It was no mean task for a 5'5" twenty-one-year-old opener from India to make his cricketing debut overseas against the formidable pace attack of the West Indies in 1971. But Sunil Manohar Gavaskar brilliantly rose to the occasion, scoring 774 runs in that series, including four centuries, a double hundred and an enviable average of 154.80.
Bear in mind, there were no helmets at that time and Indian batsmen were suspect at negotiating pace. Particularly noteworthy was his epic knock of 220, played with a gnawing toothache, in the last test at Port of Spain as India went to seal their first-ever series victory against the Caribbeans.
He also scored hearts, so much so, that a Calypso singer, William Harris (Lord Realtor), composed a song in his honour. 'Sunny' days had just begun.
This performance of the 'Little Master' was a harbinger of things to come. Gavaskar had shown a natural flair for scoring runs, patience, resolve and immense powers of concentration. Qualities that would hold this batting wizard in good stead over the coming years and earn him a formidable reputation.
Gavaskar could play some delectable shots, especially the straight and the cover drives. He was a joy to watch against the spinners, dancing down the wicket and dispatching the ball to all the corners of the field.
Particularly impressive were his overseas knocks, especially since our team's performance abroad in the 70s and early 80s was nothing to write home about. Gavaskar was the lone warrior pitched against some of the world's best bowlers - Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Ian Botham, Bob Willis, Richard Hadlee, Dennis Lillee and Imran Khan. An Indian fan's heart swelled with pride. One such knock was the 221 he scored at The Oval in 1979, off 443 balls against England, when India almost miraculously chased down the target of 438 runs, falling short by a pitiful nine runs.
Such dogged determination to succeed came with its bugbears. Gavaskar was prone to frustration and mood swings at times, especially when he hit a lean patch or when wrongly declared out. Old-timers recollect the final test match at Melbourne in 1981 against the Aussies, when Gavaskar, finally, after a dismal start to the series was in his groove against Lillee and Co, and adjudged lbw despite having carried an inside edge on the pad. On-field circumstances forced Gavaskar to almost lead Chetan Chauhan out of the ground and the Indian team out of the test match. The outburst proved beneficial for India, as our bowlers blazed a fiery attack and skittled out Australia for 83 in the second innings, thereby winning the test match and levelling the series.
Another dubious outing was when Gavaskar was adjudged out at 97 in the second test match against Pakistan at Lahore in 1978.
As he kept piling up runs and centuries for India, the focus in the early mid-80s turned to the subject of breaking Donald Bradman's record for the most runs and most centuries in test cricket. But there were new challenges for Gavaskar as he approached the milestone.
There was the new crop of bowlers like Malcolm Marshall, who were intimidating and possibly an impediment towards this goal. But Gavaskar cleverly blended aggression with caution in his batting and rode out the storm. He took the attack to the bowlers early on and once he had got his eyes in, settled down to play a long innings. He has the distinction of scoring the most runs and most centuries against West Indies than any other cricketer, no mean feat.
These days, he has taken on the role of an expert commentator, bringing his master strategist abilities to the mic. His comments on the proceedings are clever and incisive and there is that fabulous sense of humour. He is as delightful on air as he was on the field.
During the current lockdown, he has been sporting a white beard, taking walks on his terrace, rising late and watching TV serials. He rues that his entire family is not with him and jokingly remarks that he got 35 hundreds for India, which was why he donated Rs 35 lakh to the PM CARES fund and 24 100s for Mumbai, which translated to an equivalent amount to the Maharashtra CM Relief Fund.
He, along with Kapil Dev and others, have pledged to support the Indian Cricketers Association's initiative to financially help 30 needy players amid the lockdown.
Here's wishing him a happy 71st birthday.
(The writer is a former R&D scientist, a sports, music and travel enthusiast)