Thursday, September 09, 2010

Sunil Gavaskar, Melbourne 1981

In 1981, Sunil Gavaskar almost conceded a Test at Melbourne (a game that India eventually won) in an apparent fit of anger, that has subsequently become Exhibit A in the Case against Sunil Gavaskar. I wrote about this incident once before. I revisit it here in the light of Devendra Prabhudesai's biography of Sunil Gavaskar.

This episode at Melbourne in 1981, and this series in general has fascinated me endlessly. Sunil Gavaskar led India to it's greatest overseas Test performance (in my view) at Melbourne in 1981. This is a strangely underrated series, considering the opposition - Greg Chappell, Kim Hughes, Allan Border, Doug Walters, Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee, all of them among the most important names in Australian Test Match history. The team included three Australian captains, one of their best post war batsmen - Walters, who was especially successful in Australia, their greatest ever fast bowler and one of their most celebrated wicketkeepers. India have won series overseas in New Zealand in 1967-68 and 2008-09, in England in 1971, 1986 and 2007, in Pakistan in 2003-04, in West Indies in 1970-71 and 2005-06, but they've never won a series in Australia or South Africa. People often talk about Gavaskar's 13 Test hundreds against the West Indies, but they rarely mention his 3 centuries in Australia against Jeff Thomson (he made a 4th against a Queensland side including Jeff Thomson in 1980-81). Thommo had suffered a horrific injury against Pakistan in 1976-77 (in Australia), but by his own account in his autobiography returned from that injury bowling at least as fast as he used to before, if not faster. His figures in the period after the injury (1977-1983) are pretty much the same as his figures prior to his injury. 1977-78 was a series overshadowed by the Packer episode.

The series result for India in 1980-81, a 1-1 tie, was especially astonishing, given the unusual tactical plan concieved by Gavaskar. For an Indian captain, in 1981, to rely on seam and not spin as his primary weapon, is quite brilliant. Gavaskar played defensively in the second Test at Adelaide, after India had lost the first, purely because he felt that India would have a chance at Melbourne, with Karsan Ghavri and Kapil Dev sharing the new ball, supported by Dilip Doshi. India survived by the skin of their teeth. And so it proved.

This incident, which occured in the Indian second innings at Melbourne, is usually explained as Gavaskar losing his temper, because he had finally made a few runs against Dennis Lillee. The incident is accompanied by some of the finest, most gracious commentary you will ever hear, from Bill Lawry. That Rex Whitehead was a terribly incompetent Umpire is fairly clear. He stood in only 4 Test Matches and 14 ODIs in his career as an international umpires (three of them in that series against India in addition to the Melbourne Test of the 1982-83 Ashes, which England won by 3 runs). Whitehead also umpired only 15 First Class Matches in his career.

The Umpire's incompetence is no excuse for Gavaskar's behavior. This is the accepted view, one which Gavaskar himself agrees with. He has said more than once that he considered his own behavior unforgivable. But it has always fascinated me. What drove a proud man, with iron discipline, so much self-discipline, that he successfully put away a number of attacking strokes in cold storage between 1975 and 1980, simply because his team needed him (Gavaskar average 59 with the bat between 1975 and 1980, made 18 Test hundreds and 35 50+ scores in 47 Tests - 82 innings, average 65 Away from home and more than 50 against all 5 Teams he played against), and a fanatical devotion to cricket, to snap like that? And what does it tell us about him?

Some perspective on the decision should help. This was a particularly acrimonious series, in which India were accused of performing like "second-raters" by Ian Chappell (Times Of India, 1981), who went on to say that "there is no need [for Australia] to be a provider of gifts to every cricketing country that comes begging at our doorstep". This was particularly rich, since it was India which had virtually saved Test Cricket in Australia by touring in 1977-78 with the Australian Cricket Broad was severely challenged by Kerry Packer. Rex Whitehead remained a sticking point, and the Australians didn't help either. Lots of great achievements got sidelined in the acrimony. Dennis Lillee went past Richie Benaud's aggregate of 248 Test wickets at Melbourne, India won a Test Match after conceding a lead of 182, despite having two spinners - Doshi and Shivlal Yadav, bowling with a broken toe, and the leader of the attack, Kapil Dev reduced to batting with a runner thanks to a calf muscle injury.

