Look back in wonder: It’s 50 years of Indian cricket’s watershed year of 1971

Cricket-History at Oval
August 24, 1971: Indian skipper Ajit Wadekar (right) and their matchwinner, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, wave at the ecstatic crowd at The Oval in London after the underdogs sealed a 1-0 Test series win. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Kolkata: A India-England Test series has acquired the hype of a major social event in recent years. Any series in England is now branded as the ‘Indian Summer’ which ushers in cricket tourism for the Old Blighty in a major way, not to speak of the turnout of celebrities and the hoipolloi who throng the venues.

The highly billed 2021 series between Virat Kohli & Co and Joe Root’s men, which gets under way on August 4, will be no different. This time, there will be an additional historical context though – as the year marks the 50th anniversary of the watershed year for Indian cricket: 1971. It’s a pity that the year – which saw Ajit Wadekar’s bunch of intrepid men bringing about two back-to-back fairytale series wins on the shores of first the West Indies and then England – is not often spoken in the same breath as 1983 as two of the most significant years in the country’s cricketing journey.

Looking back, it seems like an irony of sorts that for a country who was not known to travel well till recently – despite having such a fine lineage of great batsmen – managed to pull off two such stunning away series wins in diverse conditions. Till then, India’s glorious moments in team sport had come in hockey where they were once almost serial Olympic gold medallists or football, where they were the Asian Games gold medal winners in 1962. Cricket – largely seen as a preserve for the aristocratic class in the country – captured the imagination in a big way as it was reflected in the massive turnout in the victory parade on the victorious team’s arrival in Mumbai.

“I know the board does not have a long enough carpet but if the Government of India or Maharashtra can organise it, let it stretch from Santa Cruz to CCI,” Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, one of India’s legendary captains, famously said in hailing the Indian team’s achievement in England.

Cricket-Ajit Wadekar
Ajit Wadekar, the Indian captain on both the epic tours of the Caribbean and England, had been a classy left-hander who batted at No.3 and was a safe pair of hands at the slips. Image Credit: ICC Twitter

For a country which was still in the process of shrugging off the after-effects of British colonialism, the significance of a sporting success against England – especially on the cricket field and at their backyard – was certainly not lost on the Indian fans.

An open-roof motorcade was organised through the streets of Mumbai (then Bombay). Thousands had gathered along the streets as Wadekar and his men, suddenly the cult figures, waved back at them to acknowledge all the fanfare. “What was most touching was that it was so spontaneous. People lined the streets and cheered. Rose petals were showered on us as we passed through Shivaji Park and Girgaum. I remember spotting Nandu Natekar (former badminton champion) somewhere cheering in the crowd,” the late Wadekar had said in one of the interviews.

The team were felicitated at the Brabourne Stadium, which was then the unofficial home of Indian cricket. Once the celebrations were done, the players quietly retired to their homes or their accommodation while the captain, a Mumbaikar, took a taxi back home.

The VIP status was bestowed earlier when Wadekar and his men got ready to head back home, as they were told that their Air India flight would be diverted to New Delhi. This was unlike April, where they had flown back to Mumbai directly after the West Indies triumph. This time, Mrs Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, wanted to meet the team and congratulate them on a special achievement.

Cricket - Gavaskar
Sunil Gavaskar, Indian cricket’s ‘Little Master’ was honoured by the Indian cricket board during the home series against England on the occasion of 50th anniversary of his Test debut in the West Indies in March this year. Image Credit: Twitter

A felicitation with numerous dignitaries was then held at the Feroz Shah Kotla. There was a lot of hype if India could now be considered the “world champions,” having first vanquished the West Indies and then England in their own den. However, the pragmatic Wadekar announced: “We are yet to beat Australia.”

