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By Sunil Gavaskar
With the New Zealand team in India to play three Tests and a five-match one-day series, it is a good time to reflect on what was the lowest point in my cricketing career. It was also the most uplifting, for, at the end, it changed my attitude and approach to the game and it once again became a sport and not a job for me.
In 1980-81, India went on a tour of Australia and New Zealand followed by a quick trip to Fiji. It was a tour that I really looked forward to since I thought that we had a very balanced team with some top-class and pretty experienced batsmen and an attack that had the capability of taking wickets in all conditions. Above all, we had Kapil Dev, who by then, had become the world’s premier all-rounder and his head-to-head with Richard Hadlee was going to be the key to the series in New Zealand.
The series against Australia had been built up as a Lillee versus Gavaskar series, so there was some pressure to say the least. Though we started the tour very well by winning the first one-dayer at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the tour personally started to slide for me. In those days, the one-dayers and Tests were mixed up since the New Zealand team also was in Australia, so we often had to switch from the one-day format to the Test format and then back to the one-day format. I remember going on the tour with a walking stick as a style statement. I had on a previous tour to the Caribbean been fascinated watching ‘King Dyal’, the West Indian supporter walk in to watch the Test in Barbados with a new coloured suit every day and along with the top hat, he also carried a walking stick which looked really elegant.
When we met Sir Don Bradman he inquired if I was carrying the stick because I had had a knee surgery. When I told him that it was just for kicks, he laughed and said that he hoped that I did not bat like an old man on the tour. That is exactly what happened and by the time the stick was conveniently forgotten in a hotel room, the early tour form [two centuries against the state teams] had deserted me totally and I was indeed batting like an old man. The tour of New Zealand was no different and like in the three- Test series against Australia, I got just one half-century in it. It truly was a low point in my career.
From 1974 till then, I did not have a century-less series and so this slump left me very depressed and for some strange reason also worried whether my friends would remain with me. So it was with some doubt and trepidation that I returned home. Most flights landed in the early hours of the day and I tried to catch up on my sleep during the day. As the evening came on, so did all my friends. Everybody was there and it was a great evening with hardly any cricket talk but plenty of leg-pulling and catching up on with what had happened in India while we were on tour. I woke up the next day with the realisation that to my family and friends it did not matter if I had got heaps of runs or not and they would be with me through thick and thin. It was such a liberating emotion that it totally changed my outlook towards the game.
I was so obsessed with doing well that I wasn’t really enjoying the game anymore. In order to be successful, I cut off lots of risky shots from my batting or was extremely selective when I played them.
After that wonderful evening, I simply loosened up as a person and as a cricketer. Gone was the obsession to be successful and instead there was renewed desire to start enjoying the game. I brought back many of the shots I had put in the cold storage and actually started enjoying batting.
Of course, the more shots you play, the more chances of you getting out and that’s what happened. The consistency before 1980 was gone (just 14 centuries in the next 75 Tests compared to 20 in the first 50 Tests) but God, how much I enjoyed batting after that! All those friends who matter are still there and some new ones too. Some have gone to meet the almighty and what it has taught me is, that no matter what the world thinks, if your family and friends and fans are with you then, you have the best possessions in the world and your greatest wealth is the spontaneous affection of people many of whom you may never meet in your life.
There will always be those who will find fault in everything you do, and there will also be those who will never feel that you are in the wrong.
Last week, I returned from Down Under after being the first overseas cricketer to be inducted in the Bradman International Hall of Fame and was basking in the warmth of the congratulatory messages I was getting. The next day however a campaign to malign me seemed to have been started with anonymous sources saying ridiculously untrue things. My family, friends and fans are with me again as they know that I haven’t done anything wrong.
I have always preferred to play with a straight bat but maybe like in the modern game, I may have to use a cross bat too to counter this unfair bowling. The ‘alleged’ bowlers and their fielders better watch out.