The Year When Indian Cricket Came Of Age

India defeated the West Indies and England in their home countries and a new star was born.

The year 1971 was marked with several ‘big victories’ – in politics, cricket and in war – all of which had long term implications for India. The national mood was buoyant, even if the country continued to struggle with endemic problems.

Fifty years later, we look back at those times and evoke some of that mood. In a series of articles, leading writers recall and analyse key events and processes that left their mark on a young, struggling but hopeful nation.

Today, Ayaz Memon writes on how 1971 changed Indian cricket forever.

My memories of 1971 are a continuum from 1968, when I stepped into my teens. Those were tumultuous years: graduating from shorts to ‘full pants’ in school, outgrowing Enid Blyton and discovering Archie comics, shedding the innocent belief that Polson butter could make you healthy and wealthy, sinful delight tinged with trepidations in smoking a cigarette for the first time.

Curiosity drove the mind into new spheres of learning, all invigorating and challenging except, of course, trigonometry of which one could make little sense. The seductive qualities of Hindi cinema are no exaggeration in Indian life. The oomph of Zeenat Aman pervaded every teenage boy’s dreams, the rise to superstardom of Rajesh Khanna with Ittefaq, Aradhana and Anand, and his hold over female hearts, had us in awe and envy.

Surfing the net for this piece, I see protests by Blacks in the US and student riots of 1968 in France and elsewhere as major stories. but have no clear memory of this at that point in time. Woodstock? What was that? Our engagement with western culture, apart from the medium of instruction and books, was movies like Sound of Music, Ben Hur and Ten Commandments which would be shown in the school shed.

What I do remember vividly though is the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. For a few days, our school had the buzz of NASA headquarters, teachers all agog, followed by essay assignments on what this meant for mankind etc. Fifty years later we are still searching.

Where politics is concerned, in late 1969, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi cracking the Congress Syndicate which threatened to marginalise her is a development that resonates in my mind’s hard-disk. This was the phase when newspaper reading was growing from an occasional dip into a habit. Mrs Gandhi’s photo and stories about her fight with the ‘Old Guard’ of the Congress almost every day on the front page I recall.

And then there was cricket.

Also read: 1971: The Year India Felt Good About Itself

The first test match I’d seen was at the Brabourne Stadium in 1964, when India beat Australia in an edge-of-the-seat thriller. I was hooked. Cricket became part of everyday discourse – with family, friends, in school – as I entered my teens. Any series involving India would be debated and discussed threadbare. Sometimes months in advance, such was the sense of anticipation.

By the end of 1970, all attention was focused on the impending tour of the Caribbeans. India’s record against the West Indies was poor. On the previous visit, in 1962, the scoreline was a miserable 0-5. Would it be any better this time? By common reckoning, this was Mission Impossible.

Before I come to the test series, it is pertinent to know what transpired before the tour commenced. It makes for one of the most fascinating and controversial chapters in Indian cricket history.

The backstory

On a cold December day in 1970, Vijay Merchant, one of India’s greatest batsmen and then chairman of the selection committee, used his casting vote to depose Mansur Ali Khan, erstwhile Nawab of Pataudi, as captain of the Indian cricket team.  This was not just a case of a star player being cut to size. It was far more. It was a putsch.

Dashing batsman, brilliant fielder, dynamic captain and an aristocrat, Pataudi had been elevated to the captaincy in 1962, when Nari Contractor was concussed by a Charlie Griffith bouncer in the West Indies. He was only 22, the youngest-ever test captain in cricket history then.

Handicapped by the near total loss of vision in one eye in a car accident even before he played international cricket, Pataudi was a heroic figure, idolised for his talent and charisma, and admired even more for his grit in overcoming such debilitating odds.

Why Merchant and Pataudi couldn’t see eye-to-eye remains a matter of speculation even now. Those who track Indian cricket more diligently, speak of Merchant carrying the bitterness of being overlooked for the captaincy in 1946, when Pataudi senior, Iftikhar Ali Khan, led against England.

He made Pataudi junior pay the price in 1970, say conspiracy theorists.  Gossip also had it that when Pataudi Jr was asked of his sour relations with Merchant, he is reported to have replied, “Respect has to be earned, not demanded”. The veracity of these stories is unknown.

Also read: A Dream Indian Cricket Team Made Up of Only Test Match Players

Merchant’s case against Pataudi Junior was bolstered by the team’s poor performances after winning overseas for the first time in 1968 in New Zealand. The most dismal of these came at home against the same opponents next year when India barely managed to stave off defeat, thanks to unexpected rain. Stories that the Indian captain and some players were partying during the test match caused a stench.

