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July 10, 1999


The Rediff Special /Celebrating Sunil Gavaskar

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'What does one give the man who has everything?'

Milind Rege

Milind Rege What can I say about Sunil? The world's best batsman, or the world's best opener?

To me, Sunil Gavaskar is the same old guy I know for the past 45-odd years. I'm past 50 myself, and I'm really glad to see Sunil passing his fiftieth birthday on the tenth of this month.

For the world, he is a legendary personality but for me he still remains the buddy who calls me every single day when he's in town.

I've known him ever since he was 3 years old. We were neighbours in Bhagirathi Building, which is opposite Bhatia Hospital near Tardeo. We went together to kindergarten school, and it intrigues me no end why, amongst all the group of kids who stayed in the 4-building compound, only he and I stuck together.

Maybe we were destined to be friends -- special friends. And when you are friends with someone for almost half a century it can only be termed as special.

Incidentally, we went to the same school -- St. Xaviers High School at Dhobi Talao. We joined Xaviers in 1955, and by the time we passed out in 1966 I was almost certain that a great player had arrived.

We had a pretty ordinary, middle class childhood, which was higlighted by the values that Sunil's mom inculcated in us. She taught us the value of ethics and honesty. She taught us the need to respect our elders, which Sunil and I to date follow.

Sunil's uncle, Madhav Mantri, was in fact responsible for drawing us towards the game. During those days, cricket or for that matter any other sport was strictly meant for recreational purposes alone. Considering taking up the game professionally would have evoked laughter in those days.

I remember accompanying his uncle, Madhav Mantri, to watch ACC (Associated Cement Club) play their matches. We, Sunil and I, played together for Dadar Union and scored runs by the tons. The Tendulkars and Kamblis had lots of high scoring partnerships but I remember Sunil and I scored heavily too, maybe even more than what these guys have scored.

I still remember the first cricket match we played on half-matting in the fifth standard, an inter-class game. We never looked back after that.

Father Fritz, our principal at that time, had no clue about the game though he went out of his way to encourage us to be sportslovers.

I would reckon that the most inspiring moment for both of us was when St Xaviers won the Harris Shield for the first and only time in 1959-'60, beating J D Bharda in the finals. Vinay Choudhary, our idol and hero, was the captain of that victorious side. I can clearly remember Vinay and Bashir Pakza, who was a fast bowler. We were absolutely in awe of these guys all through our school days.

We finally got a chance to represent the senior team and play alongside our idols. We were five years their junior then. Sunil batted at 10 and I batted at 11.

By the way, cricket wasn't the only sport we excelled at. Both represented the school in the table tennis tournament. We took a game off junior national champion, Dilip Lakhane, who is now Sunil's chartered accountant.

Sunil was a very stubborn kid and he hated to be cheated. When we played cricket in our compound at Bagirathi Building I would bat for about half an hour and one can understand how frustrating that must have been for everyone fielding. When it would be Sunil's turn to bat, he would get stuck to the crease and bat on for almost an hour and a half. We used to rile him about it and con him into giving his wicket away.

Even in those days, I noticed that he had the makings of a great batsman. Even then he knew exactly where his off-stump was, as he left all those deliveries outside the off -- of course, in those days, there was no 'stump', just three chalk lines drawn on the garage gate.

We would always cheat him out. He would grab his bat and ball and walk away, fuming. Sunil always hated to be wronged and till date, he has that quality in him.

A funny incident comes to mind as I think of our college days. Being movie freaks, we always found ourselves at Metro Talkies, which was about 5 minutes from our college, St Xaviers. Sunil used to be a very stingy guy while in college, and we thought of playing a prank on him that day. We all entered the theatre asking him to pay for our tickets and assured him that we would pay him once inside the theatre.

Well, it's pretty obvious what happened next -- we didn't pay, and our little man walked away in a huff. On our way back home, he decided to get back at me and while I was to get down at Grant Road Station (Sunil had shifted to Shivaji Park by then), Sunil caught hold of my shirt and did not let me alight at the station. In absolute anger, he gripped my shirt so tight that it ripped at the seams and he dragged me along to Dadar station where he handed me over to the ticket-checker. So much for anger!

Sunil's greatest talent was his patience and his immense concentration. His belief in his talent was the reason for his success.

Sunil played for Bombay three, four years later than he should have. Eknath Solkar, Nagdev and I went ahead after our first year of university cricket. In the 2nd, 3rd and 4th year he fell behind us. Also, the fact that he was at the time a poor fielder did not help his cause too much.

In terms of ability and talent I can say with utmost confidence that I was better than Sunil Gavaskar was. I still rile him about it sometimes when we meet at gatherings, and his response on those occasions underlines the extraordinary quality of his that has kept us together for so many decades. Not once has Sunil been offended at all the leg-pulling sessions I've had with him. In fact, sometimes it gets to me that what I say never offends him.

He always looked up to me, as I was the extroverted, fun-loving bloke. Sunil was very introverted and always took time to mix around with others.

I think it was the fact that he realised he was not as gifted as his colleagues that forced a change in his attitude. He took it up as a challenge to prove his credentials and make his mark. I have always been awestruck by his amazing calm and patient personality.

Sunil opened for the All India University team against the touring Kiwi team led by Dowling and scored 40 runs, which triggered off his career. Then the Sri Lankan tour was followed by the game against Rajasthan in 1970 when Vijay Merchant picked him up for the national squad. After that, I guess we all know what happened.

Sunil has been a great friend to me all these years. He has never forgotten shopping for me whenever he has gone overseas. Even this time, when he returned from England, he got me loads of goodies, which included my stock of undergarments as well.

Milind Rege And not once have I thanked him for it. There is no need to. I guess thanking him will probably be very embarrassing for both of us. And I have never till date never bought him a single thing. What do I give him -- the man has everything? And he has never questioned me on that. Maybe, like all the previous years of our association, this year too I might just wish him on his birthday and he will be absolutely okay with that. For him, the fact that I'm there for him at all times is the best gift.

Sunil is a very sensitive guy and friends mean the world to him. He has the memory of an elephant -- never does he forget anyone he's met even once. And this is the reason why he is so popular even today. There are so many cricket greats in this country, but Sunil still remains the most popular amongst them.

Sunil has an eye for perfection. Even today, when he commentates on television, he asks me how I sounded. And I still pull his leg by saying that his English still sounds typically SSC type.

Everyone thinks he commentates very well, but I am not so sure, he does have this habit of repeating himself. But as usual, he is improving as he goes along.

Then again, he does have his moments in the commentary box, especially when he takes Boycott on. Sunil is very critical of the English for some reason. Just recently, he told me that he had to walk up the stairs of the new media center at Lords to talk, live, with Harsha Bhogle. Sunil was out of breath as he made his way up to the center. Gasping for breath, he looked at Boycott and asked him, 'Is this the most developed country in the world? It does not even have an elevator!'

Boycott looked everywhere but at Sunil!

Our association has, over the years, brought me wonderful moments, and very few if any regrets. But there is one regret, one thing that I feel terrible about even today, and that is the fact that I was unable to attend my best friend's wedding. Yes, I missed Sunil's wedding because I was on tour then, playing a Ranji game, which was the most important thing for me at that point in time. Why I failed t make it to the highest grade is something that intrigues me to date.

What more can I say? That I wish Sunil all the very best, on his 50th birthday? But then, I wish him that, always.

As told to Faisal Shariff


Mail Sports Editor