Sunday, 6 April 2014

Prelude to Victory

We have seen the story of India's historic win against West Indies at Port of Spain in the previous article. In this article, we shall recount the drama that preceded it.

In February 1971, the Indian cricket team embarked on a tour of the West Indies. It was to be their first test match in 14 months. Incredible as it may sound today, test matches featuring India were a rarity back then and test victories were almost as scarce as honest politicians. But India were a competitive side by 1971, owing in no small measure to M.A.K. Pataudi, who had led India through the 60s.

Pataudi had taken over during the preceding tour of the West Indies in 1961-62 after a life threatening injury to then captain Nari Contractor. Over the decade that followed, Pataudi infuse a sense of belief and unity into a rag tag bunch with no self belief and even less cohesion. In 7 years, India won 9 tests under him, against 6 wins in the three decades before he took over. But by the late 60s, it was evident that the Pataudi magic had run its course. After nearly losing a home series to New Zealand, India lost 1-3 to Australia in 1969-70. 

Pataudi- Brilliant Batsman, Great Captain

With knives already drawn out for him, that series defeat was the last straw for Pataudi, who perhaps knew what was coming. In the words of Ajit Wadekar:

My fear before the 1971 tour was that I might not be picked...In fact, before the tour, I had gone up to Tiger and asked him to ensure that I was there in his team. Tiger replied that there were no doubts about my selection and instead asked me to ensure his place if I was asked to lead...

And so Bombay southpaw Ajit Wadekar, who was unsure of his place in the side, found himself in charge of the team against all expectations. In his own words:

" I reckoned the captaincy race was between Tiger Pataudi and Chandu Borde...The day the captain was named, I had gone out with my wife Rekha to buy curtains...when I returned around 8pm, I saw a large crowd waiting outside our building with garlands. My first thought was that some guy in the building may have been promoted. Little did I realise that it was me!" 

It later transpired that Chairman of selectors Vijay Merchant had used his casting vote to unseat Pataudi. More surprising still, the heir apparent Chandu Borde was not even in the team! Whether it was due to disillusionment or the desire to let the team emerge from his considerable shadow, Pataudi made himself unavailable, leaving Wadekar firmly in charge of the side.

Ajit Wadekar: Heir Non-Apparent

The selectors sprang more surprises with the omission of veteran wicketkeeper Farokh Engineer and the inclusion of Dilip Sardesai, who career looked dead and buried by the late 60s. Karnataka strokemaker G.R. Viswanath, who had made a promising start to his career with an average of 47.7 after four tests, was retained, as was a young opener from Bombay called Sunil Gavaskar, who had been in the reserves in India's previous series against Australia, but was yet to make his debut.

Perhaps the selectors reckoned that it was a good time to try fresh blood, since precious little was expected of the team. India had won just 15 of their 116 tests until then, none of them in the West Indies, where their previous tour had resulted in a 0-5 whitewash. Such was the extent of West Indies' domination of India, that India's record against them stood at 0-12 in 23 tests. Forget winning, not once had India taken the first innings lead in a test match against the West Indies. 

The Drama
Viswanath and Gavaskar were both unavailable due to injuries. The tourists decided to open with the Hyderabadi pair of Jayantilal Kenia- the reserve opener- and all rounder Abid Ali in a makeshift role. The West Indians surprisingly omitted the great Lance Gibbs, bringing in his place Jamaican off-spinner Noriega, whom the Indians had deliberately handled with care in their warm up game against Jamaica to ensure his inclusion in the test team in place of veteran Gibbs.

Unfortunately, the rains wiped out the first day of the test match. With water seeping through the covers, the pitch had plenty of life in it. Therefore it was no surprise when West Indies captain Gary Sobers opted to bowl first after winning the toss on day 2.

Jayantilal Kenia

Kenia had scored just 5, when an attempted hook off Shillingford (no relation to the present day West Indies off spinner) resulted in a top edge that looked like falling safely, but for an incredible catch by Sobers to end his innings. Abid Ali too was gone almost immediately afterwards, leaving the Indians struggling at 13-2. The home side rammed home the advantage, getting rid of Durani, Jaisimha and Wadekar to leave the Indians tottering at 75-5.