If India’s recent on-field success in cricket – and there had been quite a few of them – sees a liberal use of the term ‘new India,’ the team of Wadekar was a precursor of that culture. A look at his playing XI for the Oval Test, which India won by four wickets to clinch the England series 1-0, will reveal how he focused on meritocracy over lineage: Sunil Gavaskar, Ashok Mankad (elder son of legendary allrounder Vinoo Mankad), Wadekar, Dilip Sardesai, G.R.Vishwanath, Eknath Solkar, Farokh Engineer, Abid Ali and the spin trio of S. Venkatraghavan, Bishan Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar.

Gavaskar, the reigning batting deity of Indian cricket alongwith Vishwanath, came from middle class families of Mumbai and Bengaluru, respectively, the skipper himself was no different – while Solkar’s was the most facinating story of a groundsman’s son carving a niche for himself in international cricket. The only flamboyant character was possibly the wicketkeeper-batsman Engineer, a handsome Parsi, who was one of the pioneers to play a brand ambassador for any commercial product later – hair styling gel ‘Brylcream.’

The Dhoni’s or Kohli’s India now – which has seen smalltown cricketers hitting the jackpot – perhaps owes a big one to this golden but soemwhat forgotten generation!

Brief Scores of the series-deciding Tests

India vs West Indies

Second Test, March 6-10, 1971

India won by seven wickets, won series 1-0

Port of Spain, Trinidad

West Indies 214 all out (Charlie Davis 71; Erapalli Prasanna 4/54) & 261 all out (Roy Fredericks 80; Srinivas Venkatraghavan 5/95)

India 352 all out (Dilip Sardesai 112; Jack Noreiga 9/95) & 125/3 (Sunil Gavaskar 67; Arthur Barrett 3/43).

India vs England

Third Test, August 19-24, 1971

The Oval, London

India won by four wickets, won series 1-0

England 355 all out (John Jameson 82, John Edrich 41, Alan Knott 90, Richard Hutton 81; Eknath Solkar 3/28, Bishan Bedi 2/120, B.Chandrasekhar 2/72, S.Venkataraghavan 2/63) & 101 all out (Brian Luckhurst 33; B.Chandrasekhar 6/38; S.Venkatraghavan 2/44).

India 284 all out (Ajit Wadekar 48, Dilip Sardesai 54, Eknath Solkar 44, Farokh Engineer 59; John Snow 2/68, Ray Illingworth 5/70) & 174/6 (Wadekar 45, Sardesai 40, Vishwanath 33).

Our fielding was amazing, super fan Shyam Bhatia recalls the victories

By Gautam Bhattacharyya, Senior Associate Editor

Kolkata: Shyam Bhatia, a noted cricket connoisseur and owner of an unique cricket museum in Dubai, needs no introduction to the game’s afficionados of the UAE. A follower of Indian cricket for more than six decades, a passion which has taken him to virtually all the cricketing nations where they played, he has vivid memories of India’s two phenomenal series wins – against the West Indies and England in 1971.

‘‘In 1971, I had already moved to Dubai. Those days, the communication from here was not that good so we were getting news very late. However, I distinctly remember that those two series wins had overnight cricket such a popular sport back in India,’’ Bhatia said during an exclusive chat with Gulf News.

Though he was not present in person in either of the West Indies or England tour, Bhatia shared some wonderful anecdotes of some of the heroes of the twin triumph – most of whom were his friends. ‘‘The next year, I was in Mumbai and had invited Wadekar and (Salim Durrani) for dinner at the Taj. While me and Wadekar met there on time, Durrani was late and rushed in only only past 9 pm. He was pretty excited at earning a appearance fee of Rs 15,000 (Dh 750) for appearing as a model at a commercial, a handsome fee those days, and announced that it would be his treat. I had to calm his down,’’ Bhatia recalled with a smile.

Sunil Gavaskar (right) has been a friend of Bhatia for over half a century and enriched the collection of former’s museum with some prized souvenirs. Image Credit: Shyam Bhatia

The 1-0 series triumph in the West Indies also heralded a new batting hero in Indian cricket in Sunil Gavaskar – whose aggregate of 774 runs from four Tests is still regarded as one of the best debut series by any batsman. The respect that Gavaskar enjoys till date in the Caribbean is stuff of folklore and Bhatia has a fascinating story to tell.

