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Team India's Heroics of 1971 in West Indies & England Deserve Better Recognition 50 Years on



The series wins in 1971 were not only unexpected, but cathartic for Indian cricket. They changed the way the cricket world saw India. Perhaps more importantly, it changed the way Indians saw themselves.

With Test series triumphs over Australia and England, the past 4-5 months have been hugely rewarding for India. I’d go a step further and say that this has been the best season since the `Indian Summer’ of 1971 when Ajit Wadekar’s team beat West Indies and England in successive rubbers, ushering in a renaissance in Indian cricket.

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Fifty years is a long time. Most Indian cricket lovers were perhaps not even born when the twin wins of 1971 happened. For those of my vintage, living through that period had a magic all its own, never to be forgotten. Times were vastly different then. In the Information Age we live in today, everything is known instantaneously. Advances in technology have also made it possible to watch matches in real time on television, or even more compellingly, on the digital platforms, including a cell phone!

In 1971, there were only two sources of information available to us: newspapers and radio. Television had not yet arrived in Bombay, the Internet, of course, wasn’t even in anybody’s imagination. For cricket diehards, the newspaper cycle of 24 hours would be agonizingly long, so radio was the preferred choice of keeping up with the matches.

This was the year one got to know of Tony Cozier, John Arlott and Brian Johnston. Their voices travelled the sound waves from the Caribbean and England, painting vivid pictures of cricket action, making a lasting impression on diehard fans.

The West Indies tour was eventful and preceded with major upheaval and controversy. Vijay Merchant, using his casting vote as chairman of selectors, ousted Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi from the captaincy. This created a furore within and outside cricket circles, for Pataudi was a much-loved. admired and heroic figure.

Replacing Pataudi as captain was Ajit Wadekar, who had a distinguished record for Bombay in domestic cricket and had been playing for India since 1966. Wadekar had under him a team with a good blend of experience and youth. Though Pataudi declined to go on the tour, the new captain the likes of M L Jaisimha, Dilip Sardesai and Salim Durrani, all accomplished senior players, to lean on for advice.

The spotlight, however, was on juniors in the squad. `Catch ‘Em Young’ had been Merchant’s slogan to revamp Indian cricket, which led to G R Vishwanath, Ashok Mankad and Eknath Solkar being selected to play for India in 1969. For the 1970-71 tour the West Indies, the newsworthy newcomer was 21-year-old Dadar boy Sunil Manohar Gavaskar.

Gavaskar had been a prolific run-getter in schools, college and universities cricket, and then transited smoothly to the first class ranks without hassle. However, cricket history is replete with stories of promising youngsters who had fizzled out prematurely, found wanting in skills at the highest level, or suffering from stage fright. How would Gavaskar fare?

The answer to that came in stunning manner. Gavaskar missed the first Test as he wasn’t fit, made two half centuries on debut in the second, and went on to make a mind-boggling 774 runs in his debut series, a record which, half a century later, remains unsurpassed.

By the time he finished playing cricket 16-plus years later, Gavaskar had become the first man to go past 10000 runs (10122 was his final tally) and sailed past Don Bradman’s 29 centuries (which had stood from 1948) to finish with 34. Both these records were overhauled, but that did not dilute Gavaskar’s contribution a whit.

He was easily one of the greatest opening batsmen. In the Indian context, not only was he a record-breaking run machine, but an inspiration for several generations, showing his countrymen that they were as good as any in the world, if not better. In fact, his impact transcended cricket and found relevance in every walk of life.

Gavaskar being felicitated by the BCCI on the 50th anniversary of his debut in the fourth Test at Ahmedabad, therefore, was most appropriate and thoughtful. Yet, the tenor and scope of the felicitation was unfulfilling on two counts.

One centres around Gavaskar the individual, the batting wizard, whose contribution to cricket, as highlighted earlier, is epic. Could the felicitation have been more compelling? The second pertains to the team and players who made 1971 so special and memorable for Indian cricket. Any plans for honouring them?

I am loath to carp. These are daunting times for everyone, not the least sports federations all over the world. That top level cricket (IPL, tour Down Under, different series’s v England, some domestic tournaments) has been made possible redounds to the credit of the BCCI. No question.

Yet in the case of commemorating the magnificent 1971 wins, so much more was possible with advance planning and greater imagination. Let’s look at Gavaskar’s felicitation. Once the England tour became a certainty, some more thought could have been given to make it more detailed and elaborate.

If getting his peers was impossible, why couldn’t this involve current captain Virat Kohli and his team? Ultimately, Kohli now holds the baton for batting greatness that was passed on to him by Sachin Tendulkar who in turn had received if from Gavaskar!

And while bio-secure bubble stringencies obviously prevent extensive live events, the BCCI, with such vast funds at its disposal, could have invested in a documentary with relevant footage and interviews, highlighting Gavaskar’s greatness to the modern generation, instead of leaving this to private media houses, short of resources in terms of money, footage and access.

But my argument is not restricted to Gavaskar. He was obviously among the leading lights of the tour to West Indies in 1971. However, in team sport, the significance of individual contributions comes from its timeliness which makes it worthy of recall, acknowledgement and celebrations even decades later.

For instance, Salim Durani didn’t have a particularly successful tour of the West Indies in 1971. But in the second Test at Port of Spain, which India won, he removed Clive Lloyd and Garfield Sobers off successive deliveries. This was the defining phase of not just the match, but also the series.

Similarly, India’s success in the Caribbean in 1971 would have been impossible without the 642 runs made by Dilip Sardesai, several battling innings played by Eknath Solkar, and the probing spin bowling of Bishan Bedi and S Venkatraghavan through the series.

When you get into the second memorable series that year, against England, other heroes emerge, but most notably unorthodox leg-spinner B S Chandrashekhar. His 6-38 (supported by Solkar’s brilliant catching at forward short-leg) devastated Ray Illingworth’s Ashes winning team, considered the world’s best in the world at that time.

All these can and must be captured for posterity in greater detail than has be done so far. Some major players of 1971 have unfortunately left us: Jaisimha, Sardesai, Mankad, Solkar, Wadekar. It seems both ridiculous and painful that their experiences have not been exhaustively documented. This should have been done decades back.

Yet all is not lost. Durani is 86 but with spirit still fresh, memory still intact. I’ll add some more names from the twin tours of 1971 to highlight the opportunity that still exists for creating a legacy for future generations: Prasanna, Bedi, Venkat, Engineer, Abid Ali, Abbas Ali Baig, Vishwanath, Jayantilal, not forgetting Gavaskar, of course!

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It is still possible to reconstruct what happened in 1971 and why that year’s so important in Indian cricket. This will help modern fans, historians (and I dare say modern players too), understand and appreciate what was achieved 50 years back.

To put this in perspective, before 1971, India had never won a single Test against the West Indies, home or way. On the previous tour of the Caribbean, the scoreline read a miserable 0-5. Before 1971, India had beaten England in Test matches at home (1951-52, 1961-62), never in Old Blighty. In fact, on the previous tour in 1967, they had suffered a 0-3 whitewash.

The series wins in 1971 were not only unexpected, but cathartic for Indian cricket. They changed the way the cricket world saw India. Perhaps more importantly, it changed the way Indians saw themselves.

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