Sunil Gavaskar: Cricket's original brand icon

By Shyam Balasubramanian and Vijay Santhanam

Editor's note: Sports marketing has exploded into a booming business. Cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are the face of everything from sodas to cars. But before all of them, there was Sunil Gavaskar. He launched Sunil Gavaskar Presents on television, he lent his face to products like Palmolive shaving cream, he even acted (abominably) in films. But he still was a man before his time argues ShyamBalasubramanian and Vijay Santhanam in their book The Business of Cricket: The Story of Sports Marketing in India published by Harper Collins India. Here is an excerpt from their book.

As Sunil Gavaskar was perfecting his square drive, Palmolive was perfecting his shaving.

The first time I (Shyam) heard these words was in 1974, at an air-conditioned theatre in Churchgate, when Bombay was Bombay and not Mumbai. These words were a part of a Palmolive advertisement. The reigning icon and probably the originator of sports marketing in India in its truest and most commercial sense, Sunil Gavaskar, was on the screen, shaving with Palmolive, and with each stroke of the razor, a field, a patch of the green cricket pitch, would appear on his face. These fields were a far cry from the dust bowls of the Cross Maidan and Azad Maidan we were so used to. He would lean into his perfect square drive with a stance to die for.

The film would invariably be a let-down after that...

Indian cricketer Sunil Gavaskar in action batting. Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

Sunil Gavaskar in action batting. Evening Standard/Getty Images

Not just cricket

During the period 1974-82, sport in India was not just about cricket. Cricket was a leading sport but hockey was also a national passion, with India-Pakistan matches beingmust-watch games. Wrestling also had an appeal, with Dara Singh being a big draw. Badminton captured the headlines of newspapers as well, with Prakash Padukone winning a number of titles in the 1978-81 period, including the All England title in 1980. Vijay Amritraj rose as an exciting men's singles prospect and was billed as the 'A' in ABC(Amritraj-Borg-Connors) the three rising stars in men's tennis in the 1970s. Michael Ferreira also won a number of international billiards titles in the 1977-81 period. With the advent of black-and-white television in the mid-1970s came the obligatory advertisements. Nearly three decades on, I can recall almost word-for-word the Complan endorsement for 'Swimmers, athletes and particularly, growing children' - starring a now has-been Australian swimming coach - a sign that sport in India was not synonymous with cricket.

At that time, sport was great as a hobby, but not a feasible career option. There were horror stories of former greats who now lived in poverty or had turned to alcohol for solace, quite like the stories that emanate from the West Indies these days.

Then something happened that added a couple of zeroes to the sponsorship of cricket in India, taking it from thousands to lakhs - India won the cricket World Cup in 1983.

After the World Cup win, the commercial importance of cricket shot up. The players who won the World Cup had hit the jackpot. There were umpteen celebrations. A less-than melodious song, 'Bharath Vishwa Vijeyta,' was released in which Lata Mangeshkar had to sing better than usual to cover up for Yashpal Sharma.

The rise of sports marketing

In the aftermath of this victory, three other factors got the sports marketing phenomenon snowballing in India.

First, the Indian cricket team won another major ODItournament, the Benson and Hedges World Championship Cup in Australia in 1985, which was to be a precursor to the current ICC Champions Trophy.

Second, the market partially liberalised, with joint ventures between Indian and foreign companies being permitted, leading to strange sounding dual brands like Hero Hondaand BPL Sanyo. This further led to an infusion of new brands seeking to grow fast.

Third, the media market exploded with family soaps like Hum Log and Buniyaad. Ramanand Sagar's Ramayan would give it a further boost.

Though India could not sustain its performance on the cricket field, TV media and international brands seeking to make up for lost time would become a potent combination to drive money into sports marketing. The sports market skewedtowards younger players, and players like Kapil Dev and Ravi Shastri benefited from this. Ravi Shastri became the Thums Up face of the new generation. Kapil's 'Palmolive da jawab nahin' ad is now more remembered compared to Gavaskar's original advertisement, simply because of the impact and reach of television compared to cinema. But Gavaskar, the original sports celebrity, perhaps ruing that he was born five years tooearly, would benefit too.

