When they retire, sportsmen often lose their aura. But there are exceptions like Sunil Manohar Gavaskar, who turned 60 on July 10. You may not always agree with what he says, or how he says it, but you will feel a bit awestruck in his presence. You’ll hide the half-eaten donut in your hand.
At the core of Gavaskar’s enduring appeal is his staggering career. He scored more Test runs (10,122) and centuries (34) than anyone else before him. But statistics do not fully capture what he meant to Indian cricket in his playing days. He was a pocket-sized saviour who, with his technique and concentration, humbled fearsome fast bowlers.
His on-field persona may have been a little dour, but off the field, he was a colourful man. Apart from commercials, he has played cameos in films such as Maalamaal. Some of the sheer grit – not to mention the impeccable technique – he showed batting against the West Indian fast-bowling greats (the Roberts-Holding-Marshall-Garner quartet was arguably the best ever fast bowling combination in the history of the game) was on display again when he played the lead role in the Marathi film, Saavali Premaachi. Excerpts from an interview with the original Little Master.
Q Which innings stand out for you even now?
A The most memorable one for me is the 57 at Old Trafford in 1971. It was a cold rainy day and the light drizzle was freshening up a grassy pitch, so to get a fifty on that was satisfying indeed. It was also my first experience of a green-top.
Q Which of the victories are special?
A The 1983 World Cup win above everything else. Also the wins over West Indies and England in 1971 and the victory against Pakistan in 1979-80. These were special.
Q You played in an era when Test cricket was the main format. How do you react to its decline in popularity? Do you have any specific ideas to revive it?
A Test cricket has survived for more than a century and I don’t think there is any immediate danger to it. When limited overs cricket first came, the doomsayers thought it was the end of Test cricket, but in fact it energised the game at the Test level and now we have a result in just about every Test.
Q What changes in cricket are you uncomfortable with?
A Most changes have been positive, but I don’t like the one that allows bowlers with hyperextension (of the elbow) to bowl despite evidence that it gives them an unfair advantage.
Q You fought for India’s cause when other nations had greater clout in cricket administration. Do you feel vindicated now that India holds a controlling position in world cricket?
A It is great that India’s voice is a powerful one now in international cricket forums. It would be greater still if the media were to join in rather than find faults with the BCCI on every little thing as if it happens only in India and not in other countries.
Q You played a pioneering role in raising the commercial status of cricketers. What made you realise that cricketers had commercial potential? Which was your first TV commercial and how much were you paid for it?
A More than the commercial prospects of cricketers per se, it was their short career span that drove me and some others to try and focus the playing fraternity’s attention on cricketers’ remuneration, insurance etc. The first television commercial I did was for Palmolive shaving cream. Every time I shaved my cheek, the exposed part was where they showed me playing a cricket shot, so that was quite innovative. I am not sure how much I got for it... maybe Rs 10,000.
Q Do you and Kapil Dev wish each other on birthdays?
A Yes. Kaps is one of the very few cricketers that I wish. He too calls me on my birthday and we talk to each other often on the phone and catch up for a meal whenever both of us are in Delhi.
Q You are touchy on the subject of your proposed academy (in Bandra, on land allotted to him in the eighties for this purpose). But isn’t it a matter of public interest? What are the reasons behind the delay and what is its current status?
A The academy has been a dream for so many years. There were conditions in the government resolution that have taken time to be dealt with, and I have only recently got a revised draft contact from MHADA. Once that has been sorted out, I will continue to look for potential sponsors, which in the current economic climate is not proving easy.
Q What are the things you have retained from your playing days?
A I still have the bat with which I got my first Test century and the bat with which I got my first double century. My India caps are my most prized possessions.
Q You have a mischievous side. You impersonate people. On air, you have sung songs.
A That’s the part of me that only a few have seen, but I get my sense of humour from my grandfather, so I am told. Yes, I hit the ball along the ground, but that doesn’t mean I am all serious. But that’s my image, and nobody has tried to see beyond that. Pity.
Q Whose imitation can you do the best?
A As the old Hindi song goes: Yeh na bata sakunga main.
Q You have a sense of humour but you can also be a caustic critic. How do these two sides coexist in your personality?
A Don’t you defend and attack in an innings? Guess the same happens here.
Q When was the last time you watched Saavali Premaachi? Do you have a copy of the film?
A At a preview theatre in 1976. No, I don’t have a copy of the film.
Q You are a badminton fan. How often do you play? Which is your ‘chapati shot’ in badminton?
A I have been a badminton fan since my school days and I think it’s the greatest sport on earth. I am pretty bad at it, so there is no chapati shot. Maybe the drop shot.
Q What is the one health rule you always stick to?
A I do a medical annually, but this year due to my travels I have been a bit late with it.