1971: The Beginning of India’s Cricketing GreatnessBoria Majumdar and Gautam Bhattacharya
304 pages|Rs 599
BS Chandrasekhar leads the Indian team back to the pavilion at the Oval after his spell of 6 for 38
INDIA’S WIN AT The Oval was a miracle. Much like the 2001 victory against Australia at Eden Gardens where India won after following on, India came back from behind at The Oval to hand England their first series loss in years. The victory was proof of a concept that had started in the West Indies, giving a serious shot in the arm to the Ajit Wadekar-Vijay Merchant pair. While Wadekar was now the undisputed leader, Merchant could hang up his boots as chairman of the selection committee later in the year, leaving behind a legacy difficult to replicate. While the victory has been much talked about and analysed, there are stories subsumed within the bigger story of success that helps liven up The Oval win as one of the greatest moments in the history of Indian cricket.
Ajit Wadekar was now the undisputed leader. Vijay Merchant could hang up his boots as chairman of the selection committee, leaving a legacy difficult to replicate
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With just three runs to get for the win, Farokh Engineer who was batting with Gundappa Viswanath walked up to the little master to caution him against playing a rash shot. He said with just three runs remaining all they needed to do was take singles and not try anything adventurous. A rather innocuous statement that triggered a very strange reaction in Viswanath. A calm and composed man, Viswanath had a horrible rush of blood and played what he calls the worst shot of his cricketing life. ‘I have got out to poor shots but this was something different. It was a horrible shot and I still regret it. It was perhaps the worst shot I have played in my entire cricketing career. I still don’t know why I played that shot with victory round the corner,’ said Viswanath. We were all ears as he went on, ‘It was when Abid Ali passed me on my way back to the pavilion that I realized what I had done.’
It was natural we would ask him: why? Why would someone who had not played a single aggressive shot in an innings of 33 all of a sudden attempt to hit the ball big, and get out? With just three runs left to make history what was it that induced a rush of blood and prompted Viswanath to do what he did? His answer, candid and straight from the heart, came as the most incredible moment of introspection in the course of researching and writing this book.
‘The moment Farokh said to me, Vishy there is no need to do anything rash and all we need to do is take three singles—I thought to myself this was his way to ensure he hit the winning runs. We were on the cusp of history and Farokh was eyeing his moment of glory and wanted me to give him the strike at the start of the over. I thought to myself, why not seize the opportunity and be the one to score the winning runs! This was history being made. We were about to beat England in England and I was fortunate to be out there and script the miracle for my country. It was a strange feeling. While I wanted to win the game for India, I also wanted to do it myself and not leave it to anyone else. I wanted to be the hero, if you know what I mean. No question it was wrong of me or rather foolish of me to do so, but that’s what I did. I wanted to finish the match and score the winning runs and that’s what resulted in me playing that awful shot, which I still regret,’ said Viswanath.
It was when he passed Abid Ali on the way back to the pavilion that he thought to himself why it was important to listen to an experienced partner. Farokh Engineer’s advice was not motivated by wanting to hit the winning runs himself but rather by a wish that Viswanath should remain out there and close the match for India.
Was Viswanath wrong in trying to do what he did? Was the act of trying to finish the game inherently opposed to the spirit of team sport, or is it fair to expect an elite performer to do so when he is sure of his team winning the contest? Can anyone fault Viswanath for trying to close out the game?
While the easiest thing in the world would have been to take the three singles and close out the match, such a thing is easier said in hindsight. For a change, we need to understand the context in which Viswanath was batting. He had not played a lead hand in India’s win against the West Indies. Questions had been asked on how he could travel to the Caribbean while nursing a serious injury, which ruled him out of the first half of the tour. Even after he was declared fit, he had not performed to potential and there were a few murmurs ahead of the England tour if Viswanath should be persisted with. In England, he started the tour well and was a leading run scorer ahead of the Lord’s Test with only Sunil Gavaskar having scored more than him (Viswanath, however, had the better average of the two). When it came to the Test matches, he could have done better. By his own high standards, it was a modest tour at best. At The Oval he had the opportunity to change it all. Having played an uncharacteristically dour innings, he had anchored the Indian run chase and was literally within striking distance of the victory. English journalists, Jim Swanton and John Woodcock to name a couple, singled out Viswanath for praise and said it was his ability to drop shutter and not get out that helped win the match for India. To be able to do something against the grain of your character is always a more difficult task and that’s what Viswanath was able to accomplish.
To try and get into Viswanath’s head and understand what he was going through at that exact moment is an impossible task, more so fifty years later. Suffice to say, though, that for a twenty-four-year-old man it was a moment of reckoning. He was on the cusp of making history for his country and it was fair that he would want to do it himself. Had it been that India was still 50 runs shy, Viswanath would possibly never have played the shot that he did. But with just three runs to get, it was a different call. In his mind he knew that India had won the game and he wanted to be the hero by striking the winning runs. That’s what makes cricket one of the most individual of all team sports. While it is the team that wins, it is the individual who is put on a pedestal. Each player wants to contribute to the team cause and that’s why there is a Man of the Match award at the end of a game. To say Viswanath was wrong is like saying there should be no individual award associated with a team sport, for it can create a sense of disharmony within the group.
‘I had not even played the Duleep Trophy and yet Vijay Merchant was predicting I would be successful on the tour’
We spoke to Sunil Gavaskar multiple times in the course of writing this book. While we have used his quotes right through the narrative, we felt it was important to also reproduce some of what we said in the form of an interview giving our readers an insight into his mind. This is an edited extract specially curated for Open
Can you walk us through the magical winning moment in Trinidad where you effected the winning stroke?