By this time, winds of massive change were blowing across the country, one of which impacted cricket too. The then leading political party Congress, as mentioned, had been fractured by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Two major decisions she took were to nationalise banks and revoke privy purses. Because of the second, Pataudi overnight was reduced from nawab to commoner.

So in the 1969-70 home series against Australia, Nawab of Pataudi played as Mansur Ali Khan. He had a decent series, but the rubber was lost 1-2. Taken with all other miffs that had accumulated over 18-20 months, Merchant, perhaps emboldened by Indira Gandhi’s populist moves, made his decision.

File picture of Ajit Wadekar. Photo: Twitter/ICC

When the selectors met, Dutta Ray from East Zone was absent. The remaining four were divided between Pataudi or another. Merchant, who had the casting vote as chairman broke the deadlock by voting against Pataudi. The selectors then plumped for Wadekar, who nobody thought was even in the running, as captain.

Merchant’s influence was to extend beyond just making Wadekar captain. His clarion call was ‘Catch ‘Em Young’. A couple of years earlier Gundappa Vishwanath, the diminutive stylist from Bangalore, had started his test career with a century on debut against Australia at Kanpur.

Ashok, son of legendary Vinoo Mankad, had been introduced in the team in the same series. Eknath Solkar, son of a groundsman from the Hindu Gymkhana that dots Mumbai’s Marine Drive promenade, had also played his first test against New Zealand the same season.

Most promising among the youngsters was a short-statured opening batsman from Bombay with a plethora of tall scores in schools, college and first-class matches: Sunil Manohar Gavaskar. “He is the youngest in the team, but seniors would do well to follow his (Gavaskar’s) example,’’ Merchant advised at the send-off dinner for the team.

Interestingly, apart from Gavaskar, Vishwanath, Solkar, Mankad and other relatively young players like Bishen Bedi, Venkatraghavan, and Jayantilal, the squad had several seniors, including those perceived as Pataudi’s cronies: Jaisimha, Prasanna, Dilip Sardesai. Pataudi meanwhile had opted out of the tour for ‘personal reasons’.

There was a healthy mix of experience and youth in the side that left for the Caribbeans in early 1971. But the cynicism of critics and experts remained undiluted. The prediction was unanimous: history would repeat itself, a whitewash as in 1972.

Also read: Ajit Wadekar, the Captain Who Led to the Resurgence of Indian Cricket

The victory

The all-important win came in the second Test, but the foundation for this was laid in the first at Kingston. More than a day’s play was lost for rain before the match got underway. India was soon in turmoil, tottering at 75 for 5.

Trepidations of a rout were dispelled with doughty Solkar joining experienced Sardesai the two putting on 137 runs for the sixth wicket. Sardesai added another 122 with gutsy off spinner Prasanna and India recovered to reach a healthy 387, Sardesai excelling with 212, the first double century by an Indian against the West Indies.

In turn, the West Indies were sensationally bowled out for 217. There was more shock to follow when Wadekar enforced the follow on. Captain Sobers was flabbergasted. He was unaware that the law says if a day’s play is lost, the follow-on margin is reduced to 150. West Indies saved the match, but India had won a major psychological battle.

The next test was at Port of Spain. Batting first, the West Indies were bundled out for 214. Gavaskar, who had missed the first test because of injury, made a fine 65 on debut. The most important contribution came from Kingston heroes Sardesai and Solkar who put on 114 runs for and helped India reach 352. Sardesai scored his second century in the series.

Sunil Gavaskar. Photo: Twitter/ICC

There was a stroke of luck for India before start of play on the third day when in-form Charlie Davis, got hit on the eyebrow at net practice and had to be taken to hospital for repairs. Worse followed as Fredericks was run out at his overnight score. The West Indies were reeling. But Clive Lloyd and Sobers still remained.

Lloyd tried to break free of the stranglehold with some desperate shots. Wadekar then played a masterstroke, summoning Durrani to bowl at the impatient batsman and stationed himself at mid-wicket. As if on cue, Lloyd hit a delivery straight to the Indian captain.

Durrani’s next delivery was even more deadly, beating Sobers’s defensive push and knocked over the leg-stump bail. If ever two balls could win a match, these were those! West Indies bowled out 261, only 124 runs were needed to win. The target was met easily, rising star Gavaskar scoring 67 not out. India had beaten the West Indies in a Test for the first time ever. The remaining three tests were intensely fought as Sobers tried his utmost to square the series but was thwarted by the Indian batsmen.

