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Kapil, Sachin have been India’s greatest: Sunny

Most would include Sunil Manohar Gavaskar in their dream Test XI of all-time — right at the top, of course. The first to smash the 10,000 runs barrier in Tests, Gavaskar gave self-respect and muscle to the India line-up in a career spanning nearly 17 years. He has, over time, been reluctant to give interviews (“I need stuff for my own columns...”). Recently in London, though, Gavaskar spent some 75 minutes with The Telegraph.

The following are excerpts:

Q What’s it like being a living legend?

A (Grins) I’ve never thought of myself in that way... Really can’t answer your question.

You quit more than two decades ago, but continue to be mobbed, at home and overseas... You must surely be feeling something...

It’s humbling... It’s gratifying to know that so much affection is still there... I thank God all the time.

Before you immersed yourself in cricket, did you think of a career outside sport? Did any profession catch your fancy?

Initially, I wanted to be a doctor, for the simple reason that an aunt (Sundar Kenkre) is one... But, then, an uncle (Madhav Mantri) was a Test cricketer and my father (Manohar) too played a lot of office and club cricket... So, it was actually a big influence... In any case, in those days, every youngster in Mumbai wanted to play cricket and I also got attracted to it.

Do you recall who presented you with your first bat?

My father, but I don’t remember how young I was then.

Besides your father and Mantri, did anybody else have a big influence?

Yes, another uncle, who sadly is no more... We were a joint family and he played a lot of tennis-ball cricket with us, not just within the larger compound but our balcony, which was rather narrow, as well... I recall he played book-cricket too.

Batting in the balcony probably made you play straighter...

It did.

Moving beyond the family, which cricketers left a significant impression?

Vijay Merchant and Vijay Hazare were early influences... Vijay Manjrekar and Polly Umrigar as well... Later, once I became aware about cricketers from overseas, then my heroes began to change... In fact, every new season saw a new hero... Somebody who remained one was, of course, M.L. Jaisimha... Rohan Kanhai was there, but Jaisimha was my biggest hero.

Which was the first India match that you watched?

It was in 1958-59, an India-West Indies Test at the Brabourne... I saw Sir Garfield (Sobers) getting out to police officer Ghulam Guard, who’d bounced one at him... The bowler took the return catch... In the second innings, when Guard bounced again, Sir Garfield hit him for a six in the East Stand... That’s a very vivid memory... He scored 25 in the first innings and was 143 not out in the second.

A decade later you were yourself working towards an India cap... What sacrifices did you have to make?

Not anything much... Cricket wasn’t a career option then, so one didn’t compromise with studies... Also, one didn’t know whether one would be good enough at levels higher than, say, the schools’ one... No, I don’t think I missed out on anything as such.

What about studying medicine?

That thought faded away... Among other things was probably the realisation that I didn’t have the brains for it!

How did you learn of your maiden call-up, for what turned out to be a historic 1970-71 tour of the West Indies?

I was on the fringe of selection, but I hadn’t been picked for the Duleep Trophy and, so, I wasn’t sure of making it... However, not being selected for West Zone allowed me to play for the university and I scored a lot of runs... So, at the back of the mind, there was that little hope... (Speedster) Saeed (Ahmed) Hatteea, who’d also been in the running for an India call-up, and I went for a matinee show on the day of the selection meeting... Because of the tension within, we left the Eros theatre around the interval and walked to the North Stand at the Brabourne, which housed the state association office... We hung around for some time, but there was no news... After another half-an-hour or so, we left for Churchgate station... Saeed was headed for Bandra and I had to get off at Dadar... Saeed had long hair and, because of that distinctive look, was easily recognisable... Many co-passengers recognised him and some said that he’d surely be selected... Saeed looked towards me and asked his well-wishers “what about him?” Their reply was “don’t know about him, but you’ll be there 100 per cent.” Well, I got off at Dadar and was about to ring the bell at home when my mother (Meenal) opened the door and, in an excited tone, said Vinoo Mankad was on the line...

