Somebody once asked me, 'is Sachin the greatest Indian batsman'? I said "NO". He asked, 'why'? I said there can be a thousand reasons. I know it's not politically correct to say so and more damaging if you write the same. But those who know me and have interacted with me know I have been saying this for a long time and had received equal amount of both outrage and ridicule. You can argue that even Sir Don Bradman had said 'Sachin plays like me'. Shane Warne puts him on top in his list of greats.
Sachin is the one who has the maximum number of runs in ODI and also in Test cricket and he has also scored the highest numbers of centuries in both types of the game. But, I will still say he is not the best. In my opinion Sunil Gavaskar is not only the best batsman but also the greatest Indian cricketer ever.
See, let's not confuse the issues. Sachin entered Indian cricket at a time when India as a society was getting ready to take a final call and to completely de-link from the old regimented mind set. It was a time when socialism as a way of life was dying and India was looking for a regeneration, a breath of fresh air. Manmohan Singh was the man to unleash market forces. These market forces injected a new kind of energy, which gave a new confidence to the servile civil society that was used to live in denial and was scared to compete at the international level due to colonial thinking.
It was this change which was symbolised by Sachin. I still remember when I was in the US, Indians had two identities - one as cab driver on the roads of New York and the other as software engineers, overcrowding the Silicon Valley. It was a new identity. Earlier India was more of a snake charmers country. It was an exotic commodity, despite Gandhi's success as a political activist and Nehru's vision as a great statesman. It was not seen as country of competent and efficient people. They were living in their own ghettos. India had no roads and no airports and despite being the largest democracy, it was a functioning chaos.
Sunil Gavaskar was the greatest not because he played the best of pace bowlers world cricket has ever seen and probably would never see in the future, but because he was fighting with his back to the wall with a mind set which was not willing to reply in the manner which was needed to be victorious. Till he arrived on the scene, Indians were not famous for winning. They used to play to loose with the best of sportsman spirit. He was the first Indian who could stare at the opponents, he had a glare that could kill them. He was not willing to surrender even to the best. It was completely new thing in Indian cricket. Even before Gavaskar there were many players who had tremendous talent and could compete with anybody at the international level but they did not have the mental power to shake their opponents.
Be it Vijay Merchant, Mushtaq Ali, Polly Umrigar, Vijay Manjrekar or even Veenu Mankad - they all played to get appreciation from the opposing teams, not to win. Victory was the last thing on their minds. It was not the fault of these players. We as a country were living to earn appreciation from others. We were living in a world where we did not think it was necessary to have a military might to face any eventuality. When we realised all this, it was too late. We believed the Chinese and we faced the music. It was unthinkable for a Nehruite to believe that the Chinese could betray for their own national interest. We were living in a make-believe world under the impression that we were the leader of the third world movement. It was this illusionary world that shattered one day in 1990 and we realised that we don't have enough money to pay interests on our loans and were forced to mortgage gold to save our reputation in the international market.
Sunil Gavaskar fought this mind set and tried to change this in the cricket field. It was he who had the guts to walk-out of the field in Australia and against Australia. He was the first Indian who, knowing India's weakness, never played to loose. He tried to win and if that was not possible he played not-to-loose, ie for a draw.
When Sachin arrived the groundwork had already been laid. India had already won the Cricket World Cup as well as the Mini World Cup in Australia. Indians had started winning or started looking in the eyes of the opponents. India, as a society and country was more confident, the mind set was changing. Colonial thinking was giving in to global thinking. The world knew that we were not less than anyone and that we could beat anybody in any field. But this luxury was not available to Gavaskar. He had to prepare his own ground and make his own rules.
Gavaskar was a renaissance man of Indian cricket, he was the first rebel. It was the rebel in him which said he would not wear a helmet. Till the, end he never wore it and which now seems to be the only gear that cricketers love to have other than a bat and a ball. And imagine the bowlers he faced. Just count. Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Malcom Marshal, Patrik Patterson, Wayne Daniel, Bob Willis, Graham Dilly, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan, Sarfarz Nawaz, Waseem Akram. All of them were capable of bowling consistently at a speed of 90 kmph and above. And not one ball could touch his head. Whereas Sachin was hit three times on his head. Imagine if Sachin had been playing without a helmet?
I remember one incident. India had just won the World Cup and the West Indian ego was badly bruised. They were like a wounded tiger. Just after the World Cup, they came to India to play. Malcom Marshal was almost unplayable. In Kanpur, Gavaskar, while facing a nasty bouncer from Marshal dropped his bat to the ground. Everbody thought Gavaskar's career was over. But he had different ideas. In the very next match in Delhi, Gavaskar blasted Marshal and scored 96 runs before lunch. It was this attitude of his which kept him apart from the rest. He was a class apart. He could not be subdued by anyone in any situation. He was not like Sachin who finds it difficult to bat under pressure and no wonder then that his batting average in the second and fourth innings are significantly lower than the first.
Sachin has always palyed in the company of three-four very good batsmen. He has contemporaries like Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, Virendra Sehwag, Mohammad Azharuddin, Sanjay Manjrekar and Vinod Kambli whereas Gavaskar had only G R Vishwanath. Mohinder Amarnath was also there but he was very inconsistent. Infact, Team India at that time was reffered to as team of two-and-half batsmen. I wish that Gavaskar had had this option of playing with so many talented players or that he had had the opportunity to be born in a more confident India. If that were the case, then probably nobody would have ever asked if Sachin is the greatest.