India’s 1962 tour of the West Indies had been an unmitigated disaster—a 5-0 whitewash and the loss of captain Nari Contractor through serious injury.That series marked the beginning of the reign of Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi. Now, nine years later he was unseated and in his place was chosen Ajit Wadekar. Four of those who had toured in 1962 were back in the side in 1971—Dilip Sardesai, ML Jaisimha, Salim Durani and EAS Prasanna.
But there were some new faces too, prominent among them being Sunil Gavaskar, a 22-year-old opener from Bombay. Gavaskar missed the first Test at Kingston, Jamaica when India for the first time forced the West Indies to follow on thanks to a splendid 212 by Sardesai.
West Indies were going through one of their leanest spells, having not won a series since 1967. Though they were still led by the peerless Garry Sobers, backed up by veteran Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd and Charlie Davis, the bowling looked decidedly thin due to the recent retirements of fast bowlers Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith.
India had won just a solitary series prior to 1971 and that was in 1967-68 against New Zealand, the perpetual wooden spooners of international cricket.
Few gave them much chance at the start of the year on improving on that record, particularly with a new captain and the traditional lack of quick bowlers.
But though the Kingston Test was drawn, the home side never quite got over the shock of having to follow on. It was considered a great humiliation for such a mighty side.
That certainly gave Wadekar and his men a boost and they skittled out the entire side on the opening day of the second Test at Port of Spain for a measly 214.
The very first ball of the Test saw an Abid Ali shooter bowl Roy Fredericks off his pads and the batting never really recovered after that.
Abid also bowled Lloyd for 7 while the spin trio of Bedi, Venkat and Pras did the rest. Only Davis with an unbeaten 71 offered any resistance. But he lacked support and the highest stand of the innings came down at the eighth wicket with Grayson Shillingford helping him add 53 runs, pushing the total past the 200-run mark.
Openers Ashok Mankad and Gavaskar gave India a good start with 68 runs.
After Mankad was first out to Shillingford for 44, it was off spinner Jack Noreiga, playing only his second Test and on his home ground, who picked up the wickets of Gavaskar (65), Durani (9) and Wadekar for a duck to leave the Indians in a spot of bother at 186 for 4.
Sardesai was once again like a rock. He had added 96 for the second wicket with Gavaskar. Now he found an able ally in Eknath Solkar who was enjoying a purple patch with the bat in this series. The batsmen benefited immensely by shockingly poor catching and Gavaskar (once) and Solkar (twice) were both reprieved.
The total was advanced to 300 when Sardesai was dismissed for 112 after batting for four and a half hours. The innings quickly folded up after that for 352, giving India a useful lead of 138 runs. Noreiga, who had made his debut in the first Test — and would play the last Test of his career in the fifth and final match at the same venue a month later — was the bowling hero with 9 for 95, still the best figures for a West Indian bowler.
By close of play on the third day, the West Indian batsmen had wrested back the initiative, finishing on 150 for one. Openers Fredericks (batting on 80) and Kanhai put on 87; then Davis on 33 added a further unbroken 77. It looked like it would be a long haul ahead for the Indian bowlers on the next day.
The fourth day’s play—10 March 1971—turned out to be one of the most remarkable and famous in Indian cricket history. Call it luck, call it fate. But everything went India’s way on what turned out to be the final day of the Test match.
Davis could not join his overnight partner at the start of play. During morning practice, a ferocious shot by Fredericks shot through a gap in the nets and struck Davis a fearful blow above the eyebrow. He had to be rushed to hospital and have stitches inserted. So Lloyd walked out in his stead. Probably shaken by the incident, the left-handed opener was run out without adding to his overnight 80. In attempting a single of Durani, he was sent back by Lloyd and run out smartly by substitute Jayantilal fielding in place of Sardesai.
Then two runs later came the wicket that turned the tide. And it was the left arm spin of Durani that did the trick with two major wickets.
Sobers was bowled for a duck and Lloyd departed two overs later for 15, followed by Steve Camacho in the next over bowled by Venkat.
It meant the Windies suddenly found themselves staggering at 169 for 5—four wickets had fallen in the first hour for the addition of just 19 runs and India were right back in the match. Durani had not got even an over in the first innings. But after the third day’s play he pleaded with Jaisimha to convince his captain to allow him a bowl first thing the next morning.
Though he was a failure with the bat in this his last series, Jai was a vital member of Wadekar’s brains-trust and his advice did the trick. Davis returned from hospital, rallying to his team’s cause and once again played a heroic lone hand. But his 74 not out was not enough. India needed just 124 for their first win and got there for the loss of only three wickets.
The openers batted well again in a stand worth 74. But the dismissals of Mankad (29), Durani (0) and Sardesai (3), all to leg breaks of Arthur Barrett saw the total slide to 84 for three. After that Abid Ali and Gavaskar took over and victory came 15 minutes before close of play with a full day to spare.
Gavaskar had announced himself on the world stage with 65 and 67 not out on his Test debut. But that was just a taste of things to come. The next three Tests saw him reeling off four more centuries, including 124 and 220 in the fifth and final Test at Port of Spain.
That Test ended in a draw and meant India had won the series 1-0 with Gavaskar compiling 774 runs, still a world record for a debut series. And just four months later came victory at the Oval. It was a memorable year indeed for Indian cricket.