So, you heard from him?

Yes, Vinoobhai wasn’t a selector, but he’d got the news... Later, son Ashok came on the line and, like his father, offered his congratulations.

Hatteea wasn’t picked...

He wasn’t... That too I first got to know from Vinoobhai... Before getting off at Dadar, Saeed and I had promised each other that whoever got any news about the team first would inform the other... But with what heart could I have told Saeed that he hadn’t been selected? I just couldn’t make that call to him... He’s forgiven me and we often meet in London, where he’s now based.

What’s the first thing you did after taking that call from the Mankads?

The entire family went to the little prayer room in the house and paid our obeisance to God Almighty... Thanked him and asked for his blessings.

Do you recall having packed something in particular before departing for the West Indies?

Right from my school days, my parents would paste a checklist on the inside of my suitcase, listing what I should be carrying... So, I knew what I had to and I’d pack myself... Don’t recall taking anything specifically, though I did ask Ashok (Mankad) if I needed to carry heavy woollens. He said I would need them only in London and New York, during the stop-overs.

Was there a pre-tour conditioning camp or something on those lines?

We practised for two-three days and the selection committee chairman, Merchant, addressed us before our departure...

Were you under a lot of pressure when you boarded the Mumbai-Rome-London flight on the way to the West Indies?

Oh, there was plenty of pressure... My cricket so far had been pretty structured, in the sense that I first played for my school, then the Mumbai schools, then the West Zone schools and, finally, the all-India schools... It was the same when in university... In this case, however, I’d played for Mumbai, but had been picked for India without playing for West Zone... At the back of the mind, then, was the thought whether this big step would prove costly... Would the step from the Ranji level to international cricket be too big to take?

How did you control your anxiety?

Just being with the Indian team gave confidence... I knew the captain, Ajit Wadekar, well... My hero Jaisimha was in the team as also my good friend Ashok (Mankad)... Dilip Sardesai, another Mumbaikar, was in the team as well... Gundappa ‘Vishy’ Viswanath, who’d become a good friend, was also in the tour party... Their presence helped.

That West Indies team was ageing somewhat, but the quicks were always fearsome. Even if you weren’t, was your mother worried that you could end up being hit by them?

(Laughs) I don’t think my mother was worried... Even if she was, she didn’t tell me...

What are your memories of the team landing in the West Indies?

We touched down in Kingston and everybody was welcomed with a rum punch... I declined, saying I’m a teetotaller... The person serving that shot back “if you don’t drink, how will you score?” Sardesai overheard our exchange and had a quick counter — “that you don’t have to worry, he’ll score hundreds of runs”... I was touched... That comment meant so much... I mean, somebody of Sardesai’s stature and experience had so much faith in me... If anything, my confidence grew... Of course, because of whitlow on the middle finger of my left (top) hand, I couldn’t bat for a week or so and missed the first Test.

You made a huge impact straightaway (a record-rewriting 774 runs), but when did you yourself become conscious that you’d actually arrived on the biggest stage in a phenomenal way?

Only on returning home... Those were the days when you had to book ISD calls and, sometimes, the calls either took days to materialise or never materialised at all... Basically, there would hardly be any communication with people at home... Even the mail took five-six weeks to arrive... We didn’t realise the enormity of our win till we returned and found some 20,000 fans at the Mumbai airport...

How did crowds in the West Indies respond to your record-breaking achievements?

They were fabulous... In fact, an Indian presence has always been high in the West Indies... We didn’t lack support.

We won the next series too, in England, and expectations began to soar. When did you begin to really feel the pressure of having to deliver all the time?

Within two-three years of my debut, the team lost Jaisimha, Sardesai and Wadekar and, so, I quickly became one of the senior players... Vishy and I realised that the batting was now heavily dependent on us... It was, therefore, a quick growing up period for me... The pressure on me, personally, grew because I’d been a member of teams which had won overseas.

The nation would get despondent the moment you’d get out... A common sentiment being that it was all over...

