For many, the 1983 World Cup win is the most defining moment in Indian cricket history, after which things changed. But there are plenty who would argue that moment actually came 12 years earlier, and resulted in the country falling irreversibly in love with the game. As the news crackled over radio sets on August 24, 1971 that India had pulled off a series win in England, there were reports of dancing in the streets and garlanding of radio sets.
Before 1971, India had beaten only one nation on an overseas tour – New Zealand. The team’s only three overseas Test wins had come in this 67/68 tour, while they had lost as many as 33 Tests. Tours of England, Australia, West Indies had ended in routs. In terms of records, India occupied a few unenviable positions. For example, they were the only Test team to have been bowled out twice in a day.
But in 1971, India pulled off three back-to-back series wins, a mark that has been vastly bettered in recent times, but something that was unthinkable even till the 1990s. In April ’71, India did the impossible by beating the Garry Sobers-led West Indies. Then in August, Ajit Wadekar and his boys took over the balcony at The Oval after winning in England, and Indian cricket would never be the same again.
“I have photos of people in Mumbai lining up the streets to greet the team after the 1971 series win in England. No Indian team in history has come back to a reception like that, before or after. Not even the 1983 team,” Rajdeep Sardesai, journalist and son of Dilip Sardesai, had said at the launch of his book Democracy XI in 2017.
Bhagwath Chandrashekhar, the architect of the historic win at The Oval, had earlier concurred with this in an ESPNCricinfo interview: “We went from the airport to Brabourne stadium, and some of those cheers still echo inside my head even today.”
In his book The Magic of Indian Cricket: Cricket and Society in India, Mihir Bose writes of how the success of 1971 changed the Indian public:
“The generation (before 1971) fed on draws at home and defeats abroad and was a philosophical one. They didn’t expect much and were thankful for what they received. But after 1971, the supporters’ expectations changed; they greeted victories with theatrical euphoria and defeats with depressing fury.”
Conquests of England and West Indies
Speaking of the new self-identity the Indian cricket team discovered that year, Wadekar told ESPNCricinfo in 2006 about how he felt when enforcing his first follow-on in international cricket in the first Test of the ’71 West Indies series.
“I wanted to gain a psychological advantage by making the West Indies follow on – something unthinkable at that time. I strutted into the West Indies dressing-room and loudly proclaimed: “Hey Garry, West Indies have to follow on. They were stunned into silence,” Wadekar said.
Before India won in West Indies that year, the two teams had played 23 times, with West Indies winning 12 and drawing 11. India had never even managed to take a first-innings lead over them.
After consigning the hosts to the ignominy of a follow-on in the first Test, that ended in a draw, India won the second Test in Port of Spain. India also found unlikely heroes in Venkataraghvan and Salim Durrani with the ball who made up for Prasanna’s injury.
The rest of the matches in the series were drawn, giving India a 1-0 series win. It would take India another 35 years to win its next Test series in the Caribbean.
Later that year in England, Chandrashekhar, who had been left out of the West Indies series but drafted in as a “calculated gamble”, dismantled the home team at The Oval with figures of 6/38. India scripted another historic result.
When England, the No.1 side of the time, toured India in a return series the next year, India won again, capping the most remarkable run in the national team’s history till then.
There were of course many factors contributing to the success of 1971 squad. The close-in fielding by Eknath Solkar, Syed Abid Ali’s consistency with the new ball, and the fight shown by Ajit Wadekar and Gundappa Viswanath in the middle order. But the two prime factors were India’s spin quartet: Bishan Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Chandrashekhar and Srininas Venkataraghvan; and the emergence of a young Sunil Gavaskar, who looked capable of taking on the world.
“They couldn’t out Gavaskar at all,” goes a popular Lord Relator calypso song, composed in frustration during his debut series. Making his international debut in the West Indies on March 6 that year, Gavaskar became the first cricketer to score over 700 runs in his debut Test series, scoring 774 runs in four Tests.
Gavaskar could not replicate this form against England, but made an impression by putting a price on his wicket. Even in the drawn second Test, in which India hardly made an impression, and the British press wrote about how surprising it was that the visitors had managed to avoid defeat, The Cricketer noted that “…with the exception of Gavaskar and Eknath Solkar, their batsmen were ill at ease.” Speaking after he retired, Gavaskar would say his 57 in the second Test was his all-time favourite knock because of the challenging circumstances he faced.
In the bowling department, 1971 was the year Chandrashekhar made a comeback to the national team after a run of injuries and bad luck, and was the wrecker-in-chief in the England series. Even if England had done their homework on Bedi and Prasanna, they had no answer to Chandrashekhar.
The skipper of that side explained what these victories meant to the nation’s cricketing establishment.
“The sense of inferiority we had while playing formidable teams on their soil vanished in 1971. Indians in general started thinking that they can also make it to the top,” Wadekar told PTI in 2011.
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