN Photo: V.V. KRISHNAN

"There is Sachin and then there is daylight," says Shane Warne. Tendulkar, with his Bradmanesque talent, may yet become the Indian Cricketer of All Time.-N. SRIDHARAN Photo: N. SRIDHARAN

Little separates Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar in terms of record. Despite this, a persuasive argument can be made in favour of Gavaskar as India's greatest cricketer. (Published in the issue dated September 13, 2002.)

IT was a little over a year ago that the online offshoot of the reputed cricket publication, Wisden, came up with a controversial and much hyped list of the top 100 batting and bowling performances in Test cricket. Using a combination of factors such as the quality of the opposition, the state of the pitch, the state of the match and the context of the player's performance in the match and the series, Wisden Online tried to infuse a sense of scientific methodology into the evaluation of contests that are complicated by a great many variables.

Needless to say, there were notable omissions in the ratings. No Test innings of Sachin Tendulkar merited a mention in the top 100 batting performances. Four of Harbhajan Singh's efforts in the 2001 home series against Australia were included, yet B.S. Chandra-sekhar's memorable match-winning spell of 6 for 38 at the Oval in 1971, which sealed India's first series victory in England, was deemed unfit for inclusion in the bowling selections.

Despite all the shortcomings of such rankings, Wisden chose to undertake a similar type of evaluation in its recent selection of Kapil Dev as the 'Indian Cricketer of the Century'. The frailty and subjectivity of such a ratings procedure was further exposed when that very same bowling performance of Chandra's was accorded the accolade 'Indian Bowling Performance of the Century'.

Comparing sportspersons across eras and across playing roles is bound to be an imperfect exercise. The validity of comparing a wicket-keeper with an opening batsman or a middle-order batsman with a fast bowler is dubious. The sole exception to this would be the choice of Sir Don Bradman as the greatest cricketer in history. Arguably, no individual sportsperson has dominated any sport to the degree that Bradman did. There probably has never been as big a gap between the best and the next best in any sport as there was during the Bradman era. He ended his career with a mind-boggling batting average of 99.94 runs per innings and 29 Test centuries. Of these 29 tons, he converted two into triple centuries and 12 into double hundreds. All these milestones were achieved in a mere 52 Tests, in which he batted in only 80 innings. He averaged a century for every 2.8 visits to the crease. The enormity of his accomplishment is highlighted by the fact that the next highest batting average in the history of Test cricket, among those who have played twenty Test innings or more, is Greame Pollock's 60.97.

Finding a consistent yardstick to evaluate the 'Indian Cricketer of the Century' must have been a daunting task for Wisden's panel of cricketers and journalists. It has been pointed out that the core of such a procedure is heavily dependent on the statistical record of a player. It is also strongly biased towards players of the current era, a period that has seen an explosion in the media exposure that players receive. Moreover, the number of matches that cricketers, since the 1970s, have played has grown exponentially. Can we then objectively compare the contributions of pioneers such as C.K. Nayudu, Vinoo Mankad, Vijay Merchant and Vijay Hazare with those of Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev?

However strong the reliance of this type of selection procedure on statistics and whatever the shortcomings of this exercise, the Wisden award was always likely to come down to this shortlist of three. Their outstanding records have stood and will stand the test of time. The final choice among these three great cricketers was bound to be immensely challenging. Despite this, a persuasive argument can be made in favour of Sunil Gavaskar as India's greatest cricketer.

CRICKET has seen vast changes since the early part of the century. One-day cricket has added a very different facet to the game. The quality of one-day cricket has improved by leaps and bounds since its introduction into the international schedule. Comparisons of players across time, in the limited overs game, may be naive. On the other hand, the quality of Test cricket has remained more constant and is more amenable to such assessments. As the limited overs game has evolved, many of the skills required to excel in the two forms of cricket have been shown at times to be very different.

Virtually all cricketers will tell you that they value Test cricket more. Despite the excitement and fast pace of a limited overs game, the true beauty of cricket lies in its chess-like nature and the constant battle of wits and skills of the bowling team against the batsmen. This can be seen mainly in Test cricket, which is not limited by fielding or bowling restrictions. It can be easily shown that Test cricket demands a higher level of mental fortitude and technical skill.

