‘It was tea break on day 2 of the first Test and Dilip Sardesai was batting extremely well to drag us out of trouble. After losing the first five wickets for just 75, it was the [137-run sixth-wicket] partnership between Sardesai and [Eknath] Solkar that changed things and lifted the gloom in the dressing room. While we were all feeling a little down at the loss of the first five wickets, this partnership was proof of what was possible. And that’s when Sardesai stepped out of the changing room, looked at the ground and declared that these West Indian fast bowlers were nowhere close to [Wesley] Hall or [Charlie] Griffith. There was something in this statement and the manner in which it was said. Here was someone who was batting beautifully and had already managed to steer India out of trouble. Now he was telling us in the dressing room, with his usual swagger, that the bowling we were up against was mediocre and we had nothing to fear. It had the impact of giving every player the buoyancy they needed,’ remembered Gundappa Viswanath, when asked about that rather eventful second day (the first day had been washed out) at Sabina Park in Jamaica in 1971.
A tour to the West Indies was all about playing fast bowling. In the 1961–62 series, India lost 5–0, having been blown away by the fast bowlers, mostly Griffith and Hall, and with the captain Nari Contractor suffering a debilitating blow to the head, which eventually cost him his career, things were dire from the very start of the tour. The team’s morale, in the aftermath of the injury, had hit rock bottom. Mentally, the team had succumbed and just wanted the series to end…
It is no surprise that the Indian team suffered such a crushing series defeat in the aftermath of the Contractor injury.
‘When your captain is struggling for his life in the hospital, there is very little you can do,’ said the late Madhav Apte while speaking about the West Indian dominance in 1962. As we sat down over breakfast at the Cricket Club of India (CCI) a few years earlier, Apte, a true gentleman, tried to explain how hard it must have been at the time for Contractor. ‘I played very little for India, but can tell you it was hard when I was left out of the team,’ Apte said. ‘And here, Nari was the captain and had just won a home series against England. All of a sudden, he had to come to terms with the realization that he would never play the game again. Imagine what an impact it had on him and the team.’ With the exception of a few individual acts of brilliance (Polly Umrigar, for example, scored 56 and 172 not out in the fourth Test), India were never able to compete against the likes of Hall and Griffith. Sardesai, who was a part of the 1962 side, had experienced it all at close quarters—he had tasted defeat and knew that India had to take the fast bowlers on if they were to harbour any hopes of turning the tide. And that’s what he did in Jamaica.
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‘When a senior player tells you that none of the fast bowlers are express pace and we can tackle them with ease, it helps a great deal,’ Viswanath said. Most importantly, Sardesai walked the walk—during his 122-run ninth-wicket partnership with Erapalli Prasanna, he flayed the West Indian bowling to all parts of the ground and made a statement for every member of the team to take note of. When he was eventually dismissed for a career-best Test score of 212, India had achieved two things. First, they had recovered from their slump and posted a very respectable 387 in their first innings. Second, and perhaps more vital, was their new-found self-belief that made them realize that the opposition fast bowlers were not invincible. Sardesai’s innings had completely changed the atmosphere in the Indian camp, and, by the time the West Indians stepped out to bat, there was an eagerness on the part of the visitors to take control of the game. ‘With the first day washed out and with us having scored 387 in the first innings, there was little chance of us losing the game. On the contrary, we had everything to play for when the West Indies batted,’ Viswanath mentioned.
‘Sardesai batted beautifully in this Test match,’ recounted a jovial Sir Clive Lloyd as we sat down to speak about the series at the Grande Hotel in Central London, with the majestic St Paul’s in the background. ‘He looked in control under pressure, and that one innings, like I have always told you, changed Indian cricket forever. It was proof that the Indians were no pushovers and, all of a sudden, had put us under pressure. Never had India taken a first-innings lead against us, and we needed to bat really well to keep this record intact.’
As he sipped his wine, Lloyd asked in jest, ‘Why is it that every Indian journalist only wants to speak to me about 1983 and 1971? [Sardesai’s] double hundred meant we had to bat well to stay in the game, and it was a tough ask against the Indian spinners like [Bishen Singh] Bedi, Prasanna and [Srinivas] Venkataraghavan.’ With Lloyd, it is always straight talk. He played the sport with a degree of ruthlessness and presided over the most glorious phase of West Indian cricket. ‘For a period, there was not one person born in the Caribbean who had seen us lose a Test series,’ Lloyd said. ‘We were proud cricketers and that’s why, if anyone says to you the Indians were just lucky in 1971, it is plain nonsense. We played hard and, in 1971, they played better. You must give them the credit they deserve.’
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With no play possible on the first day due to rain, the start of the series on day 2 couldn’t have been more dramatic. Sent in on a moist wicket, India lost the first wicket with the score on 10 and the second on 13, exposing the middle order very early into the game. When Ajit Wadekar was out with the score on 36, and Salim Durani and Motganhalli Jaisimha subsequently departed with the score on 66 and 75 respectively, the West Indies, Lloyd said, ‘…hoped to bowl the Indians out for 150 or thereabouts.’ However, Sardesai, Solkar and then Prasanna first managed to tire the bowlers out and thereafter launched a serious counter attack which shifted the momentum in India’s favour.
With a big score behind them, the Indian spinners were brilliant right through, and had Prasanna not strained a muscle in the West Indian second innings to add to the finger injury he sustained, India could have won the game. ‘The injury happened at a very important moment in the game. I was bowling well and could have won the game for the team,’ recalled Prasanna. However, what the Indians successfully did was enforce the follow-on for the first time in the history of India–West Indies cricket…
Enforcing the follow-on was a telling commentary of what the Indians had achieved. Never before in Test cricket had India managed to secure a first-innings lead against the West Indies, and here they had forced them to bat again in the opening Test of the series in Jamaica. Even though the West Indians came back strong in the second innings, with the No. 3 Rohan Kanhai scoring an unbeaten 158 and Sobers 93 at No. 5, India had secured a massive boost going into the second Test in Trinidad. The match ended in a draw, but India had emerged with bragging rights.
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For one, there was the media rhetoric—hostile in the beginning, it had now changed dramatically. Sportsweek journalist John Foster, who had been extremely critical of Sardesai and his poor running between the wickets, was now singing high praises for the veteran. In a piece titled, ‘Superb Sardesai’, Foster wrote, “Sardesai and Sabina Park. That’s the association the Jamaica cricket fans will always hold whenever Indian cricket is discussed in this island on the Pacific coast. The Bombay batsman’s magnificent double-century boosted India’s prestige after the earlier batsmen had cut a sorry figure.”
He went on to state that with the score reading 75 for 5, it was turning out to be the all-too-familiar story about India’s batting, something Sunil Gavaskar attested to when speaking on how the series had started. Some even called the Indians a ‘club side’, and Gavaskar underlined, ‘We needed to compete. At the time we had nothing else on our minds.’
The West Indies had seized the early initiative, and one more wicket would get them into the tail. It was just Sardesai who stood between them and an Indian collapse. But once he got in, things started to change. To go back to Foster, ‘First, he retrieved lost ground with Solkar and ultimately thrashed the West Indies attack all over the park, with Prasanna for company.’ The words lend testimony to the impact Sardesai had on the game. ‘In a brutal assault, Sardesai did the bulk of the scoring, and 212 was his best [score] in Test cricket,’ Foster concluded.
Excerpted from the book 1971: The Beginning Of India’s Cricketing Greatness by Boria Majumdar and Gautam Bhattacharya