25 January 2020 08:22 AM



Gavaskar’s Love-Hate Relationship With Eden Gardens


Cricketers have a love hate relationship with their millions of fans or the thousands of spectators who throng the stadium. It could depend on what they are able to achieve on the field but of course it has also got something to do with their off field activities.

A good or bad performance on the field is one thing and having a squeaky clean image or being controversial is quite another. And among Indian crowds the one at the Eden Gardens is the most vociferous and emotional. Every cricketer would want to have the Kolkata crowd behind him for he certainly would not want spectators numbering nearly 100,000 baying for his blood.

One recalls how the cricket loving public of Kolkata (then Calcutta) carried slogans and shouted ``We want Mushtaq – No Mushtaq no Test’’ when opening batsmen Mushtaq Ali had been controversially omitted from the Indian team to play the second `Test’ against the Australian Services team led by Lindsay Hassett in 1945. Their protest had its effect for Mushtaq a swashbuckling batsman and very popular wherever he played was reinstated in the team.

Among modern greats no cricketer has experienced the love hate relationship of spectators at the Eden Gardens more intensely than Sunil Gavaskar. He played his first Test there against England in 1972-73 and at the end of the match had nothing but praise for the crowd. India won a thrilling low scoring match by 28 runs and the enthusiasm of the spectators knew no bounds.

Gavaskar himself aptly catches the mood in ``Sunny days’’ where he notes: ``As we sprinted to the pavilion we were engulfed by the crowd which was delirious with joy. Some hoisted us on their shoulders. Long after the game was over huge crowds were waiting outside our hotel to catch a glimpse of the players. Calcutta crowds are terrific and the players are treated like heroes. True, the enthusiasm can be a little too much but it is well meant. The enthusiasm of the Calcutta crowd is terrific and I for one would rather play before a Calcutta crowd than at Lord’s where the applause is strictly limited to three or four claps.’’

Gavaskar himself did not get too many runs in that Test and did not add much to his Test tally at the Eden Gardens when he played his next match there again against England four years later. But his fortunes took an upturn thereafter. In 1978-79 by now captain he got a hundred in each innings against West Indies, becoming the first batsman to achieve this feat three times in Test cricket. Modest scores followed in the two Tests played at the venue the following season against Australia and Pakistan.

But by now he was the greatest figure in Indian cricket and so enjoyed a good deal of popularity with the spectators. Scores of 42 and 83 not out against England in 1981-82 did nothing to diminish his popularity and the crowds cheered him on the eve of his next Test there against West Indies two years later.

It was now that things turned against Gavaskar. First, he was out to the very first ball of the match. Then after India finished 136 runs in arrears he was out for 20 the second time around slashing outside the off stump and being caught by the wicket keeper. There was a cavalier approach to his batting during the innings and the crowd obviously felt that he should have batted with more responsibility given the grim situation India were in. By stumps on the third day India at 36 for five were hurtling towards an innings defeat. The formalities were over and done with on the fourth morning after the rest day with India shot out for 90 and losing by an innings and 46 runs.

The scene at the Eden Gardens now turned positively ugly. It was not just the manner in which the Indians went down without a fight that saw the crowds turn hostile to the team. It must not be forgotten that India had won the World Cup in England about six months before and so the disappointment was huge. To see their team lose the six-Test series 3-0 with one more match to be played was more than they could bear and the jeering was loud and long.

A section of the spectators turned violent and threw fruit, stones and bottles. As the players were leaving they attacked the team bus and broke some of the windows with the result that a couple of players suffered injuries. Armed police had to protect the team from the 85,000 strong crowd and it was with great difficulty that the bus was escorted from the stadium to the hotel.

The anger of the fans was directed towards the entire team but Gavaskar had to bear the brunt it appeared. He was singled out for ``special treatment’’ but took in his stride fully aware that being treated as heroes and villains is part of the game. What he could not stand was fruit and rubbish being thrown at his wife when she was being interviewed on television along with Clive Lloyd’s wife. He left Calcutta angry and hurt and letters from some cricket fans apologizing for their behavior were little more than crumbs of comfort.

The following year in the Test against England he was back as captain but this time he was a villain even before he took the field. Kapil Dev had been dropped from the Test squad ostensibly because of a rash stroke he played in the previous game at Delhi which India had lost quite unexpectedly. It was the selection committee that took the decision but cricket followers in Calcutta could only see Gavaskar’s hand in the sacking. He became an instant villain and was booed, subjected to indecent language and the final indignity came in the form of fruit and rubbish thrown at him. The crowd had not taken kindly to Gavaskar depriving them of the pleasure of watching the country’s leading all rounder in action as they were convinced.

Then Gavaskar in a perverse action continued the Indian innings till after lunch on the fourth day after rain had restricted play on the second day to only about 20 minutes. His action was seen as a possible retaliation against the Calcutta crowd for the indignities he and his wife had to endure the previous year. Finally he declared the innings closed after it was reported that police officials had warned Gavaskar that there would be a serious law and order situation if he did not.

In February 1987 came the final chapter of this love hate relationship. In a sensational development Gavaskar citing ``personal reasons’’ withdrew from the Indian team to play Pakistan in the second Test at the Eden Gardens after playing in the first Test at Madras. Obviously it was in protest at the treatment he had received from the spectators and his decision met with mixed reactions. Gavaskar however had made his point and as luck would have it played no more international cricket at the hallowed venue. There was a lot of speculation whether he would play the World Cup final in November 1987 but even this was automatically ruled out when India unexpectedly went down to England in the semifinal at Bombay.

Over the last 30 years Gavaskar has been received with due respect whenever he has visited Calcutta either in a personal capacity, for an official function or when he is at the Eden Gardens commenting on the matches. Time as they say is a great healer.