India's milestone obsession: Gavaskar's gift or curse?

In our heart of hearts, does India cheer louder for a batsman who gets 100 than for one who gets 90?

Don’t we tell ourselves, ‘It would have been so much more special if he had got a hundred?’

Don’t the commentators wax eloquent about how it’s okay for a batsmen to slow down with a hundred in sight because ‘he deserves it’ and don’t most of us nod in agreement?

Is there greater merit in owning a record than in winning a match? Is individual world-beating genius preferred ahead of a team triumph?

We want our heroes to be larger than life, we want them to hold records – batting records, bowling records, captaincy records; records that establish them as champions; as Indians who have stood at the top of the world.

While Gavaskar was scoring centuries and piling up the runs on the cricket field, a whole new generation was watching and reading about his exploits. Getty Images

In some books, records are mere numbers. Their importance is carefully balanced with results. But in the books of most Indians of this generation, records make the man and not the other way round. If you don’t have a record – you are not worthy of playing for India.

Even now, we curse Tendulkar, want him to quickly get his century and perhaps even retire. But every time he comes out to bat, we are glued to our television sets, computers, mobiles and whatever other way we have to follow his progress. A record 100th ton would re-establish him in our eyes again; would once again re-affirm his status as the world’s best.

But at what point did India’s obsession boil over? What was the tipping point?

Madhav Apte, who played for India in the 1950s with the likes of Vijay Manjrekar and Polly Umrigar, recalls an era when the most Indians would hope for in a match was a good knock.

“We would enter the match not looking to beat Don Bradman or anything like that. The records were the last things on our mind. We wanted to give a good account of ourselves. At the most, we hoped to score a century or a double century if it was really good. That was the ceiling of our imagination,” said Apte.

Of course, this wasn’t because India didn’t have good batsmen then. Vijay Merchant, Vijay Manjrekar, Polly Umrigar, Vinoo Mankad were all there and they were all very fine batsmen – still regarded as some of the finest India has ever produced.

In fact by the end of his career, Umrigar owned all the important Indian records -- most Tests, most runs, most hundreds. And given that his records stood firm for 16 years (1962 to 1978) before Sunil Gavaskar broke them, it showed how far ahead he was of the rest of the Indian batsmen.

“Even with Polly – he wasn’t going into the middle trying to smash records. He was good; as good as any other batsman in the world but it wasn’t enough. All mentions of world records then began and ended with Bradman. Such was his aura. The numbers that are being put up now are ones that we couldn’t even dream of. A 100 hundreds is… unimaginable,” Apte added.

Bishen Singh Bedi, who was India’s leading wicket-taker with 266 Test wickets, remembers how cricket was truly a game then.

“We played because we loved the sport. Yes, the wicket was welcome but I guess we lived for simpler joys – beating the batsman in flight, getting to play a false shot or beating him with the arm ball. The record was a number; just a number to me. Actually, I wasn’t even aware of it till someone told me,” said Bedi.

“But I guess international cricket has changed. I guess Indians have changed too. We want to be the best and we take a certain pride out of it.”

Umrigar’s career runs tally was 3631 runs. And it took Gavaskar seven years to go past him but the true awakening only came on November 13, 1983 when he surpassed Geoff Boycott’s tally of 8,114 runs to become the leading scorer in Test cricket.

Milind Rege, Gavaskar’s close friend who played with him at school, college and Ranji level and is currently Mumbai’s chief selectors, believes that India’s love of records all started with Gavaskar.

“Before Gavaskar came along and broke those records, all we wanted to do was play for India. Beyond that, we didn’t really have any aspirations. We didn’t but Sunil did. He wanted to break those records and he was driven by them. It was an important part of his make-up,” said Rege.

“He wanted the world to say ‘an Indian did it.’ And he realised that that only way to do that was to do it himself,” Rege added.

Somewhere along the path, the pride that India experienced from Gavaskar’s exploits became an obsession.

Mohinder Amarnath, who is now part of India’s selection panel, once said: “You cannot compare Sunny with anyone. For him batting was everything. He didn’t want to fail or throw away his wicket. He had perfect technique, perfect temperament.”

Perfect. And in batting terms, for most Indians that means a century.

India demands that very quality from its cricketers. Any less and they face a barrage of criticism. But somewhere they don’t mind because they are competing to be the best in the world -- subconsciously paying homage to Gavaskar’s path.

While Gavaskar was scoring centuries and piling up the runs on the cricket field, a whole new generation was watching and reading about his exploits. They grew up wanting to not be just good; wanting to be the best in the world; wanting to be record-holders; wanting to break new ground and go places that others dreamed of.

So when Tendulkar comes out wanting to get his 100th ton – India, despite all the criticism, still eggs him on because it would be another reason to be proud; another reason to say, ‘an Indian did it.’

Updated Date: Feb 16, 2012 18:37 PM

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