That’s not being fair on the batsmen who would follow... Everybody played his part and you’ve got to accept that you can’t score every time you take guard.

When you look back on your career, would you agree that it had phases?

Funnily enough, I don’t look back on my career... It has gone... I don’t even look at my videos... It’s a phase of my life which is over... My family will confirm that I’m never interested in what has gone by... That’s me.

You were still getting runs... In fact, your last Test innings (96 against Pakistan, in the 1986-87 series, at the Chinnaswamy in Bangalore) was an absolute epic. Why, then, did you mentally decide to quit at the start of 1987-88?

Actually, for about a year before that, I’d been getting signals (to leave) which were more mental than physical... During Tests, I’d begun to look at the clock and say “oh, my God, another 15 minutes to tea” or “oh, another 10 minutes to the close”... And, in limited overs cricket, I’d look at the scoreboard and say “oh, my God, another seven overs of fielding”... All very clear signals that I wasn’t enjoying my time on the field... I did, however, manage to hang around... Physically, I could have carried on... Perhaps, mentally as well, but I wouldn’t have been doing justice either to myself or to my team... Even if one isn’t the captain, one always thinks of whether we should instead be doing this or that... When that bit stops, it’s time to go... Also, I wanted to leave when people would still ask “why” instead of “why not?”

At the start of the 1986-87 season, the selectors had dropped you for a couple of ODIs against Australia. Did that upset you and, secondly, did that in any way contribute to your decision?

It baffled me... Didn’t know why that was done... No, that didn’t play a role in my decision to retire.

If one asked you again about phases in your career...

I’d say two... From 1970-71 to 1980-81 and from 1981 till I quit...

What was the difference?

I’d got just one fifty in three Tests in Australia and one fifty in three Tests in New Zealand, in the 1980-81 season... Those were pretty poor series’ for me... In fact, I’d been dreading to return home, somehow thinking that my friends, whom I valued, had been friends only because I was the India captain and a successful batsman... I feared that they probably wouldn’t be there to receive me and, even if they were there, I worried over how they would treat me after two poor series’... I don’t know why, but that thought was there... As it happened, the whole lot turned up at my house on the evening of my return... There was not a word of cricket and, for me, that evening was an absolute high... My fear, clearly, had been totally misplaced and that experience changed my attitude to cricket.

How?

Told me that, irrespective of whether I was successful or not, my friends would remain my friends... My scoring or not scoring would definitely matter to them, but wouldn’t affect their friendship with me... It was a relief... Till then, I’d imposed so many restrictions on myself as a batsman... I went for risk-free batting, giving myself more of an opportunity to score (big) and, among others, not let my friends down... That evening released the pressure and, in the six years that followed, I enjoyed batting. I played a lot more shots, not because I didn’t care, but because of the change in attitude...

Anything else about the second phase of your career?

Our batting had become solid... Vishy was still playing beautifully... There was Dilip Vengsarkar, Sandeep Patil and, above all, Kapil Dev... Others too... You could say that I enjoyed this phase of my career, even though I wasn’t even remotely as consistent as I was in the first 10 years.

Were you conscious of records?

Aware, yes... That’s because records were always being thrown at you... I knew about the records of others too, but didn’t go about consciously trying to better them as that would have put me under more pressure.

To talk of captaincy, were you disappointed when removed from the hot seat?

Happened to me twice, after the 1978-79 series at home against the West Indies and after the 1982-83 tour of Pakistan... We beat the West Indies, but lost to Pakistan... No explanation was given as to why I was removed the first time, but I guess you didn’t have to be an Einstein to deduce the reason (whispers had been rampant about approaches by Kerry Packer)... It was disappointing, more so as I’d scored big runs in that series... As for the second time, any captain who loses on either side, gets removed! Imran (Khan) and Javed (Miandad), I must say, had been brilliant in that series.

You were reinstated at the end of the 1983-84 season, before the inaugural Asia Cup...

Kapil wasn’t available for that tournament, which was won by us, and I got retained for the 1984-85 tour of Pakistan... There was no need to have overlooked Kapil (when he became available) and that shouldn’t have happened... But, then, that was one of the things which did happen in Indian cricket.

