Virat Kohli was at his imperious best in Guwahati against West Indies in the first ODI. He raced to his hundred without breaking a sweat. It was Kohli's 36th century in ODIs and 60th century overall.
He batted with such an ease that his fellow teammate, Yuzvendra Chahal felt as if it was a PS4 game. No doubt Kohli batted well and is a class player, but cricket has also got easier with time. The opposition was hopeless, pitch akin to the best friend of the batsman, and everything in a way as if the bat is destined to roll over the ball.
With time, pitches have turned flatter, world-class bowlers have become a rarity, and bats have evolved into wands. It's such an amalgamation that there are even fears about the possible replacement of bowlers with bowling machines. That wasn't the case when Sachin Tendulkar represented India. There were quality bowlers and difficulties for batsmen. Most Importantly, there was a proper balance between the bat and the ball.
But then there was a time when bowlers had the upper hand. The time when bowlers could send shivers down a batsman's spine and put fear into his heart. We are talking about the 1970s and 1980s. Don't believe me? Just Google Brian Close 1976 Test bruises.
But a little man from Mumbai with the most unlikely stature dug in against the deadliest of bowlers to hold the fort for India during those days. We are talking about the original little master, Sunil Manohar Gavaskar. He was the first to get 10,000 Test runs and 34 centuries. But his greatness lied beyond numbers.
Be it bowling quality, protective equipment, pitches, rules, everything was there to put batsmen on a knife's edge. Opening the batting on uncovered pitches was very difficult as the ball swung like a boomerang. As the pitches were left uncovered during the night, a lot of dew was collected on the pitch and it was like batting on the first day fresh pitch each morning. So, it had a lot of spice and roadblocks for batsmen.
In modern-day cricket, there is protective gear for almost each and every body part. Back in those days, there weren't even proper helmets. Nowadays, advanced head protection has wiped out fear of bouncers out of batsman's heart. Someone like Gavaskar had to wear caps/scarves to protect his head, which wasn't quite effective in preventing head injuries. Due to lack of helmets unlike in Sachin's era or these days – many batsmen were smashed in their skull, some had broken jaws, while some lost consciousness because of the thunderous impact with the ball. Also, there was a lack of proper padding in most of the protective gears. The bats weren’t also as huge. In those times, the middle of the lower half of the bat was the sweet spot, unlike today when there are many sweet spots. The bats have evolved a great deal with time.
Now, add to that the fact that bowlers could bowl unlimited bouncers. And the bowlers who played during Gavaskar's era were Roberts, Garner, Holding, Marshall, Lillee, Thompson, Hadlee, Snow, Willis, Imran Khan, and Sarfraz Nawaz. They are believed to be the greatest bunch of fast bowlers in the history of cricket. And Gavaskar batted at the most difficult position that was opening the batting when these bowlers hunted like predators who are fresh and thriving for blood.
Once Garry Sobers, who is considered to be the greatest all-rounder remarked "Gavaskar rated the greatest because of the bowling attacks that he came up against. At that time West Indies had a fast bowling attack that was unplayable; they had bowlers who used to bowl out teams in three days. Gavaskar played against those bowlers and he made a lot of runs. People make always make a lot of runs in their own country, under their own conditions, but if you look at Gavaskar's record, he made a lot of runs away from India; he made a lot of runs in England, a lot in the West Indies and Australia. He certainly came up as an opening batsman against the best of attacks like [Michael] Holding, [Joel] Garner, [Colin] Croft; you call them and he played against them."
West Indies' attack of the 1970s and 1980s is still remembered for its ruthlessness and intimidation. They are called the greatest, the toughest, the most feared pace battery in cricket's history. But the five feet five inches tall, Gavaskar conquered this huge mountain with a big heart. He aced the West Indies attack when others shivered even at the prospect of facing them. The resilient Gavaskar accumulated 2,749 runs in 27 Tests against West Indies at an average of 65.45. He scored 13 centuries and seven fifties.
Gavaskar is also a big figure in Indian cricket as he inspired a generation that also includes Sachin Tendulkar with his bull-headed confidence. He injected self-belief in the team that had low self-esteem. Indian batsmen were considered too meek to do well against hostile pacers. Sambit Bal of Espn Cricinfo has rightly said, "He earned respect for Indian cricket and he taught his team-mates the virtue of professionalism. The self-actualization of Indian cricket began under him."
The only thing that can be held against the genius of Gavaskar is his mediocre ODI record. But during his heydays, ODI cricket wasn't as prominent and Test cricket was the big thing, unlike Sachin or Kohli's times when different formats gained equal significance.
Things eased up for batsman with time. But Gavaskar had it the hard way. The fact that he was the first great batsman from the country also makes his contribution a whole lot more special. No doubt that Sachin and Kohli have been great, but there would be no one quite like Sunil Manohar Gavaskar.