Gavaskar finished with 774 runs in his debut series, a record which, half a century later, still stands. A song extolling his virtuosity was composed and sung by renowned Calypso artist Lord Relator.

This was the forerunner of many records and milestones Gavaskar was to establish. By the time he finished in 1987, he had most test runs (10122) and most centuries (34), inspiring several generations of young Indians to aim for the skies.

Also read: India’s Greatest Cricketing Triumph, Bar Absolutely None

Sardesai, with a tally of 642 runs earned the sobriquet ‘Renaissance Man’. Solkar’s brave efforts made the youngster from the maidans a cocktail party star overnight. Bedi, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan earned accolades for their splendid skills which stymied brilliant strokeplayers Sobers, Lloyd, Rohan Kanhai.

Skipper Wadekar, not everybody’s choice as captain, was now everybody’s favourite. He did not make too many runs, but fine man-management skills interspersed with offbeat captaincy moves came in for lush praise, even from Sobers.

And who could forget Salim Durrani? His contributions in terms of stats – with bat and ball – was negligible. But the fate of the series had hinged on his two magical deliveries. Some years back, I asked Durrani if he was nervous when Wadekar tossed the ball to him in that memorable win. “In fact, I kept pestering him for the ball, I knew I could get them out. I always backed myself, but I didn’t have enough people to back me,’’.

Brilliant all-rounder, Durrani was a maverick who played just 25 tests in a sporadic career.

Ajit Wadekar and Bhagwat Chandrashekhar after winning the third test at The Oval in England. Photo: BCCI

Victory Part 2

A little over 5 months later, the team under Wadekar beat Ray Illingworth’s mighty team at the Oval.  This was India’s first ever test and series win in England. On the previous tour in 1967, Pataudi’s team had been blighted 0-3. On seaming pitches and greentops, nobody had given Wadekar’s side a hope in hell.

But as in the West Indies, India came up with a stunning performance when it mattered. Wadekar’s trump card this time was unorthodox leg-spinner Bhagwat Chandrashekhar who had suffered from polio in his right arm as a child, the effects of which he hid from public eye by always wearing full-sleeved shirts even when bowling.

(Incidentally, the character of mystery bowler Kachra in Aamir Khan and Ashutosh Gowariker’s mega hit Lagaan is loosely based on Chandrashekhar. Along with Bedi, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan, Chandra was to form the celebrated “Spin Quartet” which makes for a golden chapter in cricket history.)

The first and second tests didn’t produce a result. In the third, Chandrashekhar bamboozled and destroyed their batting, taking 6-for 38. The target for India was modest, and despite some hiccups, achieved. Supporters in London celebrated by bringing an elephant to the Oval!

Also read: The M.S. Dhoni Problem and India’s Refusal to Address It

It is impossible to relive in words the excitement and impact of these two series on cricket lovers in India, especially on a 15-year-old falling in love with the game. No amount of purple prose can suffice and I have settled for a factual narrative to capture the salient points of those remarkable wins.

When Wadekar’s victorious team was taken in a motorcade from Santa Cruz airport to CCI after returning from England, I was among the thousands who lined up the streets of Bombay, showering players with cheers and petals.

Postscript: In 1974, India were thrashed 3-0 by England, including being bowled out for a paltry 42 at Lord’s. Wadekar, shattered, retired immediately after. Sardesai, continue his prolific run getting as in the West Indies, retired after he was dropped for poor form mid-series against England in 1972-73. Durrani, dropped for the 1971 tur England, returned briefly for a final but glorious flicker. Banners came up ‘No Durrani, No Test!” when he was dropped for the Bombay Test against Tony Lewis’s team in 1972-73.

The selectors gave in to popular demand, and Durrani gave spectators their money’s worth, hitting 6s on demand to earn the everlasting title, Mr Sixer. This was to be his swansong as he was put out to graze like Jaisimha, who never played for India after the West Indies tour in 1971. Bereft of choices for the 1974-75 home series against West Indies the selectors brought back Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi as captain again. Life had turned a full circle for the ex-Nawab.

Post Postscript: For those growing up in India, the Indian Summer of 1971 was not just about delighting in cricket triumphs, but also an awakening to actualize potential, individual and collective, whatever the walk of life.

Meagre cricketing talent made my own dreams of playing big time in cricket expire by the second year in college. I suspect though something took root subliminally and several years later led me into the next best situation: in the press box, for a lifelong, grandstand view of the great game.

Ayaz Memon has been a journalist for 42 years writing on sports, politics and social issues.