On 17 October 2008 in Mohali against Australia, Sachin Tendulkar broke Brian Lara’s record to become the highest run scorer in Test cricket and the first to cross 12,000 runs. Tendulkar had promised me an interview to mark the momentous occasion. We had also contracted Gavaskar for expert comments on the series. Which is how one evening during the Mohali Test I came close to achieving cricket nirvana as Gavaskar and Tendulkar sat down together to talk cricket: Gavaskar dressed in a traditional collared shirt, Tendulkar in a more casual polo-neck T-shirt, their sartorial differences reflecting the generational shift.
Gavaskar and Tendulkar, two short men with tall achievements: 85 Test hundreds between them, and more than 26,000 Test runs. They are the twin towers of Indian batting, one is the classicist, the other the more versatile; both all-time greats. More than the sheer volume of runs, it is what they represented to two generations of Indian cricket fans that sets them apart: if Gavaskar gave Indian cricket dignity and self-respect, Tendulkar brought energy and excitement. When Gavaskar first saw Tendulkar bat, he immediately rang up his wife to say he had seen something ‘special’. When Tendulkar was growing up, Gavaskar was a role model along with the West Indian Sir Vivian Richards. ‘I was a huge fan of Sir Viv but Gavaskar’s 10,000 runs and 34 centuries was always the benchmark for cricket greatness,’ says Tendulkar. ‘It wasn’t a conscious target but I guess it was always there somewhere at the back of the mind.’
Tendulkar eventually went past Gavaskar’s records but a pure statistical comparison isn’t easy. They both averaged more than 50 in Test cricket, but Gavaskar was an opening batsman, Tendulkar played at number four. One was nurtured in the pre-helmet era, the other had the benefit of batting with a helmet. Gavaskar played for a long time with the knowledge that the entire Indian batting performance was dependent on him while Tendulkar had the benefit in the latter half of his career of being part of a rare assemblage of Indian batting stars from Sehwag to Dravid to Laxman in one team. Gavaskar was reared in an age where there was a premium on defensive batting; the Tendulkar period saw a transition to the more attacking game. Gavaskar scored only one limited overs international century whereas Tendulkar hit an incredible 49 one-day centuries. Like all great players, they could adapt to any situation. Tendulkar once batted with grim determination for more than 600 minutes to make an unbeaten double century against Australia at Sydney in 2004 without hitting a single off-drive in anger. Meanwhile, Gavaskar changed gears on his way to a double century at the Oval in 1979, attacking the English bowling and taking India close to an incredible last day win.
Tendulkar played almost 1500 days of international cricket in a career spanning twenty-four years; Gavaskar played less than half that number over sixteen years. Both were outstanding performers against the top sides of their generation: Gavaskar scored a staggering 13 Test centuries against the fearsome West Indian pace attack, arguably the most hostile the game has ever seen, while Tendulkar scored 11 hundreds against Australia, the premier team of his era. Gavaskar’s average in the fourth innings of a Test match is much higher than Tendulkar’s, suggesting that he had a superior technique in match-saving situations but he also had a lower strike rate, making Tendulkar potentially the match-winning batsman.
Both had very distinctive batting styles: Gavaskar more upright in stance, using a much lighter bat, feet closer together with a slight shuffle before the bowler delivered, while Tendulkar, with the heavier bat and unconventional bottom hand grip, crouched a little more and the feet were wider apart. Gavaskar was probably the better cutter, Tendulkar the more effective puller; a signature Tendulkar back foot cover drive was as delightful to watch as a Gavaskar late cut. Both were masters of the straight drive, the leg-side flick and judging a single. Indeed, the precision of their movements, the stillness of the head, the straightness of their bat and, above all else, the fierce determination and hunger for runs were a common thread: Gavaskar had simply passed the baton to Tendulkar just as a previous generation had relayed the torch to him. ‘I remember when Gavaskar gifted his pads to me, I slept with them next to me because it was like a piece of priceless treasure for me,’ recalls Tendulkar.
At the turn of the century, Tendulkar received the ultimate compliment when the Australian batting legend Sir Don Bradman, widely regarded as the greatest-ever batsman, claimed to have seen distinct similarities between Tendulkar’s compact, aggressive batting style and his own. I interviewed Tendulkar a few months after the Bradman comment and he was clearly overwhelmed by the comparison. ‘I don’t think I can ask for more as a batsman, can I?’ he said proudly. In 2001, Bradman’s own greatest all-time eleven selection saw Tendulkar figure as the only Indian in the side but the fact that there were as many as seven Australians in Bradman’s team suggests that cricket selections are often dictated by parochialism.
