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From the archive: Gavaskar, my hero, now adorns a sideshow

Sitting in the Jet Lounge at New Delhi airport – fatigue and fantasy fill my mind and soul. Suddenly, my eye is caught by the sight of a short, sturdy man being brought into a television studio by a scantily clad young lady – as the band blared and the host hunched, I suddenly recognized the man.

He was, and always will be, the pioneer of modern Indian cricket – at a time when fast-bowling was a rakhshas, he not only stood up to it like Ram, he smote it like Hanuman.

He was our aspiration, our messenger, our hope long before India ever ‘shone’ or was branded ‘incredible’ – we followed his heroics by radio and read word; through dreams and dread, and suddenly fulfilled expectations. He strode the world as we wished we could – he was our man, our India, in a time when mail was with a postage stamp and phone calls were booked on trunks and tickets for flight or movie or train or tram were purchased face to face, and conversations were alive with hand gestures and shared cups of tea and the scent of the other and the sense of the other and no machine between us.

O Sunil, what are you doing? AFP

O Sunil, what are you doing? AFP

He played cricket with a correct boldness; he was technique and temper, stern elegance; he defended as if the past and present and future of not only cricket but the whole country rested on the broad blade of his bat – he glided the ball to leg with the precision of an artist, and he straight-drove with the assertive dexterity of a mathematical poet.

He wore white, and no helmet – he scored 34 centuries in Tests, when a century was a battle, not a personal statement.

He captained with a fierce obsession – as the years took their toll, he struggled and then fought back, and retired when he was still a champion.

He took Indian cricket to the world, and brought the world to Indian cricket – in the first one and a half years of his career, he was the inspiration behind victories away in the West Indies and England, and at home against England – Test victories – victories of the spirit and the will and the soul.

Hot, sweaty testing victories – and he was always there, short and stocky, determined as the rock is to become a wall.

And now I see him escorted into a television study, decorated with the fake ribbons of a game which he graced and made his own.

Forced to make glib chat with people whose knowledge of his sport would have been a deep insult to him in his playing days.

Forced to make an entry to the sound of a blaring band and blaring words.

While cricket; his cricket; our cricket – is reduced to a sideshow of a sideshow.

And yet he plays along – trying, somehow, to maintain some little dignity amongst the crass glitter.

Sunil Gavaskar – did he have to? Sunil, did you have to?

I first heard his name at the ‘tuck shop’ of my old school in Mussoorie in late ’70 – spoken of in hushed tones by our school cricketing hero.

And now he adorns a sideshow.

The ‘tuck shop’ is gone.

The schoolboy cricketing hero is a businessman in Delhi.

But Sunil Gavaskar will always be, for me, the pioneer – who led us out of the backwaters of international cricket out onto the beachhead of honour and success.

No sideshow can capture him – even if he allows it to.

I turn away from the television, and tears of both gratitude and sorrow fill my tired eyes...