Richie Benaud believed that Gavaskar got an inside edge according to Prabhudesai. Gavaskar's biographer also reveals that Syed Kirmani almost walked off earlier in the game after Shivlal Yadav had bowled Allan Border round his legs, only for Rex Whitehead to consult his square leg umpire to find out whether Kirmani had broken the stumps with his gloves. This was after India had already claimed the dismissal! Prabhudesai writes about Gavaskar's actions
"He had completed about one-fourth of the walk back to the pavilion when his ears were alerted to an association drawn by one of the Australians between him and a part of the female anatomy. It was then that Kirmani's walk-out threat of the previous day flashed across his mind. Something snapped."
Dennis Lillee has been on the record suggesting that Gavaskar lost it because he had not scored runs against Lillee until that point. Here is where something essential about Gavaskar's character and temperament is revealed. Lillee was right. According to Prabhudesai, Gavaskar was desperate to score runs against Dennis Lillee and his lean patch in that series up to that point had been eating away at him. Gavaskar also knew that he might never get another chance to play against Lillee. He had finally crossed 50 against Lillee on a terrible wicket, and Whitehead's erroneous decision was too much for him to take.

The more I think about it, the more I think that this Melbourne episode was amongst Sunil Gavaskar's greatest moments (maybe not his happiest) as a Test Cricketer. It bared him to the cricket watching public as a desperate competitor of the highest quality. Lillee's disgraceful behavior is often forgotten in this episode, but then, this is precisely the sort of superiority that Gavaskar was foremost in fighting. He made modern Indian cricket and it took all his cussedness and all his brilliance as a batsman and all his pride in wearing the India cap to do so. At Melbourne, it was in full bloom, warts and all. Bill Lawry's immediate comment when Gavaskar began to walk back was to say that "the man who has walked so often in this series, very annoyed with that decision" is worth noting.

Gavaskar wrote about a question he was asked by an Australian reporter after this Test Match (Prabhudesai, SMG, p 255).
I was asked...., 'Now that you have failed in the Tests would you call yourself a great batsman?' Taken aback by the query, because I had never bothered to grade myself, I did manage to ask him why he asked that question. His reply was, 'Since you didn't score on hard, bouncy pitches you cannot be called a great batsman!' 'Fair enough', I said, though I did not care to inform him that on my previous tour of Australia I had three centuries against Jeff Thomson and co. on the same pitches. But I did tell him that if the criterion for a great batsman was to score on hard bouncy pitches, then by the same token, the criterion for a fast bowler to be called great should be him capturing wickets on slow pitches. He agreed with that, but when I queried whether we should then call Dennis Lillee a great fast bowler because he had just taken a couple of wickets on the slow pitches of Pakistan, he said, 'No, Dennis is an all-time great fast bowler. That was just a bad series for him'!
Sunil Gavaskar, The Sportstar, 9 February 2002
This is why Sunil Gavaskar was essential. Why the modern Indian Cricket team would have been impossible without him. Why he remains the greatest Indian Cricketer ever.

A couple of examples of Dennis Lillee's general attitude to things

Possibly the only instance of a player being kicked by another player on an international cricket field:

Fighting the great injustice of not being allowed to use the alluminium bat by flinging that very bat wildly:


  1. Prabhudesai has written two good books. The subjects of both have been capable as well.

    Mention here must also be made of Sunny's take on it and subsequent unreserved, unconditional apology published in a newspaper later. I think he has it in his book Straight Drive, for no one speaks about it after starting off with Exhibit A. Just like the fact that it was a strong team Australia had in that game is missed out.

    Karsan Ghavri was key...he dismissed Greg Chappell, easily the best Oz batsman and Dyson quickly to stir it up before Kapil took over. These aspects are lost in the Gavaskar tantrum.

  2. It was Lillee's tantrum as much as it was Gavaskar's tantrum. Yet, everyone always says it was Gavaskar's tantrum. My purpose in this post was to point this out.

  3. I never saw that first video where Lillie kicks Miandad. That was funny :)

  4. Conduct a bit of research on the Australian tour to India in 1979 if you want Exhibit A for favourable home town decisions by the umpires.

    As bad as this incident was (and Lillee was a hot head), the blatant home town bias in 1979 was the worst of its kind.