India was touring Pakistan in 1982, where the line-up was nothing less than stars all around — Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri, K Srikkanth, Yashpal Sharma.
“The day before I was making my debut against Pakistan, he (Sunil Gavaskar) called me to his room and said, don’t take any pressure. I was only 17 and a half years old — Gavaskar patted me on the back and said that 'I’m playing you in the side as a fielder and maybe if the time is right, I will give you few overs'. He said that you have got wickets in first-class cricket, so be positive, go for wickets — don’t think that you are playing international cricket and you’ll have to change your ways. My tendency was to always flight the ball to get wickets, he asked me to do exactly that. Those words gave me a lot of confidence,” said Singh.
Talking with newbies was Gavaskar's way of ensuring that young players have the confidence to play in the match.
“He would speak with us, call us over, calm us down and make the atmosphere light for us — he would take Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, Chetan Sharma and me out for dinner and chat with us, make sure that we don’t feel any sort of pressure,” said Singh.
Singh began his career playing against Pakistan in Karachi, in December 1982. On the day of the match, when Maninder made his ODI debut, he remembers that Gavaskar gave the ball to him.
“It was a poor ground in Quetta, Pakistan. I really fielded well and gave more than 100% because my captain had told me that I was there as a fielder. He then made me bowl five overs, I conceded 25 runs and got one wicket,” he said.
Looing out for others: Sunil Gavaskar guided young players in the team, including Maninder Singh. (Photo: Getty)
Despite being an inspirational captain though, Sunil Gavaskar never held onto his position with any longing for it. “He never showed any regret that he has lost the captaincy. At that time, it was like that — if you lose a series, the captaincy would go. So, probably in his mind, he must have known that it will be someone else now. Even when Gavaskar was not the captain, he would run up to a bowler and tell him what to bowl and what to do as a senior player,” he said.
Gavaskar was always intuitive.
In 1981, Gavaskar asked Ravi Shastri to open the innings — a place which the right-handed batsman had made his own.
An eye for talent: In 1981, Gavaskar had asked Ravi Shastri to open the innings. Since then, he always played as an opener. (Photo: Getty)
“I had not played international cricket then, but I fathom how he had backed Shastri to open the innings. During his first tour of New Zealand, Shastri did very well and it’s important for your captain to motivate and communicate with you. If Gavaskar had faith in anyone, he would give them the confidence to come forward and take charge,” Maninder said.
Like other captains, Gavaskar too used to be assertive in the dressing room.
“He never went berserk — but he would make his point by letting the players know what he wanted to say. If he saw someone not giving their 100%, he would make them realise the importance of their being in the side. He used to say: ‘Take pride when you play for India — you are only 15 out of so many cricketers in the country’. He asked us to give our 200% on the field,” recalled Singh.
The slow left-arm orthodox spinner says that Gavaskar took his net practice very seriously. “He was serious about the nets. Gavaskar batted in the nets as if he was playing a match, he used to be out of the nets exactly after 10 minutes as if he was counting each ball being bowled to him. I used to see the concentration on his face, he would never give his wicket in the nets, nor did he ever play a false shot. For bowlers, it was a challenge to get him out in the nets — and that was the character he carried into the match too,” Singh reminisced.
Guided by the best: Singh vividly remembers how Gavaskar boosted and guided young players. (Photo: YouTube screengrab)
There were days when Gavaskar had a hard time on the field — but he turned them to his advantage.
“In 1986, when we were playing county games, he wasn’t getting many runs. I don’t know what happened, someone told him that the media was writing him off in India. Just before a particular match against Somerset, which Kapil Dev and I were sitting out, Gavaskar stopped me just as we were going to the dressing room after our fielding sessions. He came down the stairs because the Indian team was going to bat, and he told me 'don’t go and change yet, sit and see me score a hundred'. He did exactly that,” said Singh.
“This is when I realised how strong he is mentally. I called him the ‘God of concentration’. He told me he would score a hundred — and he did. Can you imagine what concentration he must have gone into the match with?”
When the team would be travelling in a bus, he would always tell me not to read in a moving vehicle. “When you read on the bus, your eyes hurt and this may affect your eyesight, he would say. He was an avid reader himself and would often be seen going through books when not playing cricket. I think he could do so much because he did it all with equal concentration,” Singh concluded.
(As told to Rohit E David)