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How Sunil Gavaskar took on West Indies 50 yrs ago & became India’s 1st sports superstar

Making his test debut on 6 March 1971, Gavaskar amassed 774 runs against a mighty West Indies side, heralding a mindset change in Indian cricket & earning him unbridled adulation.

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New Delhi: 65. 67*. 116. 64. 1. 117*. 124. 220.

For anyone who has followed cricket around the world, those numbers are staggering. No batsman had ever scored 774 runs in his first test series and, 50 years on, the record stays intact.

It all began on 6 March 1971, exactly 50 years ago, when Sunil Gavaskar had first stepped on the cricket ground at Port of Spain in his India colours.

Undaunted by West Indies playing on their home ground with stars such as Gary Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd, Roy Fredericks, Vanburn Holder and several others, Gavaskar’s feat made it possible for India to register their first series win against the hosts.

In 25 earlier tests, India had never managed to win a test against the powerful team.

Gavaskar’s feat signalled a change in mindset for Indian cricketers. The belief that his achievement gave the team showed up in the sport and how India battled with the opposition, often in the lion’s den. Given the pittance that sportspersons were paid then, his feats catapulted him into India’s first sports superstar, opening up opportunities for endorsements.

For a sport that had earned a name over the years for the aggressiveness of fast bowlers — Holding, Garner, Lillie, Thomson in his era — nothing could have been more reassuring than the presence of Gavaskar at the opposite end of the 22 yards.

That record book may show that sequence of scores as mere numbers. The enormity of those numbers showed up in the years later. His achievements spawned adulation for the fans and moolah with brand association with a presence across various media in the 1980s.

Also read: Sportsweek, the popular sports magazine with star columnists that was edited by Sunil Gavaskar

Master craftsman at work

Every sport has its moments when heroes do the impossible, etching the enormity of their feats in the minds of people.

Mohammad Azharuddin did it in 1985. P.T. Usha’s dream 400 metre hurdles run in August 1984 LA Olympics, losing a medal by a hundredth of a second. Vijay Amritraj pulled India back from match points in the Davis Cup ties in 1987. Or even Mohammed Shahid’s hockey hattrick against Pakistan at Hyderabad in 1993 when India beat Pakistan 6-3.

Gavaskar’s feat was more than a tad different. It brought about a belief that Indians could match the world with their sporting achievements. The original Little Master himself wrote in his book that when the Indian cricket team landed in the Caribbean in February 1971, most of the team members were born after independence.

During his playing years, Gavaskar was a master of the art of slow burn. He would try to tire the bowlers out and graft his way to centuries, 13 of which came against the mighty West Indians. On the odd occasion, it could bomb too as India discovered playing their first match against England during the inaugural ICC World Cup in 1975. Gavaskar could muster only 36 runs, consuming 174 deliveries and batting until the end.

The change that Gavaskar’s feat had brought about had taken root by then. When India chased 406/4 against the West Indians, Gavaskar and Vishwanath scored a century apiece. India had again achieved the impossible.

Runs, ruins and the moolah

Runs continued to flow around the world from the Little Master’s bat. His penchant for staying at the wicket for long hours showed up again and again as India took on the Australians at home in the 1977-78 series.

India lost the series 3-2 but his stature as the master had gone up by a notch or two. When India attempted the epic chase of 438 against England at Oval in 1979, Gavaskar’s 221 nearly managed to take his side home.

Soon, Gavaskar had scaled the much-vaunted list of 29 centuries by Donald Bradman, something that no other batsman had achieved in test cricket. The uncharacteristic century in Delhi, to break Bradman’s record, only confirmed Gavaskar’s stature and determination for the proverbial long innings.

By then swashbuckling allrounder Kapil Dev had been making waves. He was a fast bowler that opposition teams had not seen from India in ages. Soon, stories of rivalry between the two were being spoken in hushed tones.

When Kapil Dev holed out to Pat Pocock in the Delhi test in 1984, his shot was termed as reckless and India ended up losing the test match and, ultimately, the series.

After over 60 tests on the trot since his debut, Kapil was dropped from the next test at Calcutta. Gavaskar was blamed as having a role, a move he was to later defend.

After India had won the ICC World Cup in 1983 and India won the Benson & Hedges World Series Championship in 1985, there was little looking back. Cricket’s role in sports commerce was cemented and Gavaskar was one of the pillars on which it was riding.

Opportunities were emerging outside the cricket field. Publishers were lining up as his pen did the talking just like his bat on the field. With four books under his belt – Sunny Days, Runs n’ Ruins, One Day Wonders, Idols, his programme ‘Sunil Gavaskar Presents’ were an instant hit with cricket fans.

That rubbed off for him as brands wanted him to endorse their products. Dinesh Suitings, Thums Up and other endorsements confirmed Gavaskar as a hero who had managed to bridge the gap between being a hero on the cricket field and a brand icon. As the ICC World Cup travelled to India, the opportunities for cricketers to endorse brands took a big leap ahead.

Also read: Sunil Gavaskar Presents — a ‘little masterclass’ from the 1980s that shaped a generation

The last hurrah

Like several icons, Gavaskar had saved his best for the last. At Ahmedabad, he scaled the 10,000-run mark against Pakistan as the test meandered to a draw.

In the last test against Pakistan, Gavaskar’s masterly knock of 96 on a minefield of a pitch could not take India home. His only century in a one-day international against New Zealand in a winning cause was celebrated all around.

Those interested in trivia may find this interesting. Even before he had batted, Gavaskar had bowled in his first test match. The master at scoring centuries missed one in his last test. For the world’s best opener, his highest score while batting came at number four.

6 March could have been just another day on the country’s cricket calendar. Add the year 1971 to that date and it turns into a watershed for India’s sport.

Also read: Priyanka Gandhi can be to Congress what Sunil Gavaskar was for India in West Indies

The author has been a business journalist, having tracked markets & economy across print & television media. Views are personal. 

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  1. One correction, sir: the Pakistani opener Hanif Mohammed was actually the original ‘Little Master’, not Mr. Gavaskar.

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