Gavaskar against the Windies: Part I
I helped Ajit (Wadekar) untie his leg guards when he returned to the pavilion after scoring 323 in a Ranji game. I guess that helped. He probably thought it would be good to have someone to untie his leg guards if he scored 300 in the West Indies! – Sunil Gavaskar, Summer of ’71 (PMG)
Sunil was thrilled to be picked for the Indian team, but wise enough not to get carried away. It was, after all, a team of 17, and full of talented cricketers at that. On the eve of the team’s departure, his mother saw him pen down the most likely Test XI. He picked Mankad and Jayantilal as the openers. His reasoning was that both players were in form. ‘Do not get upset if I do not get to play in the Tests,’ he told her.
‘He gave me Rs. 10 before leaving for the Caribbean. My brief was to visit the Hanuman temple every Saturday, garland the statue of the deity, and pray on his behalf.’ – Ashok Ambaye
His diffidence concerning the composition of the Test XI was not reflected in the determined approach that he displayed in the practice sessions prior to the team’s departure. To prepare himself for the West Indies fast bowlers, he practiced on a concrete strip behind the East Stand of the Brabourne stadium, with the Bombay medium-pacers bowling to him from a distance of eighteen yards.
‘I always took the nets very seriously, and expected others to do the same. Sunil seemed very keen to bat and confront the bowlers. He showed tremendous application. You could see the latent talent, the determination, the focus. He studied every bowler and batted accordingly.’ – E.A.S. Prasanna
Sunil was forced to take a break from batting practice when he developed a whitlow on the middle finger of his left hand. He then threw himself headlong into bowling and physical training. What he did not do was pay attention to the finger, believing that it would take care of itself.
He was only 21, after all! His habit of baiting his nails did not help matters. [Vijay] Merchant’s description of him as a big-innings player during an interaction with the team just prior to its departure alleviated his discomfort, but not for very long. The pain got so unbearable after the team’s departure from Bombay that Keki Tarapore, the manager, had to take him to a hospital in New York, where the team was to spend a night. The pus was removed, even as the medical staff complimented the duo for their timing. A delay by even a few hours would have made the wound gangrenous.
The worst had been averted, but Sunil was ruled out of the first two matches of the tour. He had company in the form of Jayantilal and Viswanath; the former had suffered a broken thumb while the latter had twisted his knee. Viswanath’s inability to play in the tour-opener against Jamaica gave [Dilip] Sardesai an opportunity to break into the first XI, and he grabbed it with an innings of 97.
Sunil’s first game of the tour was a one-dayer against a President’s XI before the first Test at Kingston. He scored 71, replete with lofted offside drives and nine boundaries. But it did not win him a place in the Test XI. Jayantilal, who had recovered by then, was earmarked to make his debut. Another debutant was the wicketkeeper Pochiah Krishnamurthy, whose inclusion at [Farokh] Engineer’s expense had raised eyebrows. On the tour, he endeared himself to his team-mates by keeping well on the field, and inadvertently voicing his concerns about his receding hairline off it. That was the cue for his team-mates to proffer tips on arresting the same, all of which were unprintable.
The first day was rained off, and Sobers won the toss and opted to bowl on a damp strip. Sunil, watching from the dressing room, had already fallen in love with the Caribbean.
The sense of humour of the West Indies spectators, the sense of fun, the music that is so much a part of watching the cricket makes it more like a rocking party. Every ground has its own special people who invariably make a grand entry and are greeted with loud applause as they walk in to take their seats. – Sunil
Gavaskar, Ind-WI Special Feature (PMG, 2006)
Jayantilal was the first to perish, caught brilliantly by [Garry] Sobers off Grayson Shillingford. Abid Ali, the other opener, fell a little later, and he was followed by [Ajit] Wadekar, [Salim] Durani and [M.L.] Jaisimha. At 75 for five, it was up to [Dilip] Sardesai to guide India to the realms of respectability. His endeavour was made easier by the doughtiness of his new partner. Eknath Solkar, the son of a groundsman at Bombay’s P.J. Hindu Gymkhana, was no stranger to adversity. A rearguard stand followed. Unlike his senior partner, whose bat only seemed to have a middle, Solkar played and missed quite a few times, but hung on. The partnership was going strong when the ball lost its shape. Seeing Sobers standing next to the officials as they perused the replacement balls, Sardesai commanded Solkar to join them and neutralise any possible impact that the Windies captain could have on the choice. When a ball was finally chosen, Solkar demanded to see it. Sobers was not impressed. ‘What’s the point? You will play and miss anyway,’ he said. Solkar looked the ultimate cricketer squarely in the eye and replied, ‘You play your game, we will play our game!’
