For many years I found Sunil Gavaskar something of an enigma. Through the 1970s and early 1980s this diminutive opening batsman from India was lauded by many of his countrymen as the greatest in the history of the game. The clamouring to award him that title intensified in 1983/84 as, against the full might of a great West Indian pace attack, he first equalled and then, with 236* after coming in following two wickets falling without a run on the board, went past Sir Donald Bradman's record haul of 29 Test centuries that had stood for more than 35 years. Many of us scoffed at the fuss made, after all he had played almost twice as many Tests as "The Don", and his average was only fractionally more than half of the hallowed 99.94, but Gavaskar's admirers would not be silenced.
To a large extent my misgivings were simply down to an Englishman's perspective. I had, like many of my countrymen, first seen Gavaskar in 1971 when he was a member of the first Indian side to win a series here. On arrival he was the most talked of member of the touring party given that, just a few months previously, aged only 21 and visiting the Caribbean for the first time after a First Class career that had consisted of just half a dozen matches, he proceeded to score, in only four Tests, 774 runs at an average of more than 150 in a historic series victory.
In the event despite India's famous victory in that rather damp English summer Gavaskar struggled against the moving ball, averaging a distinctly mortal 24. Looking back following that disappointing performance it was easy to downgrade his achievements against the West Indies and many did. The hosts bowling attack illustrated just what the word transitional meant. Five years previously they had had Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith to strike fear into their opponents batsmen, and in five years time a new generation of pacemen led by Andy Roberts and Michael Holding would usher in an era of Caribbean domination of the game. In 1970/71 however their attack was very ordinary indeed. Their leading wicket taker, with 17, was Jack Noreiga, an off spinner who turned 35 during the final Test. The only four Tests of Noreiga's career came in this series. Just Garry Sobers, himself almost 34, of the other West Indian bowlers got into double figures. Sobers led the attack in the fifth Test, none of the other seamers John Shepherd, Grayson Shillingford, Vanburn Holder, Keith Boyce and Uton Dowe, having looked at all menacing.
Gavaskar's reputation in England wasn't assisted by his performance in his next series, that being the 1972/73 return encounter with Tony Lewis's side. After their success in 1971 it was widely expected that India would triumph again against an England side that lacked Geoff Boycott, John Snow and Ray Illingworth. The Indians had a wake-up call as England won the first Test, but they knuckled down and duly completed a 2-1 series victory - but Gavaskar met with no more success on his home wickets than he had done in 1971.
History records that India came down to earth with a bump in England in 1974 when they played their third consecutive series against England and lost 3-0. For Gavaskar things looked up a bit on a personal level as he averaged almost 40 and, at last, played a fine innings against England in the first Test. One of only three Indian batsmen to get into double figures he went on to score 101, generally by taking the attack to the England bowlers, before he was, perhaps, a little unlucky to be run out by a direct hit from midwicket. He scored a half century in the second innings as well, but by the final Test looked as inept as his countrymen.
The following year, that of the first World Cup, Gavaskar rather undid the positive work he had done with that century in the notorious first round fixture against England when he sat on his splice through India's entire allocation of 60 overs for just 36*, making not the slightest attempt to chase down a big England score.
After 1975 the aura began to shine again, and although Gavaskar's series against England at home in 1976/77 was unspectacular (once again he averaged a fraction under 40) all England had noted that he had played very well in the Caribbean in 1975/76, when he first scored a century as India chased down a fourth innings target of 403 to win the third Test, and then batted bravely and successfully in the fourth when Clive Lloyd's "blitzkrieg" tactics were born and deployed to such telling effect that by the time India's second innings was closed they had, as a result of injuries, only five wickets down when they ran out of men fit enough to bat.
It was in 1979 that Gavaskar really showed England what he was capable of. In a four Test series he recorded scores of 61,68, 42, 59 and 78* in the first three Tests, a remarkable display of consistency which, unfortunately for India, did not prevent the home side taking a 1-0 series lead coming up to the final Test at the Oval. For once Gavaskar failed in the first innings there and when England left India to score 438 for victory in the fourth innings the only question seemed to be whether India could restrict their margin of defeat to a respectable one. As matters turned out Gavaskar batted superbly and, as he and Dilip Vengsarkar gradually accelerated on the final afternoon, the final twenty overs began with the tourists on 328-1 and favourites. As so often in those days Ian Botham was England's saviour as he took three quick wickets including, at 389-4, that of Gavaskar who, after almost 500 minutes at the crease, was out for 221. The last over began with all four results possible - at the end of it India were nine runs short of their target, and England two wickets short of their's, and it was the most exciting and honourable of draws. It was a remarkable effort from Gavaskar, described by Wisden as ...inspiring and technically flawless..