The great Australian cricketer, Greg Chappell, eloquently endorsed this view in an interview given to Frontline in 2000 (issue of August 4, 2000): "I think to some degree the administrators of the game have denigrated Test cricket by pushing it into the background and concentrating on one-day events. I think that's a dangerous path to go down because cricket really is about the skills that are required for Test match cricket - the physical skills, the mental skills, the temperament, all of those things that separate the exceptional performer from the good performer. One-day cricket doesn't, to the same degree, draw on those strengths of the individual, nor does it draw on the strengths of the game." Chappell went on to note: "I think there's still a recognition within the Australian players that Test cricket is what it's all about. And that, even now, 20-odd years down the track, nearly 30 years down the track (since one-day cricket became part of the international programme), a player is judged on his Test match career, not his one-day career." Gavaskar was a master of the longer version of the game, perfecting the skills that were essential for greatness in contests akin to wars of attrition.

Since its first tour of England in 1932, the Indian cricket team has featured outstandingly talented individuals. Yet it was not until Gavaskar arrived on the Test scene in 1971 that India had truly found a player who could take on the best the world had to offer and come out on top. He single-handedly elevated the status of Indian cricket. It was definitely no coincidence that India achieved its first two Test series wins abroad after Gavaskar came into the side.

Gavaskar was the first sportsperson that India had produced who had the confidence, patience, tenacity and technical capability to dominate the rest of the world in their own domain. In a sense, he was the first person to break the shackles of a post-colonial inferiority complex that afflicted many of India's early sportspersons. It was once said of Gavaskar that he played cricket as if he were an Englishman, born and brought up in the home of cricket. His temperament and technical excellence supposedly belied the dusty maidans of Mumbai's Shivaji Park, where he spent his formative cricketing years. It is another matter that Gavaskar, who has little patience for anything smacking of Anglo-Australian condescension in the cricket world, would not be flattered by such accolades.

In that dominating 1971 debut series in the West Indies, the 21 year old technician shattered the notion that Indians were incapable of succeeding against high quality fast bowling. Gavaskar's scores in that magical first series read 65 and 67, 116 and 64, 1 and 117, 124 and 220. Prior to that Test series in the West Indies, we were used to witnessing constant batting collapses and defeats associated with these abroad. This is a phenomenon that plagues Indian Test teams even today. To even think in 1971 that an Indian team could dominate the mighty Windies in their own turf was inconceivable. It is a testament to Gavaskar's skill that 31 years after his phenomenal debut, in the second Test at Port of Spain, Trinidad, India has produced only a handful of batsmen who have been truly adroit against pace bowling. Gavaskar, through his remarkably gritty, consistent and intelligent performances, was the first to instil a sense of belief in Indian cricket. Every successful Indian cricketer who played with or followed Gavaskar will be indebted to him for leading the way.

Gavaskar's career spanned, arguably, the two strongest decades of Test cricket. Comparing across time requires us to make definitive judgments about the quality of opposition that each of the short-listed three faced. A useful yardstick when anointing the 'Cricketer of the Century' might be to consider their individual performances against the best teams of their time. The West Indies was, by far, the strongest team during Gavaskar's era as well as through most of Kapil's career. The Australians have occupied that position in Sachin's years.

In his Test career, Gavaskar played 125 matches and scored 10,122 runs, including 34 centuries and 45 fifties, at an average of 51.12. In his One Day International (ODI) career, he played 108 matches and scored 3,092 runs at an average of 35.13 and a strike rate of 62.26. Tendulkar has (up to August 12, 2002) played 98 Tests and scored 8,158 runs, including 29 Test centuries and 33 fifties, at an average of 57.04. In his unsurpassed ODI career, Tendulkar has thus far played 295 matches and scored 11,505 runs, including 33 centuries and 56 fifties, at an average of 44.42 and a strike rate of 86.83.

Both Gavaskar and Sachin have performed superlatively against the best of their time. Gavaskar averaged 65.45 runs per innings against the West Indies and, remarkably, achieved an average of 70.20 in the Caribbean alone. No other cricketer of the 1970s and 1980s can claim such command over the West Indies bowlers. No wonder, then, that Gavaskar became the first man from any country to score three double centuries against the West Indies. One of those double centuries, 236 not out at Madras in 1983, was the highest individual score by an Indian for almost 18 years - until V.V.S Laxman broke the record with his legendary effort of 281 against the Australians in Kolkata last year. Sachin, too, has an outstanding Test average of 54.07 against the Australians and his ruthless demolition of Shane Warne, possibly the greatest leg spinner in history, has been awe-inspiring. Unlike Sachin, Gavaskar averaged more abroad than at home. Gavaskar has also not had the opportunity to enhance his Test average by playing the Zimbabwes and the Bangladeshs of world cricket. Only Sri Lanka during Gavaskar's time even comes close to being considered the doormat of world cricket.