Out came the 24 year old Eknath Solkar. In him, the veteran Sardesai, who had fought a lone battle until then, found a determined ally. Between them the two resusciated the innings with some determined, circumspect batting. Their 137 run partnership was the very embodiment of the khadoos (bloody minded) approach that characterises Mumbai cricket. Unfortunately, the fall of Solkar  opened up the floodgates yet again. Once more, the West Indies exploited the opening to reduce the Indians to 260-8.

Dilip Sardesai- The Hero of '71

But Sardesai was still around and in Prasanna, he found another ally who made up for what he lacked in terms of batting skill with character. With his support, Sardesai brilliant turned the tables over the next two hours or so with a stunning counterattack that pulled off the carpet from beneath the feet of the West Indians. By the time he fell, the veteran had scored a magnificent 212 in just under 8 hours. India had posted 387- a sensational recovery from their desperate 75-5 a day earlier.

The West Indies reply started off well, with openers Camacho and Fredericks putting on 73 for the first wicket, before Prasanna nailed both of them in quick succession. The hosts' woes were compounded when Kanhai sold Lloyd short, calling him for a suicidal single that resulted in a run out.

Veterans Sobers and Kanhai batted with circumspection from there on to prevent a collapse, adding 64 in little over an hour before Kanhai, with West Indies just 5 runs away from the follow-on limit of 188, fatally chanced his arm. Shortly afterwards Sobers was Snapped up by Abid Ali at short leg, igniting a spectacular collapse that saw the hosts crash from 202-4 to 217 all out, as batsman after batsman fell to wild shots against he spinners. For the first time ever, India had taken a lead against the West Indies.

Rohan Kanhai

But then came the twist. The West Indians, who believed the game was secure in any case, were unaware of the little known law 13.3, whereby India could enforce the follow on by virtue of a lead exceeding 150 runs, as the game was officially a 4 day affair due to the first day washout. The scene that ensued is best described in Ajit Wadekar's words:

I wanted to gain a psychological advantage by making the West Indies follow on - something unthinkable at that time. I strutted into the West Indies dressing-room and loudly proclaimed: "Hey Garry, West Indies have to follow on."
They were stunned into silence. Garry was unaware of the rules and said that India did not have a lead of 200 to enforce the follow-on. He asked me to check with the umpires. I replied that he could do that himself since it was his team which had to bat again. It was a huge blow to their pride.

The Indians stuck twice in the first hour, leaving the West Indians precariously placed at 32-2, raising Indian hopes of a historic win. With just over a day's play left, it was a race against time for India on a pitch that was doing little. This time, veteran Kanhai put his head down and played a circumspect knock, batting on for six and a half hours to play out time.

India may not have won the game, but the psychological advantage was theirs. Up against a side that had hammered every Indian side to have ever faced it, Ajit Wadekar and his men had conjured up an utterly dominant performance. It was the first sign that things were going to be different this time.

India won a historic win in the second test at the Port of Spain. The remaining three tests were drawn, giving India their first ever series victory in the West Indies. For veterans Durani and Sardesai, that historic win was the crowning glory of their careers after years of hurt. Both of them played just a handful of tests after that, but left behind an extraordinary legacy.

Wadekar's Indians repeated the feat in England later that year, making 1971 Indian cricket's golden year.  Unfortunately, the paucity of fixtures meant that India played only 5 tests between their tours of England in 1971 and 1974, by which time the gains from the heroics of 1971 were lost. A 0-3 thrashing in England in 1974 brought an end to one of the golden eras in Indian cricket. Like his predecessor Pataudi, it spelt the end of the road for Wadekar.

Eknath Solkar

Sunil Gavaskar, whose epic efforts were largely responsible for that historic series win, would become the first Indian to play 100 tests and the first ever batsman to score 10,000 test runs. Gavaskar gave Indian cricket its first superstar, shouldering the batting throughout the 70s and for much of the 1980s. Nearly all his records have since been surpassed, but he remains to this day one of the two greatest ever Indian batsmen.

Wadekar's enforcement of the follow on meant that the obscure law 13.3, which has been in force since 100 years now, was used in a test match for the very first time. Only once in 43 years and 1441 test matches since, has it ever been used.  

That historic win in the Carribean was the point where cricket started overtaking hockey to become the most popular sport in India, the effects of which are felt far beyond India's boundaries to this day. Such is the popularity of the game in India, that the game is largely sustained by Indian money today. Most cricketing boards keep themselves afloat using the profits derived from tours by India. The IPL has dramatically improved the financial condition of cricketers not only from India, but across the cricketing world. 

They can thank the class of '71 for that.

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