Sunil Gavaskar would have known, right from 1971, immediately after his debut series, that he would one day lead India. There could not have been many players with better credentials for the job. Besides being a prolific batsman in Test cricket, he was intelligent, articulate, popular with the crowds and, moreover, in a country where powerful state associations had a big say in cricketing matters, he hailed from Mumbai (then known as Bombay), the most powerful one in the country. Thus, barring some unforeseen mishap, he looked comfortably placed to lead India at a future date, the only question being when would that happen?
Thus, it would not have surprised Gavaskar when he was informed by one of the selectors on the eve of the first Test of the 1974-75 series against the touring West Indies that he was appointed as deputy to Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi for the entire series. He was also told to keep the news to himself since the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) did not formally announce a vice-captain for the home series. However, Pataudi suffered an injury to his hand during the course of the match and had to leave the field. When Gavaskar tried to take over, he found that two other players were also trying to direct the proceedings - Farokh Engineer, in his capacity as the senior-most player in the side and S Venkataraghavan, who was vice-captain during the tour of England in 1974. This comic situation could be resolved only when 12th man Rajinder Goel rushed on to the field with directions from the selectors that Gavaskar should lead the side!
Gavaskar was appointed to lead India in the second Test of the series at Delhi as Pataudi had not recovered from the injury. But Gavaskar himself suffered an injury to his thumb while playing in a Ranji Trophy match and was forced to sit out. In a way that was fortuitous as India lost the Test by a huge margin and Venkataraghavan was the unfortunate one who led the side. Gavaskar was appointed as deputy to Bishen Singh Bedi for the twin tours of New Zealand and West Indies in 1975-76 and got his chance to lead India in the first Test at Auckland as Bedi was indisposed. He led the side with a calm assurance and scored a century as India won the match by eight wickets.
During the period from 1976 till the end of 1978 he played the role of an ideal deputy to skipper Bedi. When Bedi lost the captaincy after the tour of Pakistan in 1978, there was no doubts in the minds of cricket lovers as to who should replace him. Gavaskar taking over the captaincy appeared as normal as him taking guard at the start of an innings in a Test match. The first opponents that India faced under him was Alvin Kallicharran-led West Indies, weakened by the absence of their main players who were playing in Kerry Packer's World Series. India won the series 1-0, with the final results not quite showing the dominance that India had over their opponents throughout the series.
Fans of the game, who looked forward to Gavaskar enjoying a long stint at the helm, were in a for a huge shock when the selectors announced that Venkataraghavan would lead the national side for the 1979 World Cup and the four-Test series against England that followed. Though it was not announced publicly, the ostensible reason behind the change of captaincy was the discussions held by Gavaskar with the representatives of Packer, which did not meet with approval by the BCCI. To send out a strong message to the players, selectors appointed a new captain and dropped Syed Kirmani, the wicketkeeper, who had also shown interest in the overtures made on behalf of Packer.
Gavaskar was brought back as captain for the 1979-80 season, which consisted of 13 Test matches - six each against Australia and Pakistan and one Golden Jubilee Test against England. This year saw Gavaskar at his best as captain as he marshaled the resources at his command shrewdly to win both series by identical margin of 2-0. The win against Pakistan was particularly sweet as they had come with a full strength side, hoping to repeat the easy walkover they had only a year before. However, Gavaskar had chalked out a strategy to neutralize all their main batsmen and this was implemented successfully by the bowlers led by Kapil Dev and Dilip Doshi. Their humiliation was so complete that skipper Asif Iqbal announced his retirement from Test cricket at the end of the series and Majid Khan and Zaheer Abbas dropped themselves from the playing eleven.
After the fifth Test of the series, with the series wrapped up, Gavaskar suddenly announced that he was stepping down from captaincy. The BCCI had accepted a request from the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) to send the team for a Test series immediately after the Golden Jubilee Test. Gavaskar did not approve of one more series after a long season that had started with the 1979 World Cup and involved playing 17 Tests without any break. He felt the BCCI should have consulted the players and considered their opinion also before deciding on sending the side. So he decided to pull out of the proposed tour and to step down from captaincy as well, in order to give the next skipper some experience in the job. Gavaskar’s stand won considerable support from the media and public and finally the WICB withdrew the request for sending the side, thus closing the matter.
India toured Australia and New Zealand during the 1980-81 season. Australia were a strong side led by Greg Chappell and had in its ranks legends such as Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh. It was expected to be a difficult tour, but India emerged from it with their pride intact when they bounced back to win the last Test after losing the first, to square the series 1-1. For the very first time in his career, Gavaskar lost his form and went through a string of low scores. It was only in the second innings of the third and last Test at Melbourne that he could discover some of his old touch but this innings has gained infamy as the one where the captain almost threw the game away in a moment of pique. After conceding a first innings lead of 182 runs, Gavaskar and his partner Chetan Chauhan had put on 165 runs for the first wicket, when the umpire responded positively to an appeal by Lillee against the Indian captain. Gavaskar was not happy with the decision and indicated that ball had touched the bat. Lillee went across and pointed out how the ball had hit the pad. At this point Gavaskar, who had started walking back to the pavilion, asked Chauhan to join him. Chauhan appeared reluctant but gave and the two had almost neared the boundary line when the Indian manager Wing Commander Durani suddenly appeared from the pavilion with the next baseman Dilip Vengsarkar and signaled to Chauhan to go back, thus ensuring India did not end up conceding the match by refusing to play. India went on to win the Test by a narrow margin of 59 runs. Gavaskar’s action in nearly throwing the game away due to a bad decision against him appeared to be a churlish one and invited all-round criticism.
