Exactly 40 years ago this week a 21-year-old Indian batsman in his debut series notched up a fabulous feat that went a long way in steering India to a historic triumph over the West Indies in the five-Test contest. To the younger generation brought up on numerous notable victories in Fifty50 andTwenty20 and being around in an era when India are the No 1 Test team in the game and the No 2 ODI team this would hardly seem significant enough to warrant mention all these years later. Nothing can be further from the truth for that triumph in the Caribbean altered the face of Indian cricket in the international arena. From then on any contest with an Indian team could not be taken lightly thanks largely to the impact that one immensely gifted youngster with a water tight technique, intense concentration and an insatiable appetite for runs had on the cricketing scene worldwide.
Let later generations talk about other great players. For me it will always be Sunil Gavaskar who first made the international cricketing community sit up and take notice of Indian cricket. He was the player who proved that Don Bradman's long standing record of 29 centuries could be surpassed and that it was possible for a batsman to get 10,000 runs in Tests. Today he is recognized as the father figure of Indian cricket. He was the pioneer, the man who showed that fast bowlers could be hit and not menaces against whom one flinched. He was a batsman who proved that it was possible to get 13 Test hundreds against the West Indies - including three double centuries. Most important, he inspired his teammates not to wince against fast bowling or falter against the turning ball. Thanks to him, many others learnt about the essential qualities of dedication and determination, technique and temperament, patience and perseverance, concentration and commitment.
And soon the upward swing in India's fortunes was there for the cricketing world to watch and admire.
If the history of mankind is divided into two eras – BC and AD – the history of Indian cricket is divided into two eras - BG and AG. The 39 years before Gavaskar's entry into international cricket were generally marked by defeats, disasters and debacles and very few triumphant moments. The 40 years after the date in question has generally been marked by glorious victories, rare individual feats and greater respect for Indian cricket and cricketers in the international arena. Sure, there have been the low points but these have been comparatively few.
Before Gavaskar came on the scene, the chief image of Indian cricketers was that of 'dull dogs' who took an inordinately long time to get their runs. They lacked the will to fight and were technically and temperamentally ill equipped. The history of Indian cricket was punctuated - all too frequently - by shameful reverses. On one infamous occasion at Leeds in 1952, India lost their first four wickets without a run on the board. In the same series, at Old Trafford, India became the first team in Test cricket to be bowled out twice in one day - and for totals of 58 and 82. In the next Test at the Oval, India lost the first five wickets for six runs. A few years later, India lost a Test to West Indies at Calcutta by an innings and 336 runs - the second biggest margin of defeat in Test cricket. In the period 1967-68, India lost seven Tests on the trot. In 1959 and 1962, India lost all five Tests of the rubber to England and West Indies.
It might not be exactly right in saying that one man changed this depressing scenario. But that would be close to the truth. Gavaskar's debut itself coincided with India's first-ever victory over West Indies at Port of Spain followed by a triumph in the series. Gavaskar was mainly responsible for this, scoring 774 runs with four hundreds, including a century and a double century in the final Test also at Port of Spain. His deeds inspired the greater triumph that followed in England the same year. And so the saga continued till 1987. And along the way, there were individual and team feats that none would have thought the Indian team and Indian cricketers were capable of. Scoring 400 plus to win a Test, running up totals of 600 plus more than once, making the bowlers sweat it out for more than a day to earn a wicket. And inspired by the greater solidity in the batting, the bowlers rose to the occasion and shaped many notable triumphs.
Before Gavaskar came on the scene, India had won only 15 of 117 Tests. In the next 129 Tests, till Gavaskar played his last game at Bangalore in 1987, India won 25. As regards losses, India in the period 1932-1970 suffered 49 defeats, while in the period 1971-1987 India lost 35 Test matches. Before 1971, India won five rubbers - three against New Zealand and one each against Pakistan and England. From 1971 to 1987, India won ten rubbers, four times against England, twice against West Indies and one each against Pakistan, Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Before 1971 India had won only one series abroad – against a none-too-strong New Zealand side in 1967-68. After Gavaskar came on the scene India won rubbers in West Indies and England (twice). Notwithstanding some reverses in the post 1987 period - in itself a tribute to the great man - there is little doubt that Gavaskar's legacy endures. And today's champion Sachin Tendulkar would be the first to admit the inspirational role that Gavaskar has played and the exalted status SMG enjoys in Indian cricket history.