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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Sunil Gavaskar - India's cricketing Olympian

So I return to my PC, typing furiously.

The Italian contingent has just gone by - amidst huge cheers - but I am not really interested.

I feel cheated - after almost an hour of waiting, THIS is what I get ?

"Anju Bobby George" the BBC commentator labours to pronounce - as if it does not sit easy on his tongue. I wonder why. To me, it is as British-sounding as any other British name. In an obvious attempt at humour, he adds "If you have heard that name, tell me !" He then goes on in a tone that I consider suspiciously patronising "Well, she did come third in the World Championships last year so I suppose you've got to say she's got a chance". That was it - India gone, next country please.

I did not count - but it was probably 5 seconds.

What am I talking about ? The opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics, of course. Where every country has its turn walking down the track, waving to the crowd. Like possibly millions of Indians worldwide, I have been waiting impatiently for the Indian flag but Athens has already started its Olympics with its own unique flavour - the roll of honour is, as is traditional, alphabetical - but this time it is according to the Greek alphabet. I try to think frantically beyond "alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon..." and, after some straining, give up. On a Friday evening, after a tough week, the Greek alphabet is not exactly a challenge my already considerably battered brain cells are looking forward to. I rationalise - after all this is only the opening ceremony - India will have its moment of glory, it will not miss out.

And then what I have described above, happens.

Come on, Anju - for my sake - and for the sake of a billion others – DO SOMETHING!

You probably think I have lost it. What has all this got to do with Sunil Gavaskar?

Be patient - I will come to that in a moment. Staying with Athens, if India got five seconds, compared to the massive cheering for Australia, it is not entirely unexpected. India may pick up the odd medal but it is hardly likely to set Athens ablaze. Ever since I can remember, India has more or less just made up the numbers at the Olympics. Every time I have hoped and cheered, every time I have been let down.

Over the last thirty years, I cannot remember many truly spectacular Indian sports personalities. People for whom one could, with some exaggeration (and borrowing from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar), quote "He doth bestride us like a colossus".

On the plus side, we can say the situation has definitely improved in recent years. Today Indian cricketers have thrust India in the limelight. Leander Paes and Bhupathi have done India proud in tennis. Gopichand has won an All-England title in badminton. And, of course, we have, possibly THE star attraction of most world chess tournaments, Vishwanathan Anand.

But this is all recent. Back in the seventies, there was a world snooker title for Michael Ferreira, there was an All-England title for Prakash Padukone and of course there was that unforgettable hockey World Cup of Kuala Lumpur in 1975. The country went crazy with Ajitpal Singh, Govinda, Aslam Sher Khan, Mohinder, Varinder, Surjit, Harcharan, Ashok Kumar, Michael Kindo and all the other heroes. Sportsweek magazine featured one player on its cover every week - this went on for several weeks (I suspect they sneaked in repeats - in a country starved of sporting success and at a time when hockey still had its pride of place in the national sports hierarchy, who cared?).

But, achievements in other sports notwithstanding, most of India was (as it still is) obsessed with cricket. And here, India had, like water, found its own level. The heady days of 1971 - with series wins in the West Indies and England, had given way to the harsher realities of 1974 (cynically known as "summer of 42". The more knowledgeable among you will understand this, the others must excuse me for not attempting to explain. Thirty years after the event, it still pains).

And this is where Sunil Gavaskar comes in (not here exactly but I thought I better mention him otherwise you may lose your patience – like I did with the Athens roll of call).

For all the talk about India having the world's best spinners, the fact is that throughout the 70s and for a part of the 80s, India, in cricket, was considered one of the weakest teams in the world. (This was in the days before Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Only New Zealand was considered possibly weaker). Which is why, when India sprung the odd surprise - like successfully chasing the 400-plus to beat the West Indies at Port of Spain, it did not sit very well with the opposition. Clive Lloyd could take a 1-5 hammering from the Aussies in the mid-seventies but losing to India a few months later? - a big no-no.

Throughout the seventies, if one analyses India’s poor performances, on the face of it, it would appear that the batsmen and bowlers were probably equally to blame. Often the bowlers lacked the killer instinct to finish off the game. But, having lived through each game of that period, I can remember far more instances where batsmen just did not give the bowlers enough to bowl at. Or worse still, they could not even chase a very ordinary total or survive just the last day of the Test. Navjot Singh Sidhu would have had a field day, commentating on Indian batting of that era – his "bicycles in the cycle shed" metaphor would have been aptly over-used.

And this is where Sunil Gavaskar comes in. No, this time he really does.

There were two batsmen of that era who stood out for India. Sunil Manohar Gavaskar (a.k.a Sunny) and Gundappa Ranganatha Vishwanath (a.k.a Vishy).
Both little masters. Sunny was 5 ft 4 inches, Vishy 5 ft 2 inches or so. In the mid-seventies they even got related when Vishy married Sunny’s sister.