Kapil, too, produced Test performances of sheer brilliance against opposition of the highest quality. These include, among several others, his innings of 119 in the tied Test against Australia in Madras in 1987 (which prevented India from following on), his match-winning performances throughout the six-Test home series against Pakistan in 1979-80, his 5 for 28 in the second innings of the Melbourne Test in 1981 (which allowed India to level the three Test series) and his 9 for 83 against the West Indies in Ahmedabad in 1983.

WHILE it is extraordinarily difficult to discount the performances of any one of these three great cricketers with any authority whatsoever, Gavaskar's complete domination of the best bowlers of his time gives him an edge over the others. Gavaskar's achievements are brought more into perspective if the difficulty of an opener's role is considered. As an opener he was in the firing line from the start and performed remarkably consistently on different types of wicket and against different types of bowling. While India can claim greatness in the bastmanship of Vijay Merchant and Vinoo Mankad prior to Gavaskar, it has not since produced another Test opener with a fraction of Gavaskar's capability. The dearth of quality openers has been a bane of Indian Test cricket. Few other Indian players, openers or otherwise, can boast of Gavaskar's concentration skills, discipline, tenacity, patience and confidence. He was a professional in every sense of the word. Certainly no other Indian has possessed his technical ability. There is little doubt that his performances and skills made him the best opener of his time. He will, in all probability, fill one of the two opening spots in most selections of an all time Test World XI.

Sachin's Bradmanesque talent and a somewhat more down to earth record than the Don place him in the highest echelon of cricketers of all time. As Shane Warne remarked of Sachin, "There is Sachin and then there is daylight." The term "genius" is hardly wasted on him. Sachin will walk into any all time World XI and is easily the best batsman at the present time in both forms of the game.

Such encomium is not obvious in Kapil's case. It is unlikely that Kapil was the best all-rounder of his time, much less the greatest all-rounder of all time. His Test record of 5,248 runs and eight centuries (at an average of 31.05) and 434 Test wickets in 131 matches (at an average of 29.64) must be compared with the feats of some of his peers. In fact, Kapil only averaged a little over three wickets per Test match. Among the all-rounders of Kapil's time, one is inclined towards ranking Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan and Ian Botham higher than Kapil. As for the greatest all-rounder of all time, Sir Garfield Sobers has an indisputable claim to that title. He ended his Test career with an enviable record of 8,032 runs (at an average of 57.78), 26 Test centuries and 235 Test wickets in 93 matches.

It has often been remarked that India's Test record in Sachin's time is an indication of the quality of the other batsman on the team. It is easy to overlook the fact that apart from G.R. Viswanath and, a little later, Dilip Vengsarkar and Mohinder Amarnath, Gavaskar had little batting help of world quality. Sachin has played a fair number of matches with the supporting cast of Mohammed Azharuddin, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly and more recently with V.V.S Laxman. The bowling of Indian teams during Sachin's time, however, is not a patch on the famed quartet of Bishen Singh Bedi, B.S. Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and S. Venkataraghvan. Yet these masters of spin made for a long tail and without Gavaskar's run support at the top, their performances would mostly have been in vain. Kapil, for the major portion of his career, played with a more solid and balanced Indian team. Many of Kapil's long-time teammates were part of Wisden's 'Indian Team of the Century' (the 1985 team that won the World Championship of Cricket).

Gavaskar's average record in ODIs has frequently been held up as a major strike against him. There is no doubt that Sachin and Kapil have a superior one-day record. Gavaskar's innings of 36 not out (in 60 overs) at the 1975 World Cup drew a lot of flak and is sometimes cited as evidence of his 'selfishness'. In retrospect, Gavaskar was perhaps being true to his batting talent, one that was exemplified by his immaculate defence, infinite patience and an attitude that required him to be 'selfish' in accumulating runs. If only Sachin Tendulkar had been endowed with Gavaskar's mental faculty and his supposed 'selfishness' for runs!

Gavaskar played the way he knew best. While that 1975 ODI innings cannot be condoned, Gavaskar was merely demonstrating the respect that limited overs cricket was accorded by most of the players of his time. Instead of magnifying the significance of that innings or Gavaskar's measured approach, it would be worthwhile to focus on the fact that he did finally adapt to one-day cricket. He ended his ODI career with a respectable batting average of 35.13 and one memorable century against New Zealand in the 1987 World Cup. Kapil and Sachin may have been more pleasing to watch thanks to their uninhibited stroke play and their endless reservoir of natural talent.

