The glory days of Indian cricket began with the selection of Sunil Gavaskar in the national team in the early ’70s. In his 16-year career, he broke a host of batting records, became the first Test batsman to score 10,000 runs, and set a new paradigm for the modern version of the game. He speaks to Rishita Roy Chowdhury about his cricketing days and his life after retirement.
Q. Tell us about your beginnings in cricket. When and how did you get drawn to the sport?
A. Those days, Mumbai was the cricketing centre in India. And so, it was as natural to pick up the bat there as it was to pick up a hockey stick in Punjab or to hit a football in Bengal and Goa. The fact that my mother’s elder brother, Madhav Mantri, had played for India and was the captain of the Mumbai cricket team also made it easy for me to take to cricket.
Q. When you started your career, there was only the longer format of the game. Getting into the national team was a different kind of struggle as well. How was that journey for you?
A. Yes, there was just the five-day Test match format of the game when I started my international career. My struggle was more to get in the Mumbai team than the national team. I had to wait for almost three years to get another chance to play for Mumbai after a forgettable debut three years earlier.
Q. What according to you are the qualities needed to become a successful cricketer? And what does it take to excel as an opener?
A. Like in any profession, in cricket as well, an individual needs dedication, determination and discipline to be successful. As an opener, you need plenty of gumption and a lot of luck too, as the new ball can swing and bounce a bit more than you anticipate.
Q. Tell us about your most memorable moments from your days on the field.
A. My most memorable match was when India won the World Cup in 1983. But every time India won the match, it was a memorable moment for me.
Q. For a sportsperson, it is important to time their retirement right. Can you take us back to the time you decided to retire? How did you manage that phase?
A. Bidding the game goodbye is an individual decision. In my case, I wasn’t enjoying being on the field so it was an easy decision to make. In the year or so before I took the decision to retire, when we were fielding in a Test match, I would look at the clock on the ground around tea time or close of play and say to myself “Oh, another 20 minutes to go”, and in a limited overs game, I would look at the scoreboard and say “Oh another six overs of fielding”. That was a clear sign that it was time to get out of the game because I wasn’t enjoying being on the field.
Q. You took up commentary post-retirement. How did you plan life after your cricketing days? Were there any challenges?
A. I was fortunate being around when Indian cricket began to be televised live, and so I got into TV commentary. It gives me a close look at how the game is evolving and how the new stars are coming through and handling themselves with the change in rules and playing conditions. It also gives me a profile and recognition beyond my playing days which many of my former teammates don’t easily get.
Q. How has the game of cricket changed over the years in your view?
A. The game has become faster and more entertaining than before. I simply love the modern game. There are new strokes and new deliveries which make the game more exciting. The reverse sweep, the switch hit, the Dilscoop and the ramp shot add a new dimension to the game, just like the knuckle ball, the carton ball, the slow bouncer and the back of the hand slower deliveries have added to the armoury of the bowlers.
Q. Are there aspects of contemporary cricket that bother you? Do you think the attitudes and values that defined the game once are still intact?
A. It is a television game now, so players are more aware of that and often the ordinary is made to look extraordinary, especially while fielding. But I feel that the Indian team has never been as well-balanced as it is today, with some of the best batsmen and bowlers in the history of Indian cricket.
Q. Tell us about your initiative Bat for Life, with Heart to Heart Foundation.
A. H2H Foundation had launched “Freedom from CHD” initiative for spreading awareness and participation for free heart surgeries, starting with the multi-city tour titled “Bat-for-Life”. During the ten-city USA tour, donors who contributed for the surgeries, each costing approximately Rs 85,000 to Rs 3,00,000, received a personally autographed cricket bat. By contributing to a surgery, these generous souls are batting for the long life of a child.
Q. How are H2H and Sai Sanjeevani Hospitals helping to alleviate the problem of congenital heart disease in India?
A. The Sai Sanjeevani hospitals are doing free surgeries for children affected with Congenital Heart Defects. More than 10,000 surgeries have been performed so far and all of them totally free of cost. The parents of the child are accommodated at the hospital while the child is attended to. This is the first hospital chain where there is no billing counter. The hospitals have treated children from neighbouring countries too.
Q. What is your message with regard to this initiative?
A. The more people that come forward to help with the surgeries, the more lives can be saved. These tiny tots are waiting for their hearts to be healed. Paediatric cardiac treatment should be within the reach of every child and every parent, irrespective of their financial or social status.