At home in 1981/82 Gavaskar finally enjoyed a good series against England in India but although he scored plenty more Test runs before his retirement at the end of the 1986/87 series against Pakistan his last two series against England, away in 1982 and at home in 1984/85, are not ones he will recall with great fondness, his having averaged 24.66 and 17.50 respectively. He clearly did not entirely relish English conditions and English bowlers. To further illustrate the point a season with Somerset in 1980 brought him just 686 First Class runs at 34.30. He played some fine innings for the county when the sun shone, but in a relatively damp summer that was not very often.
There was to be a further noteworthy aspect to Gavaskar's career and that was his ability, so rare amongst top sportsmen and women, to time perfectly the moment of his retirement. Having chosen the 1986/87 series against Pakistan for his final Test series, by which time he was approaching his 38th birthday, he chose his very last visit to the crease to produce one of his best ever innings. The wicket was a treacherous one and the spinners bowled by far the majority of the overs delivered in a low scoring match. If India were to win they needed 221 in the last innings. As already demonstrated Gavaskar was often at his best in the fourth innings and he drew upon all his skill and experience to hold the Pakistan spinners at bay for almost five and a half hours. He was eighth out for 96 with the score on 180. India fell 16 runs short of their target, with no one else scoring more than 26. Gavaskar had richly deserved to bow out with a century and victory, but sadly it was not to be.
It was a few months later, in England, that Gavaskar confirmed that he had got to the end of the First Class road as well. He had been invited to play for a Rest of the World XI against the MCC at Lords in a special five day match organised as part of the great club's Bicentenary celebration. The MCC attack consisted of a pair of useful opening bowlers, Richard Hadlee and Malcolm Marshall, backed up by Clive Rice and the spin of John Emburey and Ravi Shastri. Sadly Gavaskar's final First Class innings was to be a duck, bowled in the first over by Marshall, but no one remembers that. What they do remember is the vintage performance in the first innings by a man comfortably the oldest on either side, who scored a faultless 188.
So how good was Gavaskar? Was he as good, as his most ardent supporters claim, as Bradman? There is no doubt that Bradman's remarkable statistical record can be the subject of legitimate criticism. It is undoubtedly true that for a large part of his career he had the benefit of some excellent batting wickets, particularly in his native Australia. He also had the advantage for seven years of playing under the old, batsman-friendly, LBW law.
It is often pointed out that fielding standards in the Bradman era were much inferior to those encountered by Gavaskar, with the result that catches that would have been held in the 1970s and 1980s went down, and some held in Gavaskar's time would not even have been chances in Bradman's day. The comparative lack of athleticism in the field meant that piercing the field was easier for Bradman.
Bradman did not have the same range of conditions that Gavaskar had to contend with, all his Test cricket being played in Australia or England. It is also the case that in his entire career Bradman only once, in 1932/33, faced a high quality pace attack and then, by his own high standards, he was found wanting.
But these arguments can all be countered. If Bradman had an achilles heel it was an old fashioned drying wicket. Gavaskar never encountered those. The LBW point makes sense, but a careful look at Bradman's career suggests it is irrelevant. Under the old law he was out LBW in 10.43% of his innings and after 1935, when it would have been expected that percentage would rise, it in fact fell to 7.75%.
As far as fielding standards are concerned whilst, in relative terms, it cannot be disputed that they were much lower in Bradman's time, he was not a man to lift the ball in the air any more often than was absolutely necessary, and in any event most fielders, in the international game at least, had a safe pair of hands even if they were not generally disposed to throw themselves around too much. Bradman was an excellent judge of a run, and quick between the wickets. He was only run out four times in his entire First Class career, and just once in a Test that being the second innings of the fourth Test in 1928/29, when a dreadful call from Bert Oldfield left him in no man's land. Australia were 320-7 at the time chasing 349 for victory. Without the Bradman run out it must have been highly likely that the 12 run defeat would have been reversed. But to return to the point many of Bradman's colleagues were not as fleet of foot as he was so there must be a balancing factor of missed scoring opportunities where the "athleticism" argument is concerned.
Moving on to the range of climatic and pitch conditions that Bradman encountered he did miss a visit to South Africa in 1935/36, but during his career Australia did not play a Test series on the sub-continent or in the Caribbean. It is difficult to imagine him doing anything other than enhancing his reputation had he played a part in that highly successful trip to South Africa, or that any other batting conditions would have kept him quiet.