Gavaskar's efficiency very often achieved more important results in Test cricket. He was superlatively talented but his technical genius and enormous mental courage were highlighted in the longer version of the game. It is a pity that the average cricket fan these days tends to devalue Test cricket when comparing it with the one-day game. Sachin and Kapil are outright match winners but neither is particularly known for his ability to save Test matches. Gavaskar has not only won several Test matches for India but also saved a great many. His magnificent innings of 221 in the Oval Test in 1979 particularly comes to mind. Chasing a total of 437 runs in the fourth innings of that Test, India fell short of the target by eight runs and drew the match. In his mammoth contribution of 221 (out of a total of 429), he scored 179 on the last day. His ability to save matches is precisely where he scores over Sachin Tendulkar in Test cricket.

Whatever one's preferences regarding the form of cricket, there can be little disagreement that the quality of one-day cricket has improved by leaps and bounds since its inception in the mid-1970s. India's win at the 1983 World Cup was a truly amazing feat. Kapil was primarily, if not solely, responsible for it. His catch of Vivian Richards in the final and his innings of 175 against Zimbabwe in Tunbridge Wells are now the stuff of legend. It seems almost unbelievable that any team could defeat the likes of Vivian Richards, Clive Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall. Certainly not one with a bowling attack that consisted, Kapil apart, of Balwinder Singh Sandhu, Madan Lal, Mohinder Amarnath and Roger Binny.

Kapil played 225 ODIs and scored 3,783 runs at an average of 23.79 and a strike rate of 95.07. He also took 253 ODI wickets at an average of 27.45 and an economy rate of 3.71.

Yet the quality of one-day cricket in 1983 pales in comparison with that of the present day. While this cannot be held against Kapil, one cannot help feel that we in India place an inflated value on that World Cup triumph.

Kapil's great asset was his longevity. The sheer fact that he played 66 Test matches without missing a single contest on account of injury showed cricketing intelligence as well as fitness of the highest calibre. Kapil would have played 131 Test matches on the trot if he had not been unceremoniously dropped for the third Test against England in Calcutta in 1984. Yet a closer examination will reveal that Kapil's efficiency severely declined towards the end of his career. Perhaps he overstayed his natural tenure in the Indian team in a bid to overhaul Hadlee's world record of 431 Test wickets. His performances in his last 30 or so Tests reminded one of a weary veteran past his prime and not of the enthusiastic Haryanvi who came in like a breath of fresh air and took the 'never say die' attitude to new heights through most of his career. It was a poignant experience to watch him trudge through 16 Test matches to win those last 34 wickets. Kapil's form in those last years of Test cricket would not have won him a place in the top three sides at that time.

Gavaskar, on the other hand, retired while he was at the top of the game. In fact, many consider his second innings knock of 96 on a vicious turner in his last Test (against Pakistan in Bangalore in 1987) to be one of his finest innings. All sportspersons, particularly the great ones, have a right to choose when to retire but there was perfect judgment as well as grace in the way Gavaskar retired.

Sachin may yet become the Indian Cricketer of All Time but, looking at his performances till date, one cannot help feel that for all his infinite talent, he does not have the mental strength of a Sunil Gavaskar. The Americans reserve the term 'clutch' for the select few sportspersons who have the ability to bring out their best during times of adversity. Gavaskar was the epitome of a 'clutch' performer. The Indian team during Sachin's career is yet to have series wins such as the triumphs of 1971 and 1986 in England, 1981 in Australia and 1971 in the West Indies. Nor has India in this era come close to winning the World Cup or even a tournament as important as the 1985 World Championship of Cricket. One thing, however, stands out. Neither Gavaskar nor Kapil faced as large a burden of expectation as Sachin has throughout his career. Sachin's wisdom and humility are unbelievable in view of his ability, achievement and the fact that he made his Test debut at the age of 16. Tendulkar is still a great work in progress but a work that owes much to Gavaskar.

Sunil Manohar Gavaskar was arguably the greatest opener in the history of Test cricket. He transformed the status of Indian cricket. While relatively little may separate the three best Indian cricketers in terms of record, Gavaskar was the first to trail clouds of glory on the world stage. He showed that Indian cricketers could master the world's best bowlers. He was the first to make us believe in Indian cricket. For that reason alone, he deserves to be named the 'Indian Cricketer of the Century'.

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