Oh, it was unbelievable—even after all these years. We were chasing only 124 in the fourth innings and [Syed] Abid Ali was promoted up the order, as he was a fantastic runner. Abid would just chip and run. I thought I was pretty good as a non-striker to respond to quick singles. In Mumbai, we called this chipping, and running ‘tiffin singles’. Abid came. The singles started happening and quickly there were a few overthrows. In that desperate state, they were trying to run us out directly. It made our task easy.
Three years later in Manchester, Abid helped me a lot to complete my hundred. I remember taking some singles with him which would not have been possible with some other members of the team. Abid was a fantastic runner, a complete team man, a very sharp bowler, and a dangerous batsman. He could cut and pull. And he was a real gutsy cricketer. What a fielder at short fine leg he was! Just amazing. We talk about Eknath Solkar in glowing terms. But, trust me, Abid Ali was not too far behind.
In Manchester, your 85-run partnership with him could not save India from defeat. But three years earlier, in the second Test at Port of Spain, your unbeaten 41-run stand with him accorded India a glorious moment of history.
Finally it was Arthur Barrett who was trying to bowl a googly. It was too short and landed halfway down the pitch. I went back and pulled it over mid-wicket for a one-bounce boundary to win us the game. It was unbelievable! Then, walking back and Gary Sobers shaking hands with you—I never thought I would be within hand-shaking distance of Sir Garfield, the greatest ever! And here I was playing against a Sobers and a Rohan Kanhai. An absolute dream come true it was.
In countries like Australia and England fans celebrate old cricketing achievements with renewed passion. They fondly talk about the 1948 team, about the achievements of WG Grace, or go hysterical on Sir Don Bradman’s birthday. Why would a victory that was described as the ‘Renaissance of Indian Cricket’ completely evaporate from public memory in our country?
The great Vijay Merchant had said it. He was the chairman of the selection committee, and while the team was getting felicitated in Mumbai after returning from the West Indies, he had said Dilip Sardesai was the ‘Renaissance Man of Indian Cricket’. I guess if somebody like Vijay Merchant says it, you have to look at it in that light.
You went on the West Indies tour as a complete rookie, literally unknown, and yet returned with the tag of the ‘new superstar’. Some say that when you got back and scored some 70 runs in a relatively insignificant office tournament in Chennai, the stadium was packed to the rafters with fans who just wanted to watch you bat.
I actually was not even sure. Look, we had an ACC team that took on the State Bank in a local college ground in Chennai, a team that had so many big names of Indian cricket: Polly Umrigar, Ramakant Desai, Bapu Nadkarni and, possibly, Dilip Sardesai too. It was a star-studded outfit, so it did not strike me that they may have come to see me. But I, of course, remember the crowd. It was daunting as they were huge in number. The whole ground was jam-packed. Some people could not find seats and were standing.
Can you walk us through what your mindset was like in the West Indies? Apparently, after scoring his double-hundred, Sardesai pointed towards you in the dressing room and predicted you would hit two hundreds in the series.
If I recall correctly, that he had said on arrival to the immigration officer. Subsequently, he repeated it at a party hosted by a Jamaican Indian. There again he stood up for me. Sardesai’s confidence in me was incredible. It was also quite daunting to live up to. Then, when the whole team had gathered at the CCI before the departure, Vijay Merchant, while addressing the team, mentioned me separately by saying that he expected Gavaskar to be a huge success on this tour. I did not know how to handle that. Here I was. I had not even played the Duleep Trophy and yet the chairman of the selection committee, who also happens to be one of India’s all-time best cricketers, is predicting I would be successful on the tour. It was very comforting and uplifting but unbelievable [at the same time]. Then, of course, there was the captain who had immense faith in me to have ensured my place in the touring side. But honestly it is not easy to recollect what exactly had happened fifty years ago, and I am no spring chicken.
All I can tell you is that my cricket before leaving for the West Indies was kind of a progression step by step: say, from the Bombay school [of cricket] to the West Zone school; from the West Zone school to the India school. But here I was, only four Ranji matches old and with no Duleep Trophy experience, going to play against the West Indies. In between a step was missing and a very vital one: the Duleep Trophy. Those days all the top players turned out for Duleep matches. It was quite a severe examination of your skill and temperament. That was at the back of my mind when I had left for the West Indies, [with] a little bit of uncertainty.
Subsequently the world-record tally of 774 happened in your debut series. Was it a huge cross to bear?
There is no denying the fact that expectations had turned sky high. Till then they may had expected a good performance but not so much. In a debut series such a fabulous performance was recorded only by Sir Don Bradman. So they expected something similar every time. But it was not possible to replicate it all the time.
The media of the 1970s, despite the twin series wins, kept describing Wadekar as a ‘lucky’ captain. Did the tribe suffer from a colonial hangover in that they could not accept the fact a commoner was leading the team to glory?
Absolutely. Their reluctance to give Ajit his due was one of the saddest things in Indian cricket. They gave him virtually no credit at all and called him lucky. Now, tell me, what was lucky about his wins? I fail to understand what was lucky about his captaincy. His team, like other Indian teams touring abroad in that era, had to face the brunt of very biased umpiring. At the Lord’s Test, Ray Illingworth was plumb leg before to Chandra (BS Chandrasekhar) and was given not out. If we had got him at that stage India would have won the Test that ultimately ended as a rain-affected draw.
Finally, between the twin victories of 1971 which one was more special?
It has to be England as the conditions were completely different. In the West Indies you had bounce but little grass. Compared to that England presented a bigger challenge. Definitely, the win in England was something to savour.
(This is an edited excerpt from 1971: The Beginning of India’s Cricketing Greatness | by Boria Majumdar and Gautam Bhattacharya | Harper Sport | 304 pages | Rs 599)