Normally, I would have been content to relegate some of this story to a sidebar in my last post, but this really does deserve a post of its own. In my last post, I briefly mentioned a memory of Vijay Amritraj playing Martin Jaite in a Davis Cup match. I shall now try to memorialize that moment and another equally important moment.
Those of us born in India and of a certain age (mostly in our 30s) have good reason to look sympathetically at the younger generation. They might have 100 channels on the TV, they might have opportunities that we might not have had, they might have a lot more of a lot more than we ever could, but there are some sporting memories they will never have. India beating the West Indies in the Prudential World Cup in 1983 marked the start of India’s dominance of world cricket. India’s victory in the mini-world cup in Australia in 1985 (Ravi Shastri – man of the series and an Audi to boot!) continue that trend. Of course with these warm memories, we also have the traumatic one: Javed Miandad hitting Chetan Sharma for a six off a full-toss last ball when Pakistan needed four to win in Sharjah. Those of us of a certain age haven’t really recovered from that either. We can all remember where we were when those events occurred, what we were doing and the joy or crushing sorrow that followed each of them.
But besides these, two other memories stand out. And having arrived at a riper age, I am now able to appreciate those memories and sporting efforts much more than I did in my callow youth.
It was 1987, summer was approaching, and I’m not entirely sure how I managed to watch so much sporting action in that week of March, final exams must have been in a week or so, but yet I did and I’m quite thankful for that.
The Indian tennis team in those days comprised Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan. Vijay was 34 or 35, his glory days were well past, but the Davis Cup always seemed to bring out the best in him. He was a natural on grass and could serve and volley with the best of them. This was around the time that tennis was transitioning away from the Borg/Connors style of play to the current style that was introduced by Becker, Edberg and the rest. Ramesh was always a curious anachronism, his serves so soft, his volleys silken smooth, his baseline play all touch no power. One imagined Rod Laver playing that way, but a player in the age of colour television? But there they were, Vijay and Ramesh waging battle against younger, more powerful, and higher ranked players in a sport that seemed not have room for them any more.
India was playing the Davis Cup quarterfinal against Argentina (in New Delhi perhaps?), and at the end of 2 days of play, Vijay had won the opening game, Ramesh had lost his to Martin Jaite, Argentina had won the doubles, and Vijay was now playing the return singles match against Jaite.
Simultaneously, India was playing Pakistan in a cricket test match in Bangalore. This was going to Sunil Gavaskar’s last test match, at 37 years old and many cricket records deep, Gavaskar was finally going to call it a day. The Bangalore pitch was a disgrace. Mostly loose dirt and cracks, the ball was unpredictable from day one. Pakistan was skittled out on day one for a pitiful score (116) and it wasn’t clear which way the match would go. Would India manage to pull it off or would the pitch truly wreak havoc getting worse from day one to day four? On day two, India managed 145, Vengsarkar managing a 50 in the process. Pakistan came back in, and set India a target of 221.
In the meantime, things were getting exciting at the tennis game. Vijay was playing Martin Jaite in the reverse singles game. Vijay was 35 years old, playing a 21 year old Jaite and getting beaten up. Down two sets to one, we were at set-point and match-point in the fourth set. The match had gone badly, Vijay was probably looking at going down badly and India was on the verge of getting kicked out of the Davis Cup for the year. Again. Jaite served for the match and the tie, Vijay returned serve, Jaite returned beautifully. The game was on the line, the Davis Cup tie was on the line. At this juncture, Vijay played the sweetest drop volley in the history of the game. What a shot to play at this juncture! The visual from that shot is burned into my sports-memory. Vijay plays the drop shot, Jaite rushes to the net, but can’t make it in time, match-point is lost. Jaite fell to pieces after that point as Vijay went from strength to strength. As an adrenalin-fueled Vijay recovered, fist-pumping his victories, the Indian supporters went crazy in the stands. At the end of it all, five sets later, Vijay had just handed Jaite the thrashing of his life. A match where Jaite had tasted victory had now ended with India having a fighting chance in the last match of the tie. Ramesh Krishnan went on to win that match as well, India won through, then played Israel in the quarter finals, won against Australia (including Wimbledon-winner Pat Cash) in the semi-finals and went on to the finals. The finals were against Sweden. In Sweden. In December. Sweden at the time featured Mats Wilander and Anders Jarryd, both unstoppable on clay. Of course they played on clay. India didn’t have a chance. But the memory of that unbelievable display by a 35-year old player stays with me. As I get older, I realize what it really meant for a 35-year old to play at the level that he did. As I think about it today, I still get the goosebumps.
In Bangalore, India was in chasing 221 on the fourth innings of a disastrous pitch. Nothing would go right for India. Losing to Pakistan was unthinkable but India was falling apart. In Gavaskar’s last test match yet. But Gavaskar, 37 years old, was not about to go away so easily. I remember sitting at home and watching him inch his way towards his century. At the other end, the batsmen wouldn’t stay long enough to give him company. As the wickets fell, the situation got more dire. Gavaskar was our last hope. At 96, if Gavaskar could manage to hang on for a century and then some, India would be home safe, Gavaskar would have one final century in his last game, and Bangalore would be happy. But even Gavaskar was no match for that treacherous pitch. All innings-long the ball had been obscured by the great mounds of dust kicked up every time the ball bounced or any other action took place. Even the great one would succumb to this treachery, and he did at 96. Four short of a century, and a victory that India could just about taste. But once Gavaskar was gone, so too were all hopes of a victory. The Indian tail was wrapped up shortly thereafter, 16 runs short of glory.
And thus over a weekend and a bit, a young adolescent watched some great sporting action that would stay with him for a lifetime. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to appreciate a lot more what that must have meant for Amritraj and Gavaskar and also what it must have taken out of them to put in the physical and mental effort that they did. It didn’t matter that India had won just one of the two ties at stake, what I had witnessed was some of the finest sporting action to which I would ever be privy.