Achilles heel denotes the presence of a solitary weakness in a seemingly invulnerable person, which could lead to his downfall. The term has its origins in Greek mythology where Achilles, a hero who was considered invincible, was done to death by a poisonous arrow that got lodged in the heel, which was the only portion of his body that was susceptible to damage. In common parlance this expression is used to highlight the fact that there are no human beings without some flaws; while the astute ones are diligent enough to discover and hide them from public view, the not so intelligent ones expose them and are forced to face the consequences.
Sunil Gavaskar is undoubtedly one of the most intelligent cricketers to have played for the country. He learnt the basics of batting in the maidans of Mumbai and went on to perfect them in the pitches in the West Indies and England. He applied his considerable intellect to all aspects of the game and emerged as one of the best batsmen in the world during the 1970s and 1980s in Test matches.
His ability to grind down opposition through a combination of peerless technique, monumental patience and rugged determination earned him the respect of bowlers around the world. He also captained the national side from 1979 till 1983 and again during the 1984-85 season when he signed off on a high after winning the World Championship of Cricket in Australia. He retired from international cricket after the 1987 ICC World Cup, but only after proving to his critics that he could adjust to the demands of limited overs cricket, by scoring a brisk century in this format in his penultimate game.
A product of Indian urban middle class who had the added advantage of receiving convent education, Gavaskar grew into an articulate person with time. His autobiography “Sunny Days”, which was brought out in 1976, proved to be a bestseller. This was followed up by two more books - “Runs and Ruins”, published in 1984 and “One-Day Wonders”, which was brought out one year later.
He also emerged as an ardent champion of players’ rights and successfully espoused the demands for higher remuneration from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). He was also the pioneer with regard to writing regular syndicated columns, which generated considerable readership among the followers of the game. In other words, he evolved into an icon, worthy of adoration and emulation.
No stranger to controversies
However, even at the peak of his success, Gavaskar had demonstrated a penchant for rash acts and statements, which besides being undiplomatic, showed him in poor light. In “Sunny Days”, he devoted an entire chapter named “Barbarism in Kingston” towards criticising the crowd at the Kingston stadium who cheered Michael Holding, who resorted to intimidatory bowling, which resulted in four Indian batsman getting seriously injured. While one could understand the angst that a player feels when confronted with such situations where little help was forthcoming from the local umpires, penning the hurt feelings in a book was not a very wise act.
During the 1979-80 season when Australia and Pakistan toured India, Gavaskar stunned fans of the game by coming out with a statement that the way Kapil Dev was batting, he would not score another half-century in Test cricket. True to form, Kapil had the last laugh when he batted brilliantly and bagged the man-of-the-match awards in the Tests that India won at Mumbai and Chennai against Pakistan. Later, Gavaskar justified that his comment had brought the best out of Kapil but it left the followers of the game wondering whether such motivational measures could not have been employed within the confines of the dressing room rather than being done in public fora.
Gavaskar shocked the cricketing world by performing a near “walkout” during the last Test of the three-match series against Australia in 1981, when he was declared dismissed leg before wicket. He asked Chetan Chauhan, the non-striker, to follow him to the dressing room and it was only the presence of mind of manager Wing Cdr Durani that saved the day for India. Durani went to the boundary line and signalled to Chauhan to stay back while ensuring that the next man Dilip Vengsarkar made his way to the middle. India came back strongly to win this Test at Melbourne and in the euphoria of victory, this action of skipper which nearly gave the game away was pardoned by the BCCI and fans of the game.
When the squad to tour England in the summer of 1982 was announced, cricket buffs in the country were surprised to hear the name of Suru Nayak. A cricketer of modest abilities as could be seen from his first class career records (1,799 runs in 68 matches with one century and 133 wickets at an average of 35.47), he was not a regular even in the Mumbai Ranji team nor had he done anything exceptional in the immediate run up to this tour. In fact, his only claim to fame was that he was working in Nirlon, the company where Gavaskar was employed and was considered to be the blue-eyed boy of the latter. Nayak’s selection drew widespread criticism especially since those left out included Mohinder Amarnath, who had been in terrific form during preceding season.
