Indian cricket changed gears in 1971. Exactly 50 years ago. And it is a story almost forgotten. Which is why I thought it would be nice to revive some of those memories, and relive some of those moments on the eve of the World Test Cricket (WTC) finals just so that India’s journey to potential world champions is not obliterated by the passage of time.
India’s Test record up until that point of time was pathetic, since their first-ever Test match in 1932, India had won only 15 of the 116 matches they had played. Their ‘away’ record was even more dismal, with only 3 wins out of 47 matches, and all of those victories had come against an even poorer New Zealand side. India had never won a Test match in the Caribbean. The last time they had toured the islands, in fact in 1962, they were hammered 5-0 by the mighty West Indies captained by the indomitable Sir Frank Worrell.
So when the Indian team flew to the West Indies at the start of 1971, led by the underrated new captain Ajit Wadekar, nobody had any grand hopes. Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, the outgoing captain, and Chandu Borde, his deputy, were both not part of the team. The outbound squad had a young Sunil Gavaskar, who had still to earn his Test debut, and another youngster Gundappa Viswanath, who had till then played only four Test matches. The bowling department comprised the trio of S Venkataraghavan, Bishan Singh Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna but it was an uneven match-up against the likes of Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd and Garfield Sobers. Not many gave Wadekar much of a chance against the Windies, the best cricketing side in the world at that time.
The first Test at Kingston saw the first day being rained out. When play finally got underway, India were in trouble from the word go. Down to 75 for 5. But then the experienced Dilip Sardesai steadied the ship, partnering a young Eknath Solkar to put on 137 runs for the sixth wicket. Sardesai then went on to add another 122 runs with the doughty spinner Erapalli Prasanna to take the total to 387, out of which 212 had come from Sardesai’s bat. This was the first double century by an Indian versus West Indies. The West Indies only managed 217 in return, with Rohan Kanhai scoring 56, and Prasanna pocketing 4 for 65. And that is when the astute captaincy of Wadekar kicked in. He enforced a follow-in: with a day’s play lost to rain, the follow-on margin was 150, not the usual 200. Gary Sobers, the West Indies captain was taken by surprise. He was livid and left fuming. The Windies had not been made to follow-on in years! The mind games had started. West Indies, of course, came back strongly with 385/5 with Kanhai top scoring again with a majestic 158. The match was drawn.
India arrived in Port of Spain for the second Test to another impressive 4/54 by Prasanna which reduced the Windies to 214 in their first outing. For India, Sunil Gavaskar debuted with a robust 65. Dilip Sardesai scored another century, and with some help again from Solkar, helped India amass 352; but Jack Noreiga managed an astonishing 9/95 for the hosts. On the third day of play, in-form Charlie Davis was injured during nets and retired; and opener Roy Fredricks ran himself out early in the morning. Clive Lloyd tried to hit India out of the park with some naked aggression but Ajit Wadekar brought in the wily Salim Durrani who got him caught out at mid wicket. And then magic happened. Durrani’s next delivery uprooted Gary Sobers’ leg stump. Thereafter the West Indies just crumbled to 261 leaving India a piffling target of just 124 runs which debutant Gavaskar with another fine knock of 67 not out, helped cross easily! India had finally humbled the No. 1 team in the world: the indestructible West Indies!
The rest of the three tests at Georgetown, Bridgetown and Port of Spain were all drawn. Gary Sobers tried his very best, but some gutsy Indian performances by the Indians prevented the even-ing of the series. Sunil Gavaskar hoisted scores of 116 and 64 in the 3rd Test, scored 117 in the 4th Test and 124 and 220 in the 5th Test, announcing the majestic arrival of the Little Master. Dilip Sardesai added another stylish hundred with 150 in Bridgetown. Gavaskar with 774 runs was the toast of the tour though Dilip Sardesai had played no lesser a role with 642 had played an equally stellar role.
Ajit Wadekar’s braves received a tumultuous welcome on their return to India. India’s road to world supremacy in cricket had now opened up. The minnows had finally shed the under-dog tag.
Today, 50-years later, the Indian team has topped the WTC championship table, finishing 100 points ahead of second-placed New Zealand. India played 17 Tests winning 12 of them, losing four and had one drawn game. New Zealand, on the other hand, reached the WTC final after winning seven of the 11 Tests they played, losing four. India, are definitely the fancied of the two teams, with a rock solid batting line-up of Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Rishabh Pant. And there is KL Rahul too as a spare option. Axar Patel, the match-winner is likely to be in the playing eleven; old warhorse R. Ashwin and man-of-all-seasons Ravindra Jadeja are back too. Bumrah, Ishant, Shami and Siraj offer enough choices in the bowling department.
If India win at Southampton, life would have come full circle. From complete no-hopers in 1971 to world beaters in 2021. If Virat kohli lifts the WTC trophy, my friend Ajit Wadekar especially would be smiling in heaven!
(This is the first of a two part series on a flashback to 1971.)
Dr. Sandeep Goyal, Managing Director of Rediffusion, has been a keen follower of the game for well over 50 years.