As far as quick bowling is concerned while it is true that Bradman's performance against Bodyline was that of a mere mortal I cannot see that that is indicative of anything. Bradman chose to adopt some risky tactics aganst the leg theory in order to try and score runs before his slow-footed colleagues succumbed to Larwood's thunderbolts. In any event the suggestion that by averaging 56 that he failed is self-evidently a little nonsensical. Had he and his 1932/33 teammates had the benefit of the helmets and other protective equipment that Gavaskar had I have little doubt that it would have been business as usual for Bradman. Would Bradman have relished batting against Holding, Roberts, Marshall et al in 1983/84? Doubtless he would have preferred to face the West Indies attack of 1970/71 against whom Gavaskar achieved so much, but I suspect he would have taken more pleasure from batting against the 1980s West Indian pacemen than they would have derived from bowling to him.
It is an interesting argument of course, and perhaps in the modern era Bradman's average would have dipped, and maybe in the 1930s Gavaskar's would have been higher, but their records would still not, in my opinion, have been comparable and, as with every other batsman who has ever taken guard since WG Grace was in his prime, there is no coherent basis that can be put forward to support an argument that Gavaskar is as good a batsman as Bradman, let alone better.
There are however other rather more finely balanced questions. Is Gavaskar the second best batsman who has ever lived? Or is he the finest ever opening batsman? Or what about the best Indian batsman to have played the game? At this point it is worth looking at what others, much better qualified than I am to judge Gavaskar, have said about him.
My own views are largely mirrored by Sir Leonard Hutton who said of Gavaskar I have a feeling that if he had been born English or Australian, many of the better judges would have been tempted to bracket him with Bradman. Gavaskar is not as good as Bradman, but very close, which puts him in the very highest class of batsmen of all time
. Of his 221 at the Oval Hutton said the innings must ...at the very least, be bracketed with Stan McCabe's 232 at Trent Bridge, and Wally Hammond's 240 at Lords
At the time Bradman considered the McCabe innings the greatest he had ever seen. Hutton saw all three, and is therefore ideally placed to express a view.
Hutton went on to say He cuts, pulls and drives the half-volley beautifully .... he has the concentration, willpower and temperament of a record-breaker. I admire too, the positive and quick movement of his feet and the almost feline grace with which he gets in position to deal with the bouncer. ....he has a model technique. If I were to recommend a schoolboy to copy a modern master, I would go for Gavaskar
Andy Roberts is an admirer too, and happy to address the big question I have never played against Sachin Tendulkar, but according to me, Sunil Gavaskar is the greatest among the indian batsmen because he scored so many hundreds when the world had the best fast bowlers of all time. The West Indies had four of the best, Australia had two or three and England had two.
and let us not forget Imran and Sir Richard Hadlee as well. Pakistan's first outstanding batsman, Hanif Mohammad, makes the same point saying Nobody played fast bowling better than him. If a guy can score 13 hundreds against the West Indies pace attack and handle others such as Imran Khan, John Snow and Bob Willis, he cannot be an ordinary batsman
There were some other high quality openers around in Gavaskar's time but Mike Brearley said Sunil Gavaskar is the best opening batsman I have seen in Test matches. He was better than Gordon Greenidge and Geoff Boycott
. John Snow said I believe Sunny is a better all-round player than Boycott - he is a more natural opening batsman
. Perhaps not so unbiased, but still in an excellent position to judge, teammate Farokh Engineer said Sunil is easily the most complete batsman India has ever produced
. By way of confirmation of the range of Gavaskar's skills his Indian teammate, Erapelli Prasanna, the floaty off spinner of the great quartet, said Ask any spinner who is the most difficult batsman to dislodge or contain and the answer will be, unanimously, Sunil Gavaskar
So is Gavaskar the second best batsman who ever lived? I am inevitably swayed against him as a result of seeing so many ordinary performances, but amongst those have been the gems that were that superb, aggressive century in 1974, and above all that magnificent 221 in 1979 an innings that would, had it lasted just a little longer and brought a victory, surely be regarded as one of the greatest ever played. I have read much about the other remarkable innings I have referred to and those highs, to my mind, take him to the very brink of being second to Bradman, and the greatest opener.
That, in my book, Gavaskar doesn't quite make it is because of the presence of the man I have quoted above, Sir Leonard Hutton. The bare numbers of the Yorkshireman's record are impressive enough, although statistics alone cannot be allowed to dominate this sort of debate. I bear in mind with Hutton that, due the Second World War, he played no Test cricket between the ages of 23 and 30 when he should have been in his prime. I am also greatly influenced by the fact that after the conflict Hutton had, the legacy of an Army training accident, one arm two inches shorter than the other. In addition playing conditions in England in the late 1940s and early 1950s, generally favoured bowlers.
Which leaves just the final question and whether Gavaskar is the finest ever batsman from his country a debate which, with all due respect to the likes of Rahul Dravid and Vijay Merchant, boils down to a straight choice between him and Sachin Tendulkar. In all honesty I would much rather watch Sachin bat than Sunny, but if I had to split them, the magnitude of his greatest innings puts Gavaskar in front by the shortest of short heads.