Solkar, born in 1946, had grown up in independent India after all. The partnership was worth 137 runs, and was followed by another productive one between Sardesai and Prasanna that yielded 122. Sardesai scored 212, the first double hundred by an Indian against the West Indies, and the Indians were delighted with their final total of 387. The West Indies batsmen were then humbled by Prasanna, Venkataraghavan and [Bishen Singh] Bedi. The last five wickets tumbled for 15 runs, and the innings ended at 217.
A little over a day’s play was left, which ruled out any possibility of an outright win for India. But Wadekar wasn’t going to miss out on a chance to win psychological points. In their 24th Test against the Windies, India found themselves in an unprecedented situation. Their first innings lead of 170 was 20 more than the minimum difference necessary to enforce the follow-on in what had become a four-day game.
Sobers wasn’t aware of the elementary follow-on rule . . . He was clearly taken aback . . . Umpire Sang Hue confirmed that the decision was in order . . . This apparently left its mark on the entire series . . . It boosted our morale. . . . – Ajit Wadekar, My Cricketing Years, Vikas, 1973
Bedi and [S] Venkataraghvan dismissed the West Indies openers cheaply, but the [Rohan] Kanhai-Sobers combine ensured a comfortable draw. However, there was no doubt that the hosts were rattled. Never had they expected a follow-on in a Test against India.
The three-dayer against Leeward Islands at St. Kitts was Sunil’s first major game of the tour. With India’s opening problems persisting, the management wanted him to click. Click he did, with knocks of 82 and an unbeaten 32 that sealed a 10-wicket win with 15 balls to spare. The second-innings cameo featured five boundaries and an uncharacteristic straight six. In the next three-dayer against Trinidad at Guaracara Park, he scored 125, his first first-class hundred of the tour, and 63. His hundred in the first innings thrilled the spectators and his team-mates, who wanted to catch up on their sleep after reaching the venue in the wee hours of the morning. Sunil and Mankad were instructed to bat as long as possible so that the others could doze off. They obliged with an opening stand of 155.
Gavaskar played an innings as lambent as the flame that spurts from the refinery chimneys here. He cut and drove and his feet twinkled. . . . – K.N. Prabhu, TOI, 3 March 1971
One of the bowlers Sunil encountered during the course of those two innings against Trinidad was Jack Noreiga, the 35-year-old offspinner, who had made his Test debut at Kingston on the strength of his successes for Trinidad in the inter-island competition. The pitch at the Queen’s Park Oval in Port of Spain, the venue of the second Test, was expected to suit the local hero. But the Indians were not complaining.
For them, playing in Trinidad was almost like playing at home, thanks to the hospitality of the residents whose forefathers had migrated to Trinidad and Guyana decades ago to work in the sugar plantations. When they saw the wicket, the visitors got the impression that the Queen’s Park Oval ground staff wanted to be as hospitable. The strip was reminiscent of the brown, slow and low wickets on which they had played all their lives. But the Indian captain was unsure of how it would behave in the initial stages. For once, he prayed that his legendary ill luck with the toss continued.
The Indians were delighted when the West Indies selectors retained the ‘manageable’ Noreiga and ignored Lance Gibbs, then the most successful spinner in Test cricket. Gibbs, the Indians reckoned, would have been harder to handle on that strip. For Wadekar and his men, Noreiga’s retention marked the successful culmination of a ploy to make heavy weather of his bowling in the three-day game, and thereby give the impression that they were having problems against him.
Sunil’s 125 and 63 in the three-dayer won him several admirers and a trophy from the local cricket council. His place in the Test XI was also confirmed.
When I was told by Ajit that I was playing, I was in the heavens. My real ambition has been to not only play for my country, but to play successfully. Only after I stepped on to the field for my Test debut did I wear the cap allotted to me for the tour. – Sunil Gavaskar, The Record-breaking Sunil Gavaskar, C.D. Clarke (1980, David and Charles)
His achievements, talent and the prayers of his near and dear ones had taken him as far as they could, from the Bhagirathi buildings on one side of the globe to the Queen’s Park Oval on another. The ball, or rather, the bat, was now in the 21-year-old’s court.
