Wednesday, 12 March 2014

A Watershed Moment in Indian Cricket History

I just realised that the day before, the 10th of March, happens to be the 43rd anniversary of one of the most pivotal moments in India's cricketing history- India's first ever test win over West Indies. This is but a humble attempt to recreate the drama as it unfolded.

India set out on a two month tour of the West Indies in February 1971 under Ajit Wadekar, the newly appointed captain, bringing an end to the Pataudi era (more on that in my next article). To say that India were the underdogs would have been a massive understatement. Forget winning, India had never even taken a first innings lead against the West Indians after 23 attempts until then. After 39 years as a test playing nation, India had won just 15 out of their 116 tests, nearly half of them against New Zealand- a team that was barely considered test class back then (much like Bangladesh or Zimbabwe today).

As we shall see in the next article, the tourists junked all predictions, holding the upper hand throughout  the drawn first test(more about it in my next article). And so, going into the second test he question in everyone's mind was whether India's dominant showing in the first test was a flash in the pan or a sign that things were going to be different this time round.

The Drama
The Indians made two changes with Ashok Mankad coming in place of Jaisimha and Jayantilal Kenia, who had had an unsuccessful debut in the first test, making way for another debutant, a promising young Bombay batsman called Sunil Gavaskar. The tourists made only one change, bringing in Charlie Davis in place of Conrad Carew.

Abid Ali

West Indies captain Gary Sobers won the toss and opted to bat first on what looked a dicey pitch, figuring that it would only become tougher to bat as the game wore on. The very first ball of the match proved the point, as Abid Ali's delivery kept alarmingly row to bowl West Indies opener Roy Fredricks. Camacho and Rohan Kanhai batted sensibly to stabilise the West Indian innings, before a mini collapse saw the hosts crash from 42-1 to 62-4. 

The fall of the fourth wicket saw the entry of Gary Sobers, the best contemporary batsman. As expected, the great man took the game back to the Indians with a stunning counter attack that saw the score move from 62 to 100 in a flash. He had reached 29 when he missed a quickish off-break from Venkataraghavan and was bowled, precipitating another collapse. But for a battling 71 from Davis, the hosts would have fallen well short of their eventual 214, which was below par even on that difficult surface given the strength of the West Indian attack (or rather, the lack thereof).

Charlie Davis

The Indians enjoyed a stroke of good fortune early in their innings as Sobers- widely regarded as the best slip fielder in the world- dropped an easy catch off Sunil Gavaskar when he had just 12 runs against his name. The openers capitalised on that lapse to put on an excellent start before Mankad and Durrani fell in quick succession. In came Dilip Sardesai, who followed up his magnificent double century in the first test with yet another brilliant knock, helped along the way by Gavaskar. The two put India well on top before Gavaskar and Wadekar fell at the same score, leaving the game wide open at 186-4

West Indies captain Sobers now produced what Wisden described as " extremely deadly  spell of wrist spinners." Unfortunately for him, his fielders did no favours, twice putting down Solkar, who combined with Sardesai to put on 114 for the fifth wicket before the later fell to Noriega. Solkar and Abid Ali added a further 30 runs before a dramatic collapse saw the tourists crash from 330-5 to 352 all out, limiting their lead to a manageable 138. If the West Indians were not completely out of the game despite so many dropped catches, it owed entirely to spinner Jack Noriega, who was handsomely rewarded for his efforts with magnificent figures of 9-95 (helped by some poor strokeplay by the Indians). 

Jack Noriega

The West Indians brilliantly fought back in their second innings, finishing at 150-1 by end of play on day 3. Effectively 12-1 with Fredricks still out there,  Sobers and Lloyd yet to come and India's best bowler Prasanna out of the game with an injury, the West Indians might have started dreaming of turning the tables on a pitch that wasn't getting any easier. 

Yet again, the game turned around. First innings hero Davis was injured in the nets and had to be rushed to the hospital to have stitches inserted just minutes before the start of play on day 4. West Indies' woes were compounded by a suicidal run out that saw Roy Fredricks out without any addition to the score. Then came a magic spell from Salim Durani, who dismissed Sobers and Lloyd in quick succession. In his own words:

Salim Durani

After pitching some deliveries outside off to Garry (sobers), I pitched one on this rough spot just outside the off stump. It hit the spot nicely, turned a little, beat his defence, went between bat and pad and took the off stump... 
Clive (Lloyd) was another big wicket... Having made him play a few outside off, I over-pitched one on the off stump, but with a lot of turn. Clive attempted to lift it over my head. I had brought Ajit (Wadekar) to short midwicket, guessing Clive would go for the shot. He mistimed it, and the ball was pouched well by Ajit.
Venkataraghavan bowled the injured Camacho before a run could be added. In a flash 150-1 had become 169-5. Yet again, the game had been turned around on its head. There was little resistance thereafter except from Charlie Davis, who sensibly kept playing forward to reduce the risks posed by the uneven surface. Venkataraghavan bamboozled the tail, finishing with 5-95 to bowl out  the West Indians for just 261, leaving the tourists just 124 to make with two hours over a day to spare.
With their weak attack, the West Indians had no chance of winning. It was a question of when rather than whether now. As in the first innings, the debutant Sunil Gavaskar batted superbly, ably assisted by Ashok Mankad. By the time the two were seperated, India were more than half way through to their target. Gavaskar, showing the first signs of the mastery that would make him the first man to score 10,000 test runs, batted aggressively as India rapidly advanced towards a famous win. Then at 121-3, the little master hit a boundary to give his team a famous win.

S. Venkataraghavan

That historic win gave Indian cricketers the belief that they could hold their own against anyone. It was the moment when India went from minnows who were expected to lose all they played, to a team that could compete against any side in the world. Save the odd series, India became an unstoppable force at home from there on, winning the occasional series abroad. Today India normally start off as favourites the moment they set foot on the field, their recent travails abroad notwithstanding. Where sides once queued up to face the Indians, no opposition side today can ever underestimate an Indian side. 
The impact of that victory would prove far greater than anyone could have foreseen then. Cricket overtook hockey to become the most popular sport in India. Contrary to popular imagination, it was not the 1983 world cup win, but the heroics of 1971 that made cricket the most popular sport in India. Over the four decades that followed, the game went from being an amateur sport to a national passion.
It all stated on 10th March 1971.

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