Sobers had travelled to India to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the historic India series win over the West Indies in 1971. Seated next to him was Ajit Wadekar, the captain of the victorious India team, and to his left was Sunil Gavaskar, the batting superstar of the tour, the man who scored an incredible 774 runs on the tour — after playing in only four out of the five Tests in his debut series.
I mentioned to Wadekar that it was a magnificent gesture for Sobers, the losing captain, to travel halfway around the world to help celebrate his team’s defeat. Wadekar, in his famous monotone accent, described colourfully by the late Vinod Mehta as ‘Shivaji Park Brooklyn’, said thoughtfully, “Sir Garry is never a loser”.
For me, this was a cricket moment where the cup simply runneth over. Forty years after the historic occasion, I was in the company of three of the main protagonists of the 1971 series drama in the West Indies, and they were willing to have a living room chat.
1971, in many ways, was a pivotal year, not just for Indian cricket but also for the nation in general. It was the year that India won what is called the Bangladesh war, ending the brutality of the Pakistani army that had violently tried to put down the separatist movement of the then East Pakistanis who wanted their own separate country. India’s military intervention ended the genocide, and led to the birth of Bangladesh. The country had stood firm in the face of the threat from the pro-Pakistan US President Richard Nixon, who had strategically positioned his Seventh Fleet in the Indian Ocean to intimidate India. India called their bluff, and the Americans had backed off. It was quite a ‘coming of age’ for a young, 25-year-old country.
1971 proved to be the year for ‘coming of age’ for Indian cricket as well. The country achieved the unprecedented double play of winning a cricket series in the West Indies, and following it up just a few months later by beating England in England. India had been playing Test cricket since 1932, when Douglas Jardine’s England team first played a Test match at the Bombay Gymkhana. We had subsequently toured England on several occasions and the West Indies and Australia occasionally, but never won a series overseas. Many of the defeats were in the form of ‘whitewashed’ humiliations, where we would lose every Test match.
India, till then, had several brilliant cricketers, but they rarely ever performed as a team unit. While we won some stray Test matches in home conditions, we travelled badly as a competitive team. Players were paid a pittance — a few hundred rupees daily for a Test match, and barely anything for domestic fixtures. The total fee for a Test Match in the early 1970s was around Rs 500. As a result, the pool of cricketers available for selection was limited to wealthy or middle-class kids whose families could afford to support them, or educated young men from large cities who were lucky to be supported by benevolent employers.
It is against this backdrop that the twin first-time victories against West Indies and England acquire added significance. Gavaskar, who had a starring role in both series and has had a ringside view of Indian cricket for more than 50 years, was quite emphatic recently about how the Indian team’s performance in 1971 is compared with other overseas Test triumphs since. At the end of India’s triumphant and historic series win against Australia this January, he was asked in Brisbane, the last test venue, if this was India’s greatest ever success in Test cricket. He thought for a moment, and then said, “This is perhaps one of our greatest triumphs in a Test series. But I would rank the series wins we achieved in 1971 as being slightly above this series.”
The 1971 series win, of course, did not happen overnight. The foundation for it was built starting a decade earlier, in my opinion, when the Nawab of Pataudi was appointed as the India captain at the tender age of 21. He was considered a batting prodigy at school in England, was selected to play for Sussex at age 16, and had made his Test debut for India against the visiting English side led by Ted Dexter in 1961, just six months after he had lost an eye in a car accident.
By a lucky coincidence, I witnessed an exchange between Indian team members midway through Calcutta’s second Test match. Batting third, India was on even terms with the visitors on a turning track. Pataudi and skipper Nari Contractor were the overnight, not out batsmen. I heard Pataudi tell Contractor, “Skip, I’ll take care of Lockie (Tony Lock), who is the danger man. You tackle the others.” India went on to win that Test and the next one in Madras, where Pataudi scored his maiden century. For me, that exchange revealed the tremendous self-confidence and determination with which he approached the game even at age 20.
Pataudi had spent three years playing country cricket, the longest stint in England at that time for any Indian in post-Independence India. This gave him the experience, self-assurance, and confidence to play in any conditions. So, it was not surprising that he was made the vice-captain for India’s 1962 tour of the West Indies despite his youth. And as fate would have it, captain Nari Contractor suffered a near-fatal injury on his head in one of the warm-up matches, and Pataudi had to step in as the captain for the Test series. Though India lost all the five Tests, it had gained a young captain who brought new thinking, positivity, and a sense of self-belief to the team. But building a winning team would be a lengthy affair.
Pataudi was the India captain without a break for nearly a decade. And it was he who brought into focus India’s great strength — spin bowling. Just as Clive Lloyd built upon the pace attack available to him, Pataudi recognised and built upon India’s spin bowling riches. After all, the winning plan in any match must involve getting 20 wickets, and if ‘fast’ bowlers were hard to come by, why not rely on your best spin bowlers? So, while the whole cricketing world was seeking fast bowling talent, India was unearthing spin bowlers.
Step by step, Pataudi built the nowfamous spin quartet of Erapalli Prassana, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Bishan Singh Bedi, and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. Their job initially was to augment the existing spin attack consisting of veteran spinners like Chandu Borde, Bapu Nadkarni, and Salim Durani, but quickly, they came into their own. The quartet would form the nucleus of India’s winning bowling attack over the next decade. They were central to the success of India’s winning team of 1971 under Wadekar. Between them, they took 15 wickets in each of the winning Tests in West Indies and England in 1971.