Bottomline is that you quit on your terms, after winning the 1985 World Championship of Cricket...

That season turned out to be pretty nasty in more ways than one... I was 35 then and gave myself two-three years more... If I was to enjoy those years, then I realised I would be much better off without the cares of captaincy.

Did captaincy weigh you down?

Only in that 1984-85 season... Till then, my practice had been not to read anything in the media, but for some strange reason, I began doing so and the kind of reporting got to me... It was with venom... It was motivated and, I think, they were all taking it out on me because Kapil had been displaced as the captain... That was fine, but at the end of the day, we’re all Indians... It would have been okay if the foreign press was doing it, but for the Indian media to try and drive a wedge between players... That disturbed me.

You were seen as a rather defensive captain...

That’s one bit I haven’t understood at all... Just because I didn’t hit the ball in the air didn’t make me a defensive captain... I never went into a Test match other than with the thought of winning... If a win wasn’t possible, then I made damn sure that India didn’t lose that Test... So, I don’t understand this image... People say “look at the draws under you...” However, if you look at the no result percentages, then Kapil’s is marginally higher and (Krishnamachari) Srikkanth drew all four Tests that he’d been the captain in... Simply because they hit the ball in the air, nobody calls them defensive. As usual, the statistics are the best indication and vindication of my case too.

Frankly, what was the relationship between you and Kapil?

The people’s reading of it was influenced by what was conveyed to them by the media... Even if Kapil and I had gone to the rooftop and shouted that there was nothing wrong between us, nobody would have believed it... Fact is an impression was created, perhaps only because Kapil was omitted from the (1984-85) Calcutta Test against England... Added grist to the rumour mills... As captain, one uses harsh words to tick off a player and, so, that might have happened... However, I don’t think we ever had an argument or a disagreement in the dressing room... Sure, Kapil’s approach was different to mine, but he was a naturally gifted athlete... Indeed, Kapil could have been a champion in any sport, he was that superb an athlete... I, obviously, had to work harder... The difference in our approach, though, didn’t come in the way of Indian cricket growing.

Who has been India’s finest cricketer? For most, it’s a three-horse race — between you, Kapil and Sachin Tendulkar...

(Grins) I wouldn’t go down the road and actually say who is and who isn’t... People would always be looking to create a problem with that... Let’s just say there’s no dispute that Kapil and Sachin have been India’s greatest.

Not Sunil Manohar Gavaskar?

No... I didn’t win matches or make a difference with the ball... Kapil and Sachin have done that... They’ve been India’s greatest cricketers.

Any regret?

No, because I don’t sit back and reflect on my career... (Pauses) Well, if I had one opportunity to do things again, I’d replay my (36 not out in 60 overs) innings against England in the very first World Cup, in 1975.

Oh...

You find it funny, but it wasn’t funny then and it’s not funny now... People forget that I’d scored the then second fastest ODI hundred (103 not out from 88 balls against New Zealand, 1987 World Cup) in my penultimate innings... They don’t realise that I did make some progress! When people talk to me about my Test career, they dwell on the 34 hundreds and not the first-ball zeroes... I can’t understand why they talk only about the 36 not out and not that World Cup hundred when the discussion is about ODIs...

Did you envy a fellow-cricketer?

Never... But if you’re talking of total and blind admiration, it has always been for Sir Garfield... Even today, if he comes in front of me, I’m awe-struck... Despite having played with and against him, I cannot bring myself to call him “Gary”... I address him as “Sir Garfield”... For me, he’s the greatest.

The last one for now: What did cricket teach you?

A batsman cannot do well unless he has support down the order... Bowlers can’t take wickets unless they have support in the field... It’s a team effort... Life too is all about a team effort... The good and the more fortunate should help the ones who aren’t so fortunate... The ones who aren’t so blessed... The ones less accomplished... Remember, even the less accomplished also do it for you.

To be concluded

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