Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Book review: "SMG" -- a biography of, well, SMG

A new biography on my childhood hero -- I just simply had to own it, of course! I'm something of a collector of books on Sunil Gavaskar, so "SMG" was a natural addition to my collection. It's quite possibly the most comprehensive, deeply researched biography on Gavaskar yet.

"SMG" is written by Devendra Prabhudesai, a PR manager with the BCCI. Turns out that Devendra is from the same school in Mumbai as myself -- IES -- although *ahem* a few years junior to me. Also, rather late in the book itself he reveals that he was employed with Gavaskar's PMG (Professional Management Group) -- that really should've been stated on the jacket cover itself in the author's bio. But I can forgive a fellow worshipper of SMG and a schoolmate this one indiscretion!

What really sets this book apart from the multitude of Gavaskar biographies that came before it? I think it's the quotes and opinions of many, many contemporaries of Gavaskar, and Gavaskar himself, sprinkled at the appropriate points in the narrative. The author has done a phenomenal job of interviewing people who knew Gavaskar well, played with or against him, or worked with him. People, in other words, who had the opportunity to really get to know the man behind the cricketing automaton the rest of us saw on TV and other media. As a biography, the book proceeds predictably and chronologically through Sunny's life and times, but these quotes really add spice to the story. There are also many quotes from Gavaskar's own extensive writings on the game.

The book divides the "story" into five aptly and alliteratively named sections:
  1. Advent
  2. Ascent
  3. Achiever
  4. Apogee
  5. All-rounder
The "Advent" section sets up the context to Gavaskar's arrival, talking about Bombay cricket, the social context in which it thrived, early stars like Ranji and P.Baloo, etc. It then brings us numerous stories and anecdotes from Gavaskar's school days, growing up in Chikhalwadi, with inputs from Sunny's father Manohar, his neighbour and cricketing colleague Milind Rege, uncle Madhav Mantri (who also played for India), other neighbours and friends, etc. We have of course heard the story before, in Gavaskar's own "Sunny Days". But this version is more detailed, and remains an interesting read. It then follows Gavaskar's cricketing exploits in domestic cricket, leading to his selection for the West Indies tour of 1970-71. It covers that tour, and subsequent ones to England etc. in lingering detail.... those really were historic days for Indian cricket.

The "Ascent" section covers what were really Gavaskar's most productive years as a batsman -- from 1975 through 1980 or so. Towards the end of that phase, Gavaskar at one point had scored 20 Test centuries from 50 Tests -- a phenomenal rate, comfortably better than anyone before him bar Bradman. This really was Gavaskar's "ascent" to the title of the best batsman in the world. The "Achiever" section then chronicles the subsequent turbulent years -- with fluctuating form, captaincy squabbles, the spat with Kapil Dev, etc., mixed with super achievements like the 1983 World Cup win, the counterattack against the West Indies in 1983, his high-score of 236* (coming in at 0-2), and so on.

In "Apogee", Prabhudesai describes the climactic final years of Sunny's career, when he rediscovered superb form and piled on the runs against all comers. It includes the 1985 World Championship of Cricket, where Sunny's leadership really stood out as India went unbeaten in the tournament. That was really the climax of India's one-day run in the 1980s. Through that tournament, India bowled out all teams in under 50 overs (except one -- the final, when Pak ended 9 down!) and kept their opponents under 200 (except one -- New Zealand, who scored 206!). Even in those relatively low-scoring days, these were phenomenal achievements especially for a team that didn't have any deadly strike bowlers bar Kapil Dev. Even after this, Gavaskar went out of international cricket in a blaze of glory, scoring big centuries and culminating in that phenomenal 96 against Pakistan at Bangalore.

The final "All Rounder" section is about Gavaskar's non-cricketing interests, achievements and influence. This includes his massive role in the professionalization of Indian cricket, the setting up of PMG and the CHAMPS foundation, his writings on the game, and his influence on India's modern set of world-beating cricketers -- Sachin, Dravid, Laxman, Kumble, etc. Towards the end, the author does get defensive with regard to the criticisms of Gavaskar's cricket and writings. But overall, the tone is hardly ever hagiographical, and the writing is of good quality. The prose is interspersed with numerous photographs -- some familiar to old Gavaskar fans, but many that I'd never seen before. And of course there is the obligatory, comprehensive, statistical review in the appendix.

Overall the book is a must-have for the Gavaskar fan, but also a good read for the youngsters of today whose cricket-watching started with the Sachin Tendulkar or Dravid-Ganguly generation. They see Sunny on TV, and the awe and respect with which he's treated by the cricketers' fraternity, but they may not know the scale of his achievements, and just how much they mattered to the India of the 1970s and 80s. They may not appreciate why, even today, many Indian cricket fans still believe Gavaskar, and not Tendulkar, is the greatest Test batsman India's ever produced. Books like "SMG" help lay out the case for that assertion!


Devendra Prabhudesai said...

Thanks for your feedback.

Neeran Karnik said...

@Devendra: Thanks for creating an interesting book -- it's clearly a labour of love!

Interestingly, this is the second time I've reviewed a cricket book, and the author himself has responded. Thankfully, in both cases, the reviews were pretty positive :-) I'd reviewed "The Men Within" last year, and author Hari Paruvu got in touch as well. I even ended up meeting him for coffee when he was visiting Pune... I'd be happy to treat you to a coffee as well whenever you're in Pune :)

Fourth Umpire said...

I once slammed the same author for his Dravid biography which I found to be a very difficult read, and without the insights I had hoped for. I was probably too harsh - we exchanged a couple of emails and I'm not sure if he ever saw my last email to him.

In any case, your review has convinced me to give "SMG" a go, and it sounds like the book is set up in a good way. As someone who grew up worshipping SMG and who has been fortunate enough to meet and 'hang out' with him on countless occasions, I look forward to a great read!

Neeran Karnik said...

@Fourth Umpire: "hang out with him on countless occasions"! I'm jealous :-)

Hope you enjoy the book. I think Devendra probably had much better access to, and personal knowledge of, Sunny Gavaskar as compared with Rahul Dravid. Hopefully that differentiates "SMG" from his Dravid biography.

Anonymous said...

Nice review! I was searching for an appropriate book on Gavasakr (preferably one not written by himself), and am grateful that I don't have to spend too much time hunting down the right book! This one seems perfect. Thanks

Neeran Karnik said...

@memoriesofchocolate: Thanks, hope you enjoy the book.