Prasanna, a qualified engineer, was in many ways the leader of the pack. Rated by Ian Chappel as the greatest off-spin bowler ever, he was guile personified. He bowled six different deliveries each over, and it seemed as if he had the ball on a string, teasing and tormenting the batsman with his subtlety. Chandrasekhar was a leg spinner who bowled with an arm withered by polio. Chandra developed considerable speed with a whippy action, and was unplayable on a wicket that provided him even a semblance of help.
India team group (top l-r) Venkataraman Subramanya, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, Sadanand Mohol, Subrata Guha, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Farokh Engineer, Ajit Wadekar, Ramesh Saxena, Hanumant Singh, Bishan Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna. (front l-r) Mangalam Chinnaswamy (treasurer), Rusi Surti, Chandu Borde, Nawab of Petaudi (captain), Keki Tarapore (manager), Budhi Kunderan and Dilip Sardesai. (Photo by K. Saunders/PA Images via Getty Images)
Bishan Singh Bedi was the artist. His left arm orthodox spin was described as ‘poetry in motion’. Famous England commentator John Arlott once said that his idea of beautiful cricket was “Lindwall bowling from one end, and Bedi from the other”. Bedi would coax a wicket out with his deception. Venkataraghavan was the other off-spinner in the quartet, a wily bowler in his own right.
While Chandra was the hero with an eight wickets haul in India’s famous victory over England at the Oval, Venkat was the bowling hero of India’s win over West Indies at Port of Spain with six wickets. The quartet played 233 Tests between them over the next 10 years, playing a crucial role in most of our victories.
No spin bowling unit had made such a deep impression consistently and victoriously in Test cricket until then, with Ramadhin and Valentine’s possible exception for a short while in the 1950s, and Englishmen Laker and Lock against Australia in 1956, in one series. Even India’s brilliant spin bowling trio of Subhash Gupte, Vinoo Mankad, and Ghulam Ahmed could not bring India victory too often — and especially not abroad.
However, a bowling unit still needs runs in the bank, and it was always a challenge in those days for India to consistently put up 250 to 300 runs on the board when playing abroad. Wadekar’s great fortune was that two new batting champions arrived on the scene around when he was made the captain, and they made this possible. First came Gundappa Viswanath in 1969, with a debut century, and then Sunil Gavaskar in 1971 provided reliability to India’s batting in the company of earlier stars M.L, Jaisimha, Dilip Sardesai, Ajit Wadekar, Ashok Mankad, and a few others.
A third equally important aspect, that of fielding, was also vital for success. Pataudi had set the tone in the ’60s as one of the world’s greatest cover fielders. By the late 1960s, Eknath Solkar transformed himself into the best short leg fielder in the game. In fact, a large portion of the spin quartet’s success in the early days had to do with Solkar’s catching. Venkatraghavan, Wadekar, and Abid Ali were an outstanding unit in the close-in position. They hardly ever dropped anything. Add to that the brilliance of wicketkeeper Farokh Engineer in English conditions, and India’s spin bowlers had an extra dimension added to their potency.
Perhaps India was fortunate to have toured the West Indies in the spring of 1971. The hosts’ fast bowling talent was new and emerging following the retirement of the fearsome Wesley Hall, Charlie Griffith, Roy Gilchrist, and a few others. Friendlier bowlers such as Grayson Shillingford and Vanburn Holder were new on the scene. Sobers, who had generated express pace in earlier years, had slowed down as well. It was still a strong bowling unit, but perhaps a notch or two below either the previous or the next generation of quicks.
India still had to compete fiercely throughout to emerge as winners. In the West Indies, they had to force four draws to retain their 1-0 victory margin; similarly, in England, they forced two draws before emerging as the winner in the nail-biting third Test. A significant impact in West Indies was made by the debutant Gavaskar. And so did Dilip Sardesai, who scored a total of 642 runs in that series, including the match-winning 112 in the winning second Test match.
Sardesai’s feat, though, was overshadowed by Gavaskar’s stupendous performance, which famously led Trinidad musician Lord Relator to compose the calypso ‘Gavaskar’ with the lyrics “The West Indies couldn’t out Gavaskar at all”. Gavaskar was relatively quiet in the England series. It was Sardesai’s 50 and 40 that was crucial to India winning the all-important third Test at the Kensington Oval. Surprisingly though, he retired just a year later. And it was left to the young Gavaskar-Vishwanath duo to carry Indian cricket into the new era.
Victory against England in the English summer of 1971 was different in many ways, a different cup of tea. India had been playing England for 40 years, but was still to win on English soil. England, under their wily skipper Ray Illingworth, had just won the Ashes, and were brimming with talent. They were a formidable unit, and in their home conditions, as always, very hard to beat.
After two drawn Tests, the decider at the Oval produced a big drama. After the first innings, England was well-placed scoring 355, and India replying with 284. A confident England batting well. However, Chandrasekhar was brought on to bowl, and he proved to be unplayable. With Chandra getting 6 for 38, England was bowled out for 101, leaving India to make 173 to win.
This chase on a wearing fourth innings pitch was not easy, and India decided to grind out the runs, taking over a hundred overs to get them. In the end, Abid Ali hit the winning run with India six down, and Farokh Engineer not out at the other end. It was a magical culmination to a dream cricket year for India.
India has since won several Test series all around the world, but the foundation was laid in 1971.
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