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History Matters | March 1971: The Legend's Test Debut

He instilled a belief that Indian cricket must not meekly accept the patronising racism of the West.

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(This is part two of a four-part 'March' series that revisits significant historical events and policies, and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read part one here.) 

The sporting arena is tailor-made to create legends. From Jesse Owens to Muhammed Ali to Martina Navratilova to Michael Phelps to Carl Lewis to Michael Jordan to Serena Williams to Usain Bolt to Pele to Lionel Messi to…it would take a book to name all of them.

In India, the most popular sport happens to be cricket. So, while there have been legends like Dhyan Chand, Vijay Amritraj, Viswanathan Anand and (now) Neeraj Chopra that India celebrates, it is cricketing icons who dominate the field of sporting legends in India.

They are not just loved and admired, many of the cricket legends have also influenced entire generations of Indians to dream big and and pursue excellence besides making India proud.
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Sunil Gavaskar: The First Cricketing Legend

Today, India is peppered with legends of cricket. In this day and age of entertainment and instant gratification, even players who smash a few sixes in IPL matches are hailed as "legends”. But the authors are convinced a big majority of readers will agree that there is a difference between stars (fleeting) and legends (eternal).

The authors are also convinced an equally big majority will agree that the first bona fide, gold-plated cricketing legend that India produced is Sunil Manohar Gavaskar who made his test debut against the West Indies in March 1971.

There were cricketing greats like Vijay Merchant, Vijay Manjrekar, and Vinoo Mankad that preceded Sunil Gavaskar. But Gavaskar remains the first cricket legend.
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Not because he consistently scored runs or because he took on fiery fast bowlers fearlessly or that he instilled pride and self-belief in the Indian cricket team (long before Sourav Ganguly was given credit for the same). Not even the fact that he publicly challenged and called out the barely concealed racism of dominant cricketing nations like England and Australia.

He is a legend because his stirring performances inspired generations of players to follow. Sachin Tendulkar still talks of the influence Gavaskar had on him.
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The Unflinching Batsman

Sunil Gavaskar faced hostile fast bowlers ranging from Andy Roberts to Dennis Lillie to Malcolm Marshal to Richard Hadley to Bob Willis to Imran Khan. But he never flinched.

You might say that modern-day batsmen who are great or legends too have faced ferocious fast bowlers. But the authors remember how tough and dangerous it was for Gavaskar to face someone like Michael Holding back in the 1980s when they were lucky enough to watch live telecasts.
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The thing is, there were no restrictions on the barrage of deadly bouncers that fast bowlers could hurl at a batsman standing 22 yards away. To top it all, Gavaskar did not even wear a helmet. A floppy hat was his signature.

Not many remember the test series that India played in the West Indies in 1976. Led by an unusually aggressive century by Gavaskar, India created history by chasing down 403 runs in the fourth innings and beating the West Indies.

A furious West Indies unleashed mayhem in the next test match. Five Indian batsmen were forced to retire hurt after being hit by nasty bouncers.

That was the era in which Gavaskar played and excelled. Not to speak of blatantly biased umpiring in countries like Pakistan and Australia.
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How Gavaskar Became a Legend in His Own Right

In 1981, when Gavaskar was given out by an Australian umpire in a brazen decision, Gavaskar had almost forfeited the match by asking his opening partner Chetan Chauhan to walk out. Somehow, the match resumed and the cricket legend Kapil Dev bowled a sensational spell to take India to victory.

Even if you look at hard data, Sunil Gavaskar is a legend. He played 125 test matches and ended his career with an average of more than 51 as an opening batsman. Along the way, Gavaskar broke many records:

  • He has a century and a double century in a test match on two occasions.

  • He surpassed the great Don Bradman in the number of centuries and ended his career with 34 of them.

  • Gavaskar was the first test batsman to cross the milestone of 10,000 test runs.

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Even today, most batsmen would dream of an average like that. His one-day career did not have a great start. In the first one-day World Cup in 1975, he became a butt of jokes for scoring 36 not out in 60 overs. But legends adapt and improvise.

In the quarter-final match against New Zealand in 1987, Gavaskar scored such a rapid-fire century that even Rohit Sharma or Chris Gayle would be in awe.

The authors have no doubt that Gavaskar would have been a great one-day player if he played in a different era. Even in ODIs, despite the slow start, Gavaskar averaged more than 36 with a strike rate of about 62.
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His Stand Against West’s Racism

Data apart, Sunil Gavaskar is a legend because he instilled pride in being an Indian and a belief that Indian cricket must not meekly accept the patronising racism of the West. By the time he retired in 1987, Gavaskar was one of the best-known cricketing faces in the world.

Yet, a steward at MCC in Lords denied him entry. An incensed Gavaskar did not mince words, slammed the MCC and refused to accept a membership of that hallowed club. Of course, the world and the cricketing world especially has changed since then and it is India that now calls the shots in the game.

Ironically, Sunil Gavaskar also played his last test match in the month of March in 1987. Many fans of cricket rate it as one of the finest test innings ever played. On a pitch that was the very devil, Gavaskar scored 97 against Pakistan in the fourth innings. India lost.
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Back in those days, India would lose more matches than win. But Gavaskar is enjoying the turn in fortunes as India now wins more such matches.

Cricket is no longer what it used to be in West Indies. Yet, there are still fans who recall the little man who enriched their lived experience.

(Yashwant Deshmukh and Sutanu Guru work with the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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