Even before the World Cup win, Gavaskar understood the commercial potential of cricket at a very deep level. He was a unique phenomenon in India: a batsman-cum-entrepreneur. In the US, such entrepreneurship would be celebrated, in India it was frowned upon. Before Gavaskar, there was Farokh Engineer, the 'Brylcreem boy', and C.K. Nayudu for 'Indian Tea', sans the razor-sharp business and entrepreneurialattitude that Gavaskar brought to sports marketing...

Continue reading on the excerpt on the next page

Audio extra:

How is the business of cricket faring these days after India's World Cup win? Could the IPL sans Lalit Modi live up to that high? We know what the three greats Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar mean for cricket. But what do they mean for the business of cricket? And if cricket is now big business what is it going to mean for us, the fans aka the consumers? Are we doomed to watch more ads interrupting our matches on television?'s Samanth Subramanian chatted with Shyam Balasubramanian and Vijay Santhanam about their book The Business of Cricket.

The little master

The journey of Sunil Gavaskar from sportsman to sports entrepreneur is a fascinating one.

It all began with one thing: performance.

In his first series in 1971, in the West Indies, Sunil Gavaskar scored 774 runs in four Tests at an average of 154.80 in what was India's first series win there. This was to be followed later in the year by a series win in England, where even though hisown performance was less spectacular, Gavaskar was to be associated with one of the greatest winning phases of Indian cricket. It was also important that he was a batsman, for traditionally, batsmen tend to get sponsorships more easily than bowlers. Even among bowlers, fast bowlers tend to do better than spinners, a trend peculiar to India. For a spinner to be a 'money-spinner', he needs to be a great entertainer and crowd-puller like Harbhajan Singh or Shane Warne.

Just as Gavaskar continued to perform in a team that lost many matches after 1971, hockey player Mohammad Shahid was an otherworldly talent in a team that suffered bruising losses despite winning an Olympic gold. His stickwork was so mesmerising that fans used to ask him if they could kiss his hands after a game! Shahid could have been a great sports marketing property, but he was in the wrong team and in the wrong game. Hockey also lacked an industry creator like Gavaskar.

Gavaskar: The angry young man of cricket

There was one more reason Gavaskar captured the nation's imagination.

The 1970s was the era of the angry young man, with widespread frustration over the high unemployment rate, among other things. What the original angry young man,Amitabh Bachchan, was to Hindi cinema, Gavaskar was to cricket. He was the lone anti-establishment figure, irreverent and uncompromising, fighting to the last. His image was well-suited to the national mood of the times, when the country was looking to these anti-hero figures for some sort of respite.

Even today, Gavaskar, though now a part of the establishment, at times lets down his guard and one can see the man of steel within. To that extent he is similar to Pakistan's Imran Khan or Sri Lanka's Arjuna Ranatunga, who were their respective nation's anti-establishment figures. Gavaskar's cricket philosophy and his approach in commercial matters coincides. He has often maintained a nationalist, exclusivist stance.

In an emerging market like India, a nationalist view of a sport can be limiting. For the sports market in India to grow, it cannot just be about Indian cricketers, it must make room for international cricketers and international sports like football and basketball. Non-players have as much a role to play in sports as players do, though more off-field than on. Peter Ueberroth, former chairman of the United States Olympic Committee, proved this by organising a profitable Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984 - the first of its kind, and at a time when the term 'profitable Olympics' was an oxymoron. His Indian equivalent, Lalit Modi is also a non-player. While he finds himself in a tough position at present, it was he and not a former player who created, virtually single-handedly, thehighly successful IPL.

There is less to be angry about, and more to celebrate in terms of India's rising cricket rankings and commercial relevance (over 70 per cent of cricket's revenues now comefrom India2). A broader approach is needed to keep the bandwagon rolling, which means paying the best talents the most money, irrespective of which country they belongto. A more inclusive approach must be followed to cash in on the true potential of the sports market in India. It is not enough to create wealth, it must be shared with othercricketing establishments, to facilitate an overall growth. For instance, the West Indies has given much to cricket by way of entertainment. If a small share of the TV revenues in India goes to reviving cricket in the West Indies, it is an investment in the future of cricket itself. This, of course, is based on the premise that the viewer will, sooner or later tire of watching India play Sri Lanka.

While Gavaskar drew his sustenance from Tests, in the 1980s One-day internationals would prove a bigger draw, and another player was ready to grab that opportunity. Hisname: Kapil Dev.

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 03:55 AM

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