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By Partab Ramchand
For today’s generation of the game’s followers the greatest day in Indian cricket is June 25, 1983, when India won the World Cup. It certainly was a remarkable triumph and the fact that the team has not won it again makes the whole thing that much more memorable. But for an earlier generation of cricket lovers – like me who grew up admiring the various nuances of the game in the sixties when the Indians were generally hurtling from one defeat to another the year 1971 will always remain special. If 1983 was a breakthrough feat as far as ODIs were concerned 1971 was a landmark year in Indian Test cricket. And that was THE important format at the time with the first ODI having just been played. No one had given a thought to night cricket and coloured clothing while Twenty20 was more than 30 years away.
It was in February 1971 that an Indian team left for the West Indies for a five-Test series. There was something about the touring squad that rang positive vibes in the hearts of cricket fans. It didn’t matter that India on their recent abysmal record probably occupied the bottom slot among the Test nations – there were no ICC rankings then. It didn’t matter that the last Indian team to the Caribbean nine years before had lost all five Tests. The average cricket fan was convinced that the side led by Ajit Wadekar would acquit themselves creditably. They would not do something sensational like winning the Test series but would certainly be a big improvement over the 1962 team. The positive mood had nothing to do with the fact that the West Indies were in the process of rebuilding after their great teams in the sixties under Frank Worrell and Gary Sobers had broken up. The touring squad was an ideal blend of youth and experience, there was a new
captain who seemed to signify a fresh start and the selection was generally welcomed as fair and balanced.
However there was one player whose selection was lambasted. Dilip Sardesai had been in and out of the Indian team since making his Test debut in 1961 and through the decade had played only 21 matches. He seemed to be a forgotten man having played and failed in his last Test in November 1969. Moreover the Vijay Merchant-led selection committee had for the previous couple of years adopted a youth policy and had given caps to several promising young players among them Chetan Chauhan, Ashok Mankad, Gundappa Viswanath, Eknath Solkar, Mohinder Amarnath and Sunil Gavaskar.
In his 31st year Sardesai seemed out of place in such company especially as he had not exactly covered himself with glory of late. He had showed a lot of promise initially, had run up a number of sizeable scores – including a hundred and a double hundred - both as an opener and in the middle order but in the late sixties the runs had dried up. However Wadekar who was Sardesai’s teammate at Bombay was of the view that the team could do with his technical skill and experience (he was a member of the 1962 team to the West Indies) and pressed for his inclusion. So Sardesai was on his way to the West Indies apparently taking the severe criticism involving his selection in his stride.
Being a member of a touring squad does not automatically mean selection in the playing eleven. It was clear that Sardesai was taken as an extra batsman for the middle order manned by the likes of Wadekar, Viswanath, Jaisimha, Durrani and Solkar had the houseful board firmly strung over it. There was never any chance of Sardesai opening the innings with Gavaskar, Mankad and Jayantilal (and perhaps even Abid Ali) around. Whichever way one looked there was no way he could be fitted in.
But who can go against what is fated to happen? An injury to Viswanath gave the opening to Sardesai who promptly scored 97 in the opening tour game against Jamaica. With Viswanath’s injury not healing Sardesai was included in the team for the first Test at Sabina Park exactly 40 years ago. And the rest to those old enough to be grandparents is history and all too well chronicled. Put in to bat India were in the doldrums having lost five wickets for 75 before Sardesai in the company of Solkar and Prasanna played an innings that saw Merchant hailing him as the Renaissance Man of Indian cricket. He scored 212 - the first double hundred by an Indian abroad – the Indians were able to post a total of 387 and took the first innings lead for the first time in 24 Tests against the West Indies in contests dating back to 1948-49. They in fact enforced the follow on and though they could not win the psychological advantage for the rest of the series now was with
Sardesai went from strength to strength. He got a hundred in the next Test at Port of Spain in which India scored a historic maiden victory over the West Indies, added a third hundred in the fourth Test at Bridgetown and ended the victorious series with a record 642 runs at an average of 80.25. That record stood for hardly a day as a 21-year-old youngster whom he had inspired picked up the threads and went on to even greater deeds. But Gavaskar’s feats did not in any way diminish what Sardesai achieved. The new era of Indian cricket that dawned can be traced to that one knock at Sabina Park. Little wonder then that there is a glint in the eyes of older cricket fans every time they recall February 1971.