‘‘See, I have been a friend of Sunil for more than half a century now, but he hardly talks about his exploits in that series apart from may be, some funny anecdotes. However, some 30 years after that series, I had been to the West Indies to watch India play in a series 2000 and had a first hand experience about the awe and respect for him.

‘‘In Jamaica, I was invited for a lunch where I also requested Sunny to join me. When we reached there, a couple of West Indian doctors who were also invited stood up on their feet on seeing him. When we asked them to take their seats, they said how can we seat with Gavaskar around? He is still some sort of a semi-god figure there,’’ Bhatia.

The England tour which followed saw India win the series 1-0 with a thrilling win in the final Test at The Oval, which was set up by India’s freakish leg spinner Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. He took six for 38 to reduce England to 101 all out in the second innings to swing the match India’s way.

How could the Indian team, which had three spinners in Chandrasekhar, Bishan Bedi and S.Venkatraghavan thrive on those alien conditions, Bhatia said: ‘‘Chandra’s fastish leg breaks always had them guessing. Don’t forget India had some top class close-in fielders in Eknath Solkar, Abid Ali and Wadekar himself at the slips. They did an amazing job and never dropped any bat-pad chances.’’

Class of 1971: Indian squad which humbled Sir Garfield Sobers’ mighty West Indies for a series win at their backyard. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

The wins in 1971 instilled self-belief in Indian cricket team

Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor

In 1971, Indian cricket came of age. Two overseas wins, that too against the West Indies and England, are phenomenal feats indeed. It showed the cricketing world that India could win abroad and it also instilled a belief in Indian cricketers they can pull off series victories on foreign soil.

These are not India’s first series wins abroad. India had defeated New Zealand in the 1968 away series, but then the Kiwis weren’t heavyweights. The West Indies, led by the incomparable Gary Sobers, were indeed a mighty side. So was the English side captained by the wily allrounder Ray Illingworth.

India beat both the teams by a 1-0 margin, but the margin doesn’t matter in cricket. All that matters is who won. And India won. The Caribbean tour is notable for the arrival of a new batting wonder in Sunil Gavaskar, and the Ajit Wadekar-led India’s victory in England was scripted by a blend of fizzing leg-breaks, googlies and top-spinners from B. Chandrasekhar.

Bishan Singh Bedi
Bishan Singh Bedi, whose run-up to the crease was called a poetry in motion by the cricket writers of his generation. Image Credit: Twitter

Many feel that the 1983 Prudential World Cup triumph was a pivotal moment in Indian cricket history. True, it revved up in cricket in every nook and corner of the country. And it became fashionable to play cricket. So the Kapil Dev-led India’s win is certainly a milestone in cricket, but the 1971 series wins in the Carribeans and England top that. Every Indian began to believe that the team could win abroad.

In later years, India’s bunch of wristy batsmen thrived on home pitches only to falter against the seam and swing in England and New Zealand. The bouncy strips in Australia and South Africa too were hazardous for their strokeplay. Little wonder, they had the ignominy of being called “tigers at home, lambs abroad”. Even during the darkest hours awash with the humiliations of whitewashes, Indians could look back at 1971 with pride. And draw inspiration from the batting exploits of Gavaskar and Dilip Sardesai, besides the magical spells of the spin quartet.

Cusp of being world champions

Today, India are on the cusp of becoming the world champions in Tests. The final against New Zealand is only days away. The journey from the minnows of world cricket to potential champions is littered with embarrassing losses in away matches. So has changed. Now, India is one of the feared teams in world cricket. They boast of series wins against all Test-playing countries, except South Africa. A win against the Proteas could well be a reality soon.

When Virat Kohli’s India savour the triumphs abroad, we should pay a tribute the Ajit Wadekar’s India, which showed the way. Every Indian win overseas has an echo in 1971. Every Indian who remembers that will still have goosebumps.

It was more than a victory. It was a paradigm shift.