Much to Wadekar’s relief, Sobers won the toss and elected to bat. Contrary to popular perception, India’s new-ball bowlers Abid Ali and Solkar were anything but the shine-removers they had been branded as. Solkar’s best moment as a new-ball bowler was yet to come, but Abid had already distinguished himself with a six-wicket haul on his Test debut against Australia at Adelaide in 1967-68.
Roy Fredericks, the West Indies opener, was mortified to receive a delivery that bounced and did not rise. The ball hit his toe, and then the stumps. One ball into the game, and the West Indies were 0-1. Abid reacted as he always did after taking a wicket. He returned to the top of his bowling mark, with ten team-mates in hot pursuit.
The second-wicket pair of Steve Camacho and Rohan Kanhai restored normalcy before the spinners struck. Another collapse followed, and the innings ended at a measly 214, Prasanna inflicting the maximum damage with four wickets. India’s reply was commenced by the ex-St. Xavierites.
My only aim was to not make a fool of myself. – Sunil Gavaskar, A Tribute to 50 Glorious Years (PMG, 1999)
Sunil was understandably nervous, and keen to get off the mark. The umpires may have been surprised when the debutant, after crossing over to Mankad’s end, grounded his bat in his partner’s guard, instead of taking a fresh one. One of the umpires stayed surprised long enough to overlook a deflection off the pads that gave Sunil his first Test runs. The tension had just started to dissipate when Vanburn Holder got a short ball to seam away after pitching. Sunil, who had committed himself to a back-foot drive, nicked it.
The only thing Garfield St. Auburn Sobers could not do on a cricket field was keep wicket to his own bowling. The low outside-edge offered by Sunil was one that he would have pouched with his eyes closed. But he spilled it! Unlike Jayantilal in the previous Test, Sunil had luck on his side. It was now up to him to capitalise on it.
The arrival of Sardesai at the crease after the dismissals of Mankad (44) and Durani (9) gave Sunil the option of dropping anchor. Sardesai dominated in a stand of 96, which ended with Sunil pulling Noreiga to Clive Lloyd at square-leg. In his first Test innings, he had scored 65. Sunil’s euphoria at making a fine beginning to his Test career, as also the strong position the Indian team was in at stumps on the second day (247-4, Sardesai 83*[not out]), was evident at a dinner hosted by Trinidad Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams that evening.
A steel band was performing, and it wasn’t long before feet started moving. Sunil Gavaskar started conducting the band, although his timing was a little less perfect than what it was at the wicket. – Dicky Rutnagur, The Indian Express, 9 March 1971
Solkar essayed another effective innings, with Sardesai going on to score 112. The latter’s insistence on staying in a hotel room whose digits totaled eight, his lucky number, was paying off. Salim Durani and he had stayed in room number 53 and room number 314 in Kingston and Port of Spain respectively.
India scored 352, thus taking a lead of 138. Noreiga took all the wickets but one, and his nine for 95 is still the best performance by a West Indies bowler in Test cricket. He inspired a counterattack. Kanhai, who opened the batting, fell early, but Charlie Davis, promoted to No. 3, batted fluently along with Fredericks to secure a 12-run lead by the third day.
Neither side could have anticipated the events that unfolded on 10 March 1971, the scheduled fourth day of the game. It began with an incident that prompted Wadekar’s critics to make him synonymous with the word ‘lucky’. Fredericks essayed a full-blooded drive in the nets, only to be mortified as the ball ricocheted off a pole to hit Davis, who was batting in the adjacent nets, on the forehead. Davis had to be taken for proper treatment, and could not resume his innings. Fredericks’ mood did not improve when he was run out after a misunderstanding with Lloyd. In came Sobers.
With two southpaws in the middle, the logical move for Wadekar was to recall Prasanna. But the offie was nursing a finger injury, sustained while attempting a return catch offered by Fredericks in the first innings, and hence was not available. It was then that Wadekar remembered the chat he had had that morning with Prasanna and Jaisimha, two of the four members of the Indian squad that had toured the Caribbean in 1961-62.
Extracted from ‘SMG, A BIOGRAPHY OF SUNIL MANOHAR GAVASKAR,' written by Devendra Prabhudesai, and published by Rupa and Co.