By Nishad Pai Vaidya
The watershed year of 1971 would remain etched in the memory of Indian fans. It was in that year and under a new captain - Ajit Wadekar – India registered her first-ever away-series victories in the West Indies and England to inject a refreshing self-belief in Indian cricket, hitherto unseen. Even for somebody like me, born much after 1971, that tour to the West Indies occupies a special place in my cricket-crazy heart. I grew up listening to the stories of Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Sardesai, Eknath Solkar, Ajit Wadekar, Salim Durani etc. and their role in beating West Indies on their own turf for the very first time.
The West Indies team of 1971 wasn’t their strongest side, but one must also remember that India were not very good travelers and it was a challenge to return victorious. Roy Fredericks, Rohan Kanhai, Gary Sobers and Clive Lloyd formed the backbone of the team that was in transition. India, too, had a number of veterans in their ranks like ML Jaisimha, Salim Durrani, Dilip Sardesai and EAS Prasanna. But the one player who was left the Indian shores with great expectations was a 21-year-old collegian with no international experience. The youngster – Sunil Gavaskar – made the kind of debut that Test cricket has not seen till this day. It was primarily his batting and Sardesai’s rock-like presence at the other end that saw made the India batting consistently awesome right through the five-Test series.
In the first Test at Kingston, Jamaica India were reduced to 75 for five batting first, but Sardesai and Ekanth Solkar stood firm to stitch together a partnership of 137 for the sixth wicket before Solkar was bowled by Gary Sobers for 61. Vice-captain Srinivas Venkataraghavan and wicket-keeper debutant Pochiah Krishnamurthy fell cheaply as India were now 260 for eight. With just Erapalli Prasanna and Bishan Bedi to bat, the end of the Indian innings looked in sight. However, Prasanna gave solid support to Sardesai and the two added 122 runs for the ninth wicket, in which the off-spinner’s contribution was 25. Sardesai went on to score 212 and India reached 387 – a total that seemed very distant at one point of time.
The first day’s play was washed out completely which meant that it was a four-day Test and the follow -on limit was reduced to 150. Wadekar enforced the follow-on and narrated in an interview that when he informed the West Indies captain Sobers of his decision, he was shocked. He didn’t realize that India could enforce the follow-in!
West Indies batted out the Test match, but the enforcement of the follow-on was the first knock-out punch delivered by India in the series.
The second Test was at Port of Spain, Trinidad and it marked the beginning of one of the greatest Test careers. Gavaskar, who missed the first Test because of a finger problem, walked out to open batting for India for the very first time after Bedi and Prasanna had bowled out the West Indies for 214. Gavaskar laid the platform by scoring 65 upon which Sardesai (112) and Solkar (55) built up a score of 357.
India’s chances of winning a historical Test depended a lot on how quickly and cheaply they could get rid of the two left-handers – Clive Lloyd and Gary Sobers. And that’s where Durani stepped in. He had bowled Sobers for duck and, not much later, had Lloyd caught by Wadekar. The critical breakthroughs achieved, Venkat ran through the bottom half of the Windies batting with a five-wicket haul to restrict the home team to 261.
With 124 needed for victory, Gavaskar led the run-chase with 67 not out. India achieved the win and a star was born.
The next two Test matches at Guyana and Barbados were draws as Gavaskar (116, 117*) Sardesai (150) and Sobers (108*, 178*) helped themselves to more runs.
The fifth and the final Test was played at Trinidad again and since it was the last Test of the series, it was to be a six day match.
India batted first and scored 360 on the back of Gavaskar’s 124 and Sardesai’s 75. Not to forget a vital contribution from Venkatraghavan down the order with 51. West Indies, intent on winning the match piled on 526 and it was India who had to save this match. Gavaskar then played the most crucial innings of the whole series. Out of India’s 427, Gavaskar scored 220 that too with a severe toothache. He endured the pain as he battled to save the Test match so that India could clinch the series.
West Indies were set a target of 262 and they ended on 165 for eight at the end of the sixth day’s play and that meant India had won the five match series 1-0.
The year 1971 can be regarded as a turning point in Indian cricket. The West Indies tour was a catalyst that heralded the start of a new era. The Indian Team could now aim to beat other teams away from home due to the new-found confidence from the win in the Caribbean. That confidence took the team to new heights as they followed it up with another series win in England later that year.
The Caribbean tour marked the beginning of Gavaskar’s great career. He amassed 774 runs in four Tests and over the years had some memorable contests with the West Indies pace attacks. Sardesai’s Test career is remembered mainly for his performances on this tour. His double hundred in the first Test kick-started the successful run for India. He didn’t stop there as he made vital contributions in all the matches.
Since then India has won two World Cups, a T20 World Cup, numerous ODI tournaments, a few away Test wins and some famous wins over Australia, but 1971 has a charm of its own. Many times my father told me stories of that year. Listening to them, I just wished I was born much earlier so that I could have soaked in the joy of that era!
(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 20-year-old law student, is a club and college-level cricketer. His teachers always complain, “He knows the stats and facts of cricket more than the subjects we teach him.")