“Here’s a first: India’s Sunil Gavaskar, who was on strike, now wants to go on strike,” says the commentator as the India captain and his opening partner Chetan Chauhan walk off the Melbourne Cricket Ground during the third and final Test in 1981. “Does that mean he has declared or conceded the match,” the commentator asks, sounding incredulous.
Gavaskar has been adjudged leg-before on 70 after having added 165 with Chauhan—the duo had 10 century-stands in 3,010 runs scored in 59 Test innings. Struggling for form, Gavaskar had often not waited for the umpire’s decision in the series, but this time annoyance replaces amazement at what he feels is an outrageous decision from umpire Rex Whitehead.
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As he grounds the bat—you do that only when you are convinced your time isn’t up at the crease—the bowler, Dennis Lillee, walks up to Gavaskar and points to where he thought the ball had hit. Bat in hand, Gavaskar raises his arms as if to tell Whitehead, who is standing impassively, that he has got this wrong.
Still, Gavaskar looks like he has accepted fate and is going off before gesturing with his right hand on which a bright yellow sweat band is vying for attention with the yellow Benson and Hedges boards on the fence. He then stops, turns and walks back as Chauhan comes into the frame. Gavaskar gives Chauhan a slight push and he follows, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, “like a crestfallen child not yet ready to go home.” As the crowd boos, the camera pans to the pitch where the Australia team is standing.
“It was a thick inside edge,” Gavaskar says in a YouTube video posted by Merlyn Reimer. Sydney Morning Herald backed Gavaskar’s claim, saying the sound of bat on ball was “as woody as axe hitting log.”
Normally, Gavaskar says, he would have taken his anger out in the locker room “breaking a bat or something”, but he had snapped when “one of Australian fielders said something typically Australian.” In his book “Idols”, Gavaskar is more explicit. “I heard friend Lillee utter one of his profanities… and it was then I lost my balance and told Chetan to walk off with me,” he says.
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More than once has Gavaskar regretted his doing, and had manager Shahid Durrani not stopped Chauhan at the gate, India could have forfeited the Test—one where Gundappa Viswanath scored a magnificent 114; one which India rallied to win by 59 runs after Kapil Dev took 5/28.
“I think this type of incidents make things happen,” says Dev, at the 2020 Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. “I am not a storyteller but I think that Test match became so famous because Sunil and Chetan walked out and that became a topic. After that if you win…
“Sometimes, (with what) Sunil did, your team gets charged and every sportsman needs that spark,” says Dev, locking the right fist into his left palm.
Charged India are defending 142 and after he dismisses Allan Border, Dev lets out a roar and swings his arm. Then, Yashpal Sharma points to the change room telling Border where he belongs.
Memories of that series—of cricket on radio with most of the action over before the school bus came in the morning and staying abreast with the remains of the day’s play through whispering pocket radio sets in classrooms—were rekindled when Chauhan died in August following complications from Covid-19.
In his tribute, Gavaskar says he believes he was twice “responsible” for Chauhan ending his career without a Test hundred. Both came in that series, the first in Adelaide where Chauhan fell on 97. Had stayed put in his chair, Chauhan wouldn’t have fallen, Gavaskar wrote.
“The second occasion that I believe I was responsible for Chetan missing a hundred was when I lost my head after being abused by the Australians as I was leaving the pitch after a terrible decision. Trying to drag Chetan off the field with me must have disrupted his concentration and he was again out short of a century a little later,” he said.
Seventeen minutes after Gavaskar fell, Chauhan went for 85, caught by Bruce Yardley at cover.
Lillee may have been Gavaskar’s bête noire in Melbourne but that did not diminish his respect for the bowler. “Dennis Lillee is the greatest fast bowler in cricketing history” is how the chapter on him begins in “Idols”. After the Melbourne Test, Lillee said he hoped to come to India some day, wrote Gavaskar.
In a little over six years, he would. It was the first of many visits till in 2012, on Lillee’s wish, Glenn McGrath took over as director of the MRF Pace Foundation. Lillee had given the institution shape; hiring a sprint coach, a swimming coach and a dietician. He would get the trainees’ action filmed, and in the case of India bowler Tinu Yohannan, remodel it.
“It (the foundation) teaches… everything about being a fast bowler,” former Sri Lanka pace bowler and a foundation trainee Chaminda Vaas told ESPNcricinfo’s The Cricket Monthly in 2017.
From Vivek Razdan in 1989 through Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Zaheer Khan, S Sreesanth, RP Singh, Irfan Pathan, Munaf Patel, Varun Aaron, Mohit Sharma to Khaleel Ahmed, MRF Pace Foundation products have thrived for India.
Exactly how good it was can be gauged from Vaas, McGrath, Brett Lee, Shane Bond and Shoaib Akhtar too having trained there.
With the National Cricket Academy coming up in Bengaluru and state associations starting their own programmes, the Chennai academy’s influence has waned. But if going into the series for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy India have a fast bowling attack that is the envy of the world, the foundation’s role in nurturing the art of fast bowling cannot be overstated.
And that of the man who got the usually unflappable Gavaskar agitated.