Never before had India won a Test match against the West Indies. And in what was a fateful tour to the Caribbean in 1962, India almost lost its captain, Nari Contractor, forever to a vicious Charlie Griffith bouncer. While Contractor survived the threat, his cricket career was over. Shaken by the incident, a 0-5 defeat against the likes of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith wasn’t a surprise. With new captain Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi forced to take charge and no one wanting to open the batting in the aftermath of what had happened to Contractor, the tour ended up being a poor misadventure for the Indian team.
Given the reputation of lethal fast bowlers operating on surfaces conducive to pace with no limit on the number of bouncers coupled with the, relentless earfuls doled out by the hostile crowds, touring the West Indies was considered the ultimate test for a cricketer in the 1960s and 1970s. While it is true that the 1971 team that faced India did not have fast bowlers of the quality of Hall and Griffith, it was still a West Indies team led by Sir Garfield Sobers, and included batsmen like Clive Lloyd, Rohan Kanhai, Roy Fredericks and Sobers himself. To even suggest that it was a series win of modest significance is to miss the point altogether.
To the Indians, it did not matter. For them, what really mattered was the series win. The embarrassment of 1962 had been avenged and they had taken giant strides in establishing themselves as an evolving power in world cricket. Sunil Gavaskar was hailed the world over as a new phenomenon and captain Ajit Wadekar’s support for Dilip Sardesai stood vindicated. Sardesai, who had made it to the team because of Wadekar’s confidence in his abilities, played the best he ever had in his career.
That this victory had struck a chord with fans back home was evident when thousands turned up at the Santacruz airport in Bombay (as Mumbai was known at the time) to welcome the players back. This was also a sign of things to come—television had not yet become a mass medium of communication in India, and all the fans had to rely on was radio commentary and newspaper reports that were a day old because of the time difference.
There was, however, a section that remained unimpressed. The West Indies, it was argued, was no England, and Wadekar’s real test would come two months later when the Indians toured the UK. England, fresh off an Ashes victory under Ray Illingworth and a come-from-behind victory against Pakistan, was widely accepted as the best team in the world at the time, and most did not give the Indians a chance. India’s poor away record in England—lost 0-5 in 1958 and 0-3 in 1967—was repeatedly cited in the media to keep a lid on people’s expectations. A drawn series, it was felt, was as good as a win in English conditions.
Former India players, while praising the team for winning the away series in the West Indies for the very first time, were also wary of India’s chances in England. In the absence of a good crop of fast bowlers and a stable middle order, India was always going to struggle against the likes of John Snow, Derek Underwood, Geoffrey Boycott and Ray Illingworth.
While the Indians missed out at Lord’s and got a tad lucky in Manchester because of the rain, it all boiled down to the third and final Test match at The Oval in London. With a record of fifteen defeats in nineteen Tests at the ground going into the match, Wadekar’s team needed something extraordinary to happen to change their poor track record at The Oval. This was more so after England managed a 71-run first-innings lead and appeared to be in firm control of the contest. With two days still left to play, India’s breakthrough summer was gradually starting to get out of control.
And then, it became the Bhagwat Chandrasekhar show. To Wadekar’s credit, he attacked from the outset in England’s second innings. The deficit of 71 runs wasn’t something that had influenced his tactics, and the aggression fetched him immediate dividends, with England, reduced to 24 for 3 against the guile of Chandrasekhar. Chandra had picked 2 in 2 off the last 2 balls before lunch in five minutes of intense drama.
India kept up the pressure post lunch, and with Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Eknath Solkar backing up Chandra with excellent close-in fielding and catching, England was bowled out for 101—their lowest total against the Indians in the fifty years since India’s Test debut at Lord’s in 1932.
The job, however, wasn’t done yet. India still had to score 172 runs for a victory, and the pressure of a first-ever series win against England in England could not be ignored. The nerves only multiplied when Snow got Gavaskar out LBW for a duck early in India’s second innings. With India’s best batsman out, the captain had to play one of the most important knocks of his career to set up the run chase. Wadekar, to his credit, was well up to the task. Losing Ashok Mankad had not deterred him, and with Sardesai, he lent the innings stability and India finished the day at 76 for 2, with less than a 100 runs required for history to be scripted.
Though he was run out at the start of the fifth day, Wadekar’s conviction hadn’t wavered and he immediately went to sleep in the dressing room. It was only when India had won that he was awakened by Ken Barrington with the news that the Indian summer had become a reality. Wadekar had successfully beaten the West Indies in the West Indies and England in England in a matter of four months, and, in doing so, had turned the tables for the game in India.
The victory against England against all odds in 1971 was arguably the best ever in the history of Indian Test cricket, only to be matched more recently by India’s victory at the Gabba against Australia in January 2021. The team had exceeded expectations under Wadekar, giving the game a serious shot in the arm in India. For an erstwhile colony that had appropriated the British game at the close of the nineteenth century and made it their own by the early twentieth century, 1971 marked the completion of the turnaround. Indians were no longer exotic imports from the Orient to be represented in Punch cartoons and written about as subjects of curiosity in the mainstream media.
Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins
1971: The Beginning of India’s Cricketing Greatness
Boria Majumdar & Gautam Bhattacharya
Pp 304, Rs 599