For a more nuanced assessment of their art of batting, I turned to Rege, the veteran Mumbai cricketer who played with Gavaskar right from their schooldays together and was one of the first to spot Tendulkar’s talent. ‘Very difficult to compare the two greats from different generations,’ he says. ‘But what I will say is that Tendulkar was a prodigy, Sunil was not. Gavaskar worked at his game and through amazing powers of concentration became an all-time great while Tendulkar was already a finished product by the time he was fifteen. Gavaskar never gave you a chance once he was set while Sachin was always looking to attack and so was more fallible. In a sense, Sachin was more like Viv Richards in his desire to dominate the bowling while Gavaskar was the traditional error-free opening batsman.’ So who would you like in your team, I ask Rege. ‘Can’t I have both?’ He winks, adding, ‘Let me put it this way, I would love to have Sachin in my team but I would hate to have Gavaskar in the opposition.’
Kapil Dev who bowled to both says that Gavaskar was the more difficult to get out but Tendulkar was the more talented. ‘Gavaskar would always hit the bad ball for four, but with Sachin, he could even hit the good deliveries for a boundary,’ says Kapil. India’s premier all-rounder believes Tendulkar should actually have scored even more runs than he eventually did. ‘With his skills, he should have actually scored triple centuries and quadruple centuries in Test cricket, Sachin was that good,’ Kapil argues. That Tendulkar’s highest Test score is 248 not out against Bangladesh is perhaps a slight statistical blip, especially when you consider that a contemporary like Virender Sehwag hit two Test triple hundreds. It perhaps suggests a mindset that was risk-averse even when the opposition bowlers had tired and wilted. When I ask Tendulkar to respond, he smiles. ‘You can’t have everything in life, but nearly 16,000 Test runs isn’t too bad, is it?’
Gavaskar has a better captaincy record but then Tendulkar, one could argue, didn’t get enough opportunities to lead the team in more familiar home conditions. ‘Yes, not getting to captain a successful side is a big regret,’ he once told me. The more articulate and cerebral Gavaskar has spoken out in public on cricket issues far more often than the more introverted and diplomatic Tendulkar, who has never expressed himself strongly on even, say, the match-fixing controversy. ‘I have spoken when I needed to but I don’t believe in loose talk based on allegations,’ he tells me.
During the joint interview in Mohali when I asked Gavaskar and Tendulkar who was the better player, each pointed immediately to the other. ‘I would go miles to watch Tendulkar bat but am not sure I would do that for me,’ said Gavaskar self-deprecatingly. He said Tendulkar’s ‘balance’ was a true measure of his success, ‘balance on the field, balance in life’. Tendulkar said Gavaskar’s professional work ethic was inspirational for his generation.
The mutual respect, in a sense, is reflective of a similar Maharashtrian middle-class background, of being part of a shared heritage of Mumbai cricket that was nurtured on the city’s maidans and toughened by the crowded bus and train rides to matches. Gavaskar started playing in the narrow lane of a crowded colony in south-central Mumbai where the focus was on keeping the ball along the ground so that no windowpanes were broken. In the leafy Sahitya Sahawas colony in suburban Mumbai, Tendulkar had a little more freedom: you could actually hit a lofted shot, strike a tree and still not be out, which might explain his more effervescent strokeplay.
Perhaps one way to contrast Gavaskar and Tendulkar is to view them as pre- and post-liberalization batting heroes. Gavaskar grew up in 1960s India when the country was still unsure of its place in the world. His debut series in 1971, as mentioned in an earlier chapter, was a breakout year, one that instilled hope in the future of Indian cricket. But through much of Gavaskar’s career, India was growing at a slow ‘Hindu’ rate of growth and cricket mirrored the frugal times: this was not an India that allowed for extravagance. By the time Tendulkar made his mark on the game, India was a nation on the move: the 1991 opening up of the economy was seen as unshackling the ‘animal spirit’ of Indian entrepreneurship. Tendulkar’s batting epitomized this spirit of greater freedom and risk-taking.
That they both come from Mumbai only shows how the city has been at the heart of Indian batting for the greater part of the first sixty years after Independence. However, there have been distinct signs in the past decade that show the glory days of Mumbai cricket are over as other regions of the country throw up their own heroes. (In 2016, the first Test played at Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium after Tendulkar’s retirement didn’t have a single player from Mumbai.) But the reverence for the Gavaskar–Tendulkar batting legacy is unshaken in India’s original cricket capital. For my generation, Gavaskar was a cricketing God. For the 1990s generation, it is Tendulkar. The Siddhivinayak temple in the heart of Mumbai attracts lakhs of devotees, as does the Haji Ali dargah. Different religious groups come to worship here. But in cricket, there is no religious barrier when celebrating our divinities – in Mumbai, we venerate Gavaskar and Tendulkar with equal fervour.