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Cracks in the skull cap?
To understand Sunil Gavaskar is as easy as reading English from right to left or Arabic from left to right: all the letters, consonants, punctuations et al are easily identified, but grammar and syntax become impossible to construct, resulting in gibberish.
For almost his entire cricketing career - and this includes multifarious roles post-retirement - Gavaskar has confounded friends, fans and foes alike with his penchant to do the unexpected. Everything seems serene and orderly, then suddenly there is dissonance and a major controversy emerges.
To give one instance, in the 1975 World Cup he scored 36 runs off 60 overs much to everybody's chagrin;in the 1987 World Cup, he scored 101 at Nagpur, the fastest then by an Indian batsman. He is now fighting for Rs 20 crore he claims is owed to him by the BCCI which the BCCI claims they know nothing about!
How this episode plays out remains to be seen. As yet only verbal charges have been traded. Is this a power game loaded with bluff or something more serious which could lead the adversaries to court? Much drama lies ahead surely.
Gavaskar 'watchers', and I count myself among them for more than 30 years now, find him fascinating for the many layers to his personality. Unlike say Sachin Tendulkar, whose genius has been defined by extraordinary reserve (barring his explosive strokeplay), Gavaskar has been tempestuous and mercurial, riding on accolade and controversy with equal frequency to leave critics wondering at the whats and whys of his actions.
In his playing days, he could be cucumber cool or a raging cyclone - against himself, opponent or the establishment. He could be well-reasoned one day, stubborn and tantrum-prone the next, the provocation for change known only to himself. He had run-ins with opponents, administrators, umpires and sometimes even with teammates which are testimony to this.
He does not suffer fools gladly and has an instinctive sense of self-preservation which makes others chary of him, often through misreading of intent. But he is also driven by such strong self-esteem that he can live with his own thoughts and action, aloof to the rest of the world. He is not always right, as he himself would agree, but this personal conviction is an integral part of his mental make-up and perhaps also the biggest reason for his enormous success on and off the field.
In an interview on his 60th birthday last year, he admitted that walking off the field in 1980-81 against Australia at Melbourne was something he would like to change if he could live all over again. But on the aforementioned 36 off 60 overs in 1975, Gavaskar remains unrepentant. "I couldn't even get out though I tried very hard, " he explained.
He has been arguably Indian cricket's most influential entity because he knows how to live with and deploy power. He has sought and spurned the Indian captaincy, taken up cudgels against the BCCI on behalf of the players, once got a tour of the West indies cancelled in 1979-80 because of work overload, and retired in 1987 as he wanted to: when people asked why, not why not.
Since then he has been Indian cricket's minder of sorts, even being mildly jingoistic at times in his role as newspaper columnist or commentator, but also a trenchant critic of the BCCI or players when he has seen the need. Simultaneously, he has been one of the best thinkers in the modern game, assisting the BCCI and ICC invaluably on technical aspects.
Critics have accused him of being 'commercial minded' and wanting to be the eternal prima donna of India cricket;they have claimed that he wants authority and reward without accountability. Some events of his life would suggest this to be fact, though these project an imbalanced portrayal of the man.
As a professional, he sees himself completely entitled to the rewards of his talent and now his brand equity as a legend. Whether charging one rupee a word for writing newspaper columns in the early 1970s or asking to be paid Rs 20 crore by the BCCI for lending his name and expertise to the IPL now are assigned the same principle.
The image of a grim runs and money-making machine is, of course, misleading. I have also seen him first hand help out lesser privileged players without so much as a second query. His Champs Foundation was established to assist sportspersons from other disciplines too. In the late 1990s, when Ajit Wadekar suffered a heart attack in Sharjah, he took over as team coach without fee or compunction. In 1993, he didn't hesitate to risk his own safety to save a Muslim from a mob during the communal riots.
The cricketing aspect of his life must, of course, take prime focus in any discussion on the man. He scored 774 runs in his debut series with four centuries. For those obsessed with stats and records, this one has stood the test of time since 1971.
In the 18 years he played, Gavaskar became synonymous with runs, hundreds and records. By the time he finished, making a superbly crafted 96 on a minefield pitch at Bangalore in 1987 against Pakistan, he had the world's highest run aggregate and the most centuries: in the estimate of the best cricketing minds, he was also perhaps the greatest batsman of his generation.
Imran Khan, never one to mince words, called Gavaskar's last innings "the best he has seen from anybody, the work of a genius. " The former Pakistan skipper believes Viv Richards was the best batsman of his time but Gavaskar was not a whit behind. Why, Tendulkar himself counts Richards and Gavaskar as his two batting idols. I am not one for putting too much store by stats, but sometimes these are revealing. Of Gavaskar's 34 centuries, 13 came against the West Indies which remains unmatched as yet.
If Gavaskar is marginally less renowned than Richards for his batting exploits, it is only because he blunted his attacking instincts;as much because of team interest as because he was a product of his time. Indian cricket's ethos was wrapped in a defensive mindset for more than half a century post CK Nayudu and Mushtaq Ali. Moreover, the Indian batting in the 1970s and '80s was wobbly - the "tail beginning at 5" - many harsh critics would opine - which shaped Gavaskar's own attitude.
The Gavaskar story is among the more compelling in modern Indian history. It's the story of a genius cricketer and a complex personality who, as mentioned at the start, can confound friends, fans and foes with the unexpected.
Foes, particularly, need to be on guard because he is known not to forget or forgive, and pursues redress for slights - real or imagined - with the same singleminded dedication that marked him out as one of the greatest cricketers ever.
Those ranged against him in the unfolding controversy with the BCCI are warned.
(Ayaz Memon is a senior journalist and commentator)
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