India’s historic tour of invincible West Indies in 1971 was decoded

The 1971 Test series victory against West Indies in the Caribbean is remembered as the watershed moment in the history of Indian cricket. Indian team used to hardly win series on the overseas conditions in the era of that invincible West Indies team. India were a very poor visitor on the overseas. Before the series starts India had played 116 matches and won only 15 matches since 1932. During those days India would not even win matches at home. India had only three overseas victories to their credit, one of them was against New Zealand, who were struggling at their own soil.

So before the tour of West Indies, there were hardly any expectations from the Indian team. But Indian players had thrown an unexpected challenge to the West Indies team. In a five-match series, India have won the tournament by a 1-0 margin.

West Indies team of 1971 was not the best side. But Indians were poorer than them. Last time when India toured the Caribbean in 1962 they were bundled out by the formidable West Indies. In a five-match series, the visitor lost the series 5-0.

So, this time, India flew to the Caribbean with no hope. The team was led by underrated Ajit Wadeker. In that squad, India had debutant players like Sunil Gavaskar and another was Gundappa Vishwanath.

The bowling attack was strongly reliant on the spin trio- S Venkataraghavan, Bishan Singh Bedi, and Erapalli Prasanna. It was promising line up but no match for the West Indies line-up featuring batsmen like Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd, Gary Sobers. So, nobody wanted to give Wadaker’s men a chance.

In the first Test at Kingston Indian were down to 75 for 5. It was a similar script. Young 20-year-old Gavaskar missed the first Test due to a finger injury. Sunil Gavaskar in his autobiography Sunny Days wrote that the knives were out- one of the commentators on radio rated the Indian team as “club side ”.

But the Indian team, unlike before refused to fold up. Goa batsman Dilip Sardesai put up a great fight. Eknath Solkar showed his gut and stitch a partnership of 137 for the sixth wicket with batsman Sardesai. Solkar was uprooted by all-rounder Gary Sobers for 61.

The fall of Solkar wicket’s exposed the venerable lower middle order vice-captain Srinivas Venkatraghavan and wicketkeeper debutant Pochiah Krishnamurthy were erased soon. But spinner Erapalli Prasanna gave good support to Sardesai and added 122 runs for the ninth wicket. Prasanna scored an important 25, Sardesai scored 212 and plundered 387 –a total which once seemed unlikely.

Wise Wadekar’s captaincy with the help of shrewd ML Jaishima Indian bowlers reduced the West Indies for just 150. Wadekar imposes follow-on that shocked West Indies captain Sobers. He didn’t realize that Indian captain could enforce the follow in. “ Wadekar was also very lucky to have the shrewd brains of ML Jaisimha on that team. Wadekar was miserly, the typical ‘Bombay khadoos’ type of captain. He had some very good bowlers in the team and he used them well on that tour,” former cricketer and a noted cricket writer Venkatraman Ramnarayan said.

The tide of the first match waved in the Port of Spain Test. Indian spinners Bedi, Prasanna and Ventakaraghavan bamboozled the West Indies batsmen as they shared eight wickets among themselves. West Indies all out for 214. Debutant Sunil Gavaskar scored 65, but it was once again the master craft of Sardesai and Solkar. Sardesai scored another hundred (112) and Solkar notched up his fifty (55) that helped India to score 352 and took a lead of 132.

In the second innings, West Indies did slide better than their first innings total. They scored 261. With India needed to score 125 Gavaskar led India to chase the total with a 67 run not out innings. India took a 1-0 lead in the series. It was a psychological victory for the visitor indeed.

An inspiring legend was born from the second Test. The third and fourth Test were drawn. In Guayana and Barbados, the festival of hundred flooded. The young Sunil Gavaskar made himself as the tormentor of the West Indies bowler. He scored hundred in two back to back Test matches. In Guyana, he scored 116 and in Barbados, he scored unbeaten 117. Dilip Sardesai in Barbados scored outstanding 150 when Gary Sober scored hundred in both innings, as a result, no winner emerged from this two Tests.

The fifth and final Test played again in Port of Spain. India still were leading the series 1-0, which was very rare to West Indies, who had found themselves leading series with a big margin in most of the occasions, but in this case, their pride dented, so it was expected the West Indies team would back in this match to salvage their pride.

But, great Sunil Gavaskar, who groomed himself in the rigid cricket culture of Mumbai, paid back India the faith of selectors. The final match was known as the “Gavaskar Test” in the history of cricket. Gavaskar in the first innings scored 124 and in the second innings scored his first double hundred to save the match India batted first scored a decent 360 run total. Besides Gavaskar’s 124 Sardesai scored 75 and in the down of the order Venkataraghavan scored important 51.

West Indies replied back and posted a 526 runs total, but India had saved the match and frustrated the West Indies. Gavaskar played the most crucial innings of his life. With a series win was at the stake a loss in the final match means that the hard work of the entire series could have spoiled the pleasure, so Gavaskar played 220 run innings out of India’s 427. Gavaskar endured the pain as West Indies bowlers targeted his body, but Gavaskar was learned his cricket in rigid Mumbai cricket culture so he knew how to fight in tough conditions. His innings saved the match that helped India to win the series by a 1-0 margin.

West Indies had to score 262 but could manage to score only 165 losing eight wickets on day six. Indian spinners never let them dare to think about chasing down the total. If the time was in hand then Indian spinner could help India to win the match and extended the margin to 2-0. However, India won the series by a 1-0 margin.

The series win had earned the respect from the other opponents. The new era was born in the Indian cricket. The series win against the best team in the world instilled the confidence among the Indian team players. The confidence helped India to defeat England on the English soil later that year.

Gavaskar in his debut Test series accumulated 774 runs. But Sardesai’s double-hundred in the first Test changed the scenario of the entire series. Players like Eknath Solkar who is hardly remembered among the young generations of cricket fans made some important contributions that helped India to draw one and win another match. Talking about the unsung heroes of the famous tour noted cricket writer Ramnarayan said, “Sardesai was definitely one of them and Solkar was another. Then there was the mercurial Salim Durani. In West Indies’ second innings in the Trinidad Test, Durani grabbed the ball from Wadekar and took the two important wickets of Clive Lloyd and Garfield Sobers, ensuring West Indies would be bowled out cheaply. The job done, he threw the ball back to his captain.”

Now India under the captaincy of Virat Kohli will play a four-match series against West Indies in the Carribean, starting on July 21. But it is difficult to understand the hard work of 1971 victory against an invincible West Indies team for the young generations. After 1971 India needed 35 years to win the second series in the Caribbean in 2006.

Sardesai is known for this series only for his remarkable West Indies tour. However, since 1971 India have won two World Cup, but the victory 1971 still has a special place in the mind off cricket fans who have read and researched about this series.

But sadly, BCCI never has shown the intent to celebrate the victory and give a finical honorarium for this victorious squad. In 2015 a fan group who has seen the 1971 team winning the West Indies series has felicitated them in the New Jersey in the United States of America. But many heroes died and many are too weak to attend the felicitation ceremony. But at least a group of people has shown the interest to honour their heroes.

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