However, Gavaskar was not fazed by the word of critics and ensured that Nayak played in two Tests and three One-Day Internationals during this tour. He was placed in the batting order just above Dilip Doshi, the No. 11, and bowled only very few overs, making one wonder what his role was in the playing eleven. It was not amusing to find that Shivlal Yadav, the off spinner with more than 100 wickets in Test cricket, was warming the benches when Nayak was donning national colours on the field. Once the squad returned home from the tour, Nayak went out of the reckoning and was not considered ever again by the national selectors.
After his playing days, Gavaskar moved effortlessly into the commentary box. He became a successful commentator both on account of his deep knowledge of the game and his fluency in English language. His insightful observations, laced with impish humour, and his ability to call a spade a spade made listening to him a pleasure. He wisely stayed away from getting embroiled in the working and politics of the BCCI and did not take up any assignment as coach or selector. The only event to which he lent his name was the Indian Premier League (IPL), where he charged a hefty amount for being one of the members of the Governing Council.
Now, what could have made Gavaskar turn against the selectors for continuing with Virat Kohli as captain of the national team for the tour of West Indies? Was it on account of his overwhelming devotion to the cause of Mumbai cricket, which is turning into his Achilles heel? India’s loss to New Zealand in the World Cup semifinal was not on account of any bloopers from the skipper. It is also not the case that the side did not play to its potential in the tournament. The only aspect that Kohli could be faulted for was sticking rigidly to the policy of playing two spinners in every match, irrespective of the conditions. However, this was part of the strategy which served India well in the tournament. Besides, the defeat in the last-four stage was on account of a batting collapse and not due to poor bowling.
It is not mandatory that the captain should be changed on every occasion that the side does not win the championship. Sacking a skipper is to be resorted only when the incumbent is found to be grossly inadequate for the job and should not be done as a matter of routine. Further, there also exists the matter of choosing a proper replacement for the person being given the marching orders. Presently, there is no cricketer who is capable of taking the place of Kohli as the captain of the national side in all formats of the game.
This brings one to the conclusion that Gavaskar is batting for Rohit Sharma’s elevation to the most coveted post in Indian cricket. It is not in doubt that Rohit had a superb run with the bat during the just concluded World Cup. It is also a fact that Rohit is one of the most talented batsmen to emerge from India during this century. However, it cannot be disputed that he has not done justice to his immense potential, as can be seen from his patchy record in Test matches. Instead of finding his footing in the rough and tumble world of Test cricket, Rohit chose the easier way of turning into an opening batsman in limited overs cricket, which gave him the opportunity to make maximum use of the fielding restrictions during the early overs of the game. He has made truckloads of runs in ODIs including three double hundreds, but his inability to make big scores in the longer version of the game on wickets outside the Indian sub continent stands as proof for his lack of application at the highest level.
Besides, Rohit is two-and-a-half-years senior to Kohli in age and it would be difficult to see a 36-year-old in the saddle when India takes the field in the next World Cup. If at all Kohli is to be replaced, it should be by a player who is younger and is able to command the respect of all members of the squad. Currently, we do not have anyone who meets these criteria and hence it makes cricketing sense to let Kohli continue with the job that he has been performing reasonably well during the last four years that he has held it.
One can understand Gavaskar’s anguish at Mumbai losing out on the captaincy stakes in Indian cricket after his tenure at the helm. Ravi Shastri, his designated heir apparent, lost out because of his playboy image and a bohemian lifestyle which did not endear him to the powers that be of Indian cricket of that time. Vengsarkar could not cope with the pressures that came with the job while Sachin Tendulkar had such a miserable time while leading the side that it even started to affect his batting. Rohit was the great hope from Mumbai after Tendulkar, but unfortunately he has failed to fulfil the early promise and could not become a regular member of the squad in Test matches.
Gavaskar should realise that the respect he has earned from fans of the game all over the world is on account of the mastery of the craft he demonstrated at the batting crease and the objectivity that he brought to the commentary box. He runs the risk of losing that respect if he allows his parochial instincts to get the better of his undoubted qualities as an observer and a columnist. It would be a sad day if such a fate was to befall on one of the original sporting heroes of my generation, one who made followers of the game like me feel proud to be an Indian.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)