A full-strength England side under Keith Fletcher toured India in 1981-82. India won the first Test by 138 runs but after that Gavaskar adopted the strategy of playing for high-scoring draws by insisting on flat pitches and indulging in negative tactics, including time wasting. At one stage it was so bad that left-arm spinner Dilip Doshi, who had a brisk three-step stride to the bowling crease would take five minutes to bowl an over, with most of the time taken by the captain who insisted on having long discussions with the bowler over small changes in field placings.
If this approach lowered Gavaskar’s standing with the public, an incident which took place in the last Test at Kanpur cast some shadow over him for the first time ever. England batted first and scored 378 runs and India had reached 377 for the loss of seven wickets, when Gavaskar suddenly declared the innings closed. Everyone had expected India to take the lead in first innings but the sudden declaration took all by surprise. Soon rumors started floating that betting syndicates had gained windfall gains from the decision of the Indian captain. Nothing could be proved and no one even dared to allege any misdemeanor on the part of Gavaskar, but, for the first time ever, one found that the halo, which his fans found attached to him, had dimmed slightly.
India toured England in the summer of 1982 and lost the three-Test series 0-1. However, Gavaskar was in the center of a controversy over team selection before the tour commenced. When the squad for the tour was announced, followers of the game were surprised to hear about the selection of Suru Nayak, a player from Mumbai with very modest performances. His selection appeared all the more shocking as those left out included the Amarnath brothers - Mohinder and Surinder - who had enjoyed a highly successful domestic season. There were allegations of favoritism and the fact that Nayak worked in the same company and played for the same state as the captain appeared to lend some credence to them. Nayak played in two Tests also without showcasing any signs of brilliance and was forgotten after the series.
The above incidents during 1981-82 had dented the popularity of Gavaskar, the skipper. Hence, when India lost the series to Pakistan 0-3, his removal from captaincy did not meet with much resistance though there was no way the skipper could be held responsible for the loss. However, the perception that he tended to favor players from Mumbai had caught on with Dilip Doshi, who had a bad tour, alleging that skipper had tried to promote Ravi Shastri at his expense.
Gavaskar came back as captain for the 1984-85 season, which included a tour of Pakistan that was called off after the assassination of prime minster Indira Gandhi, and a home series against England, which India lost 1-2, despite being expected to win. Gavaskar’s poor form with the bat was one of the main reasons for the loss but what made bigger headlines was the discord between the captain and Kapil Dev. India lost the second Test at Delhi and Kapil, who had played an irresponsible shot, was dropped for the next match. Gavaskar delayed declaring Indian first innings in the rain-affected third Test at Kolkata, which made him enormously unpopular with the crowds there. He had become so unpopular that a national magazine went to the extent of featuring him on the cover under the title “Out - Is he India’s Worst Captain ever?”
Signing off on a high
However, Gavaskar had the last laugh. Appointed to lead the side in the World Championship of Cricket in Australia, he announced before the tournament that he would be stepping down from captaincy once it got over. Suddenly, the team which had played listlessly through the entire season started performing like tigers on the field. As the team kept winning one match after the another, the smile on the face of the skipper became broader and his stocks rose. When India won the final defeating Pakistan, it was a very happy and contented skipper who held aloft the trophy. The nation had forgotten the disappointments earlier in the season and forgave the captain, who walked gloriously into sunset with his head held high.
How would one rate Gavaskar as captain? He was clear that his priority was to ensure that India did not lose matches. He was appointed as skipper at a time when the famed spin quartet, which was the backbone of Indian bowling, was past its best days. He groomed Kapil into a match-winning bowler but soon realized that without a sharp and balanced bowling attack, India stood little chance of winning Test matches. Thus, most of the Test matches during his period at the top ended in big-scoring draws. On the few occasions when he adopted an attacking mindset, like against Pakistan at home in 1979-80 and during World Championship of Cricket, the results were there for all to see, but these instances were the exception rather than the rule. In general he allowed the defensive mindset, which was essentially a product of Mumbai cricket, to dominate his thought process.
Gavaskar also invited considerable criticism for some of his actions. His outspoken views on many matters and his capacity to take on the authorities had rubbed many people the wrong way. He was accused of promoting the case of cricketers from Mumbai at the cost of prospects of the national side. In those days when cricketers earned money by playing benefit matches, disputes about sharing the amounts received were not uncommon and here also Gavaskar faced blame for trying to protect his own interests.
But above all, Gavaskar was a trendsetter when it came to Indian cricket. In the same manner in which he showed the way at the batting crease, he proved that cricketers could contribute to the game gainfully after their playing days, through the media. The four books penned by him, including his autobiography, touched best seller category and he was the first Indian player who wrote a syndicated column on a regular basis. He moved over to the visual media effortlessly and his observations on the game from the commentary box come across in a crisp and cogent manner that can be understood easily, by even the uninitiated.
To those lovers of the game like this writer who cut their cricketing teeth during the 1970s, Gavaskar would always remain the ultimate cricketing hero, an icon worthy of emulation. He showed courage of conviction and immense belief in his own abilities by standing up not only to the fast bowlers but also before haughty administrators, without ever backing away. He made us feel proud to be Indians at a time when we had little to boast about; he filled our minds with hope and optimism when we had little to look forward to, and most importantly, he showed us that we too could take on the world if we set our minds on it.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)