Most cricket experts consider 1971 to be the start of the modern era in Indian cricket.
An impressive series win in the Caribbean was followed by an even more impressive success in England against Ray Illingworth’s men.
Sunil Gavaskar, lovingly called ‘Sunny’ by the fans, was the find of the year for Indian cricket. Although he failed to match his Caribbean success in the seamer-friendly pitches of England, his solid technique and excellent temperament impressed the pundits.
For the next decade and a half, the Indian selectors didn’t have to worry about one half of the team’s opening pair. But there was constant chopping and changing at the other end.
Despite the promising start to the decade, India failed to achieve consistent success in international cricket. There was too much dependence on Sunil and his brother-in-law, Gundappa Viswanath, and there was no reliable pacer till the arrival of Kapil Dev in 1978.
Not surprisingly India lost more Tests (34) than they won (23) during Sunil’s playing days. There were 67 draws and a tie as well.
Overall, his Test batting average is over 51. In lost matches he averaged 35, with six hundreds and 12 fifties. Here, I look at some of his finest efforts in losing cause.
101 & 58 (against England at Old Trafford in June 1974)
Most pundits consider the 101 in the first innings as ‘technically’ his best innings in Test cricket, considering the batting conditions, as well as the strength of the opposition bowling. Unfortunately, Gavaskar’s effort had little or no effect on the eventual outcome of the match.
Batting first, the home side declared on the second day on 9-328. Keith Fletcher enhanced his reputation as a fine player of spin bowling with 123 not out. In reply, all the Indian top-order batters, except Sunil, struggled against the varied English attack in ball-friendly conditions.
It was almost a lone hand from Gavaskar, and at one stage India was 7-143. All-rounder Abid Ali, however, gave Sunny valuable support and counter-attacked in his own unorthodox way. Accompanied by Abid, Gavaskar completed his hundred; but the joy was short lived, as he was soon run out.
Set a final day target of 296, India only managed 182. Gavaskar again top scored with 58.
113 (second innings against Aus at the Gabba in December 1977)
The topsy-turvy affair reached its climax on the fourth afternoon. The Aussie third innings ended late on the third day with a score of 327; the last-wicket pair of Jeff Thomson and Alan Hurst put on 50 runs that would become extremely valuable in the final count. India with a target of 341 finished the day at 1-51.
The fourth day was full of drama, with the advantage changing hands repeatedly. Bob Simpson, making has comeback, only had limited resources available to him. ‘Thommo’ was his only proven weapon.
Indeed, the speedster made a valuable contribution, dismissing Mohinder Amarnath and Gundappa Viswanath. Both Jimmy and Vishy threw it away after looking settled. Brijesh Patel, never totally happy against genuine pace, also fell to Thomson.
At the other end, Gavaskar looked totally unperturbed. And when, he along with the wicketkeeper Kirmani took the score to 5-243, a famous victory looked to be on the cards.
It was Wayne Clark, the West Aus quickie, who made the big breakthrough for the Aussies. One of the six rookies in the Aus team, he had the honour of dismissing Sunny for the second time in the match; this time caught behind by another debutant, Steve Rixon.
Still, the drama wasn’t over. Kirmani and skipper Bedi carried the fight on; but at the end it wasn’t enough. When Thomson had Chandrasekhar caught behind, India was still 17 runs short of their target. So, Gavaskar’s solid effort went in vain. India would have to wait 43 more years before recording their first-ever Test success at the Gabba.
Onto the WACA for the second Test. Gavaskar scored 127 in the second innings before being dismissed by Clark for the fourth successive occasion. India was optimistic about their chances after setting a fourth innings target of 339 but the ‘Night-WatchMann’ Tony Mann with a hundred and Peter Toohey with 83 ensured an exciting two-wicket victory for the home side.
111 & 137 (against Pakistan at Karachi in November 1978)
India scored 344 and 300 in this match. Normally in the subcontinent matches at the time, such scores would have been enough to ensure at least a draw. But Pakistan produced a fabulous run chase on the final afternoon, reaching their target of 164 in less than 25 overs.
Javed, Asif and Imran all played prominent parts in this chase.
Although India lost the Test series 2-0, the tour was a diplomatic success in reestablishing the cricketing rivalry between the two neighbours. Sadly from India’s perspective, this series signalled the end of their great spin force.
Prasanna never played for India again, and while Bedi and Chandra continued for another year, their mojo was already gone.
Bedi lost his captaincy and Gavaskar took over for the home series against the Windies.
90 (first innings against WI at Ahmedabad in November 1983)
It was a most uncharacteristic innings from Sunny.
After WI was bowled out for 281 on the second morning (Jeff Dujon 98), India at one stage raced to 1-148 thanks to Gavaskar’s brilliant batting. It was a record-breaking day as he overtook Geoffrey Boycott as the leading run getter in Test history (at the time).
Another world record beckoned him, he was on 29 Test tons, and as he reached the 90 mark the crowd was very excited. But Micheal Holding dismissed him late on the day, caught by skipper Clive Lloyd.
Gavaskar’s 120-ball innings included 13 hits to the boundary. Despite the disappointment, the crowd went home happy with India well placed at 2-173.
The third day saw advantages change hands very quickly. First, Wayne Daniel (5-39) gave his side a surprise 40-run lead. But then the Windies top order collapsed against Kapil Dev and at the end it was the first bowlers Holding and Malcolm Marshall who emerged as the unlikely heroes with the bat.
As WI finished the day on 7-152, the lead was almost 200 on an underprepared wicket. Still, the Indian cricket media seemed full of optimism during the rest day. They were all pinning their hopes on a Sunny masterclass.
It didn’t happen, Holding on his way to a MOM performance trapped Sunil LBW for 1, and India was all out for 103, losing by 138 runs.
Kapil created a new record, his 9 for 83 remained the best innings bowling figures for a losing team in Tests, till Ajaz Patel (NZ) improved it in December last year.
96 (second innings against Pakistan at Bangalore in March 1987)
In his last Test, in fact in his last innings, the little master produced a superb display; albeit for a losing cause.
After four boring draws, a result here looked certain here after Maninder Singh (7-27) restricted Pakistan to 116 all out on the opening day. But then the Pakistan spinners hit back, restricting the home side’s lead to just 29. The third day finished with India on 4-99 (Gavaskar 51 not out), chasing 221 for victory.
The Pakistan spinners, Tausif Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim, made further inroads into the Indian middle order once play resumed after the rest day. But Gavaskar stood firm, the home supporters were looking towards him to take India home, but yet again, he fell victim to the nervous 90s.
With his own score at 96, and the team score at 7-180, he became one of Qasim’s nine wickets of the match.
India lost the match by 16 runs. The MOM award was scant consolation for Sunny in his final Test.