One of the favourite pastimes of Indian cricket-lovers in those days was comparing Sunny and Vishy. They were different in style – Vishy’s strokes were often square of the wicket – on off- and onside. His favourite was the square cut although he had an absolutely delectable flick shot (and a glance shot to match) that would be the despair of the fielding captain who would typically have packed the field on the offside.

Sunny, opening batsman that he was, had to play a much straighter bat – he would often play in the arch of midoff and mid-on. His favourite was the straight drive past the bowler – he played it with absolute authority.

I can go on and on about both these players but for the rest of this article, I will talk only about Sunny. (He is the opener – it is his turn to bat. Vishy, at No. 4, will have to wait - although I can assure him that, in keeping with those times, it will be a short wait).

Much has been written about Sunny. By writers with far more credentials than me. They often tout his statistics to prove their point. Although these are very impressive, I will not dwell too much on this – those interested in knowing more about Sunny’s records can “google-search” them anywhere.

I will also not compare Sunny with any other players – not of his generation, not of any generation. It may make this article less interesting – but it would be unfair on him and on the ones he is compared with. All I will say is that in 1976, Sportsweek came out with a cover story on the three best batsmen in the world – Gavaskar, Richards and Greg Chappell. Although it did make a case for each of these to be the best, I think it did not conclude on any one – a wise decision. Choosing any one of these would be grave injustice to the other two.

My narrative on Sunny is personal – it is my tribute to a man who made me in my younger days , and millions others, proud to be Indian. On the field, he was a proud Indian himself – he would never give up the struggle, however hopeless it looked. Even today, he is a proud Indian – some of his criticism of the current Indian side has not gone down very well with them (like his comment about their being “chokers” , but anybody who knows Sunny from his stubborn playing days would realize where he is coming from). He is a perfect ambassador for not just the game of cricket but for sport in general.

For me, he has been in my life for as long as I can remember. In my childhood, he was every Indian cricket lover’s most treasured possession. We would be at school and try to get score updates. Everytime we would hear the score and learn that a wicket had fallen, we would pray that it was not Sunny’s. Most of the times, it was not. Much like Ken Barrington for England, Sunny wore India on his chest when he went out to bat. He was too respectful of the task he had and the responsibility he bore, to let India down.

Among the reasons I hold Sunny in very high esteem, is the fact that he achieved what he did, opening the batting for India. Everybody knows that an opener’s job is a very tough one – the wicket is usually green, you do not know how the ball will behave in the first over of the day and it takes one ball to behave strangely to see you back in the pavilion. A middle-order batsman has the slight advantage of judging by the fate of those before him. Added to this is the responsibility an opener carries – he knows that if he gets out, he immediately hands over psychological advantage to the bowling side. There is no bigger boost for a bowling side than to get an early breakthrough.

Now to something else – Sunny's critics.

Let’s face it – if you are famous, you tend to attract criticism. It is difficult for people to accept somebody wholeheartedly – it is almost against human nature. Like they say, “nobody kicks a dead dog”. But, when your playing days are over, often this criticism sticks even harder with your image. With the passage of time, with less and less of you to go by, there is a high chance that future generations see this image as you and all your exploits on the field – however laudable at that time – could fade into the background.

I am not suggesting that Sunny’s performances are ever going to fade into the background. They are far too many to suffer this fate. But his records will be broken. As batting averages continue to swell like the Ganges in monsoon, his once stupendous average of 51 may well be overtaken by many.

Not that Sunny would care. He knows what he has achieved for India. He is not answerable to any of his critics. But there are many images of him that are constantly portrayed to today’s cricket loving public – and some of them are definitely not positive.

As somebody who has followed his entire career closely, let me give you my take on him.

First I need to clarify that I am not a blind worshipper of Sunny. For all my huge admiration for him, I think he may have had his failings. At the zenith of his power, he had tremendous influence in selectorial matters. Some decisions of that period did strongly suggest a not-entirely-kosher selection process (especially since some of the beneficiaries were from Sunny’s zonal team, West Zone). Having said that, many selection decisions of those days raised eyebrows - speculating about Sunny’s role in this would be akin to vindicating the selectors themselves – and that would be wrong. It was their call – and they need to be answerable for their decisions.

Now, onto some mud on Sunny’s face that needs clearing. There have been a few stories – from his playing days – that have gained momentum after his retirement. I will challenge each one of them.

First, that Sunny was a selfish player – playing only for records. I have never heard such nonsense in my life. First of all, to play for records, you have to be in the luxurious position of being able to do so. Let’s not forget that most of the times Sunny was fighting with his back to the wall – trying to save the game for India. On the odd occasion that India indeed had this luxury, Sunny still played for India’s interests. Those who claim he was selfish need only to look at Calcutta, 1978-79 against West Indies. Sunny was captain – he had got a century in the first innings and , together with Dilip Vengsarkar was cruising along with a massive 344-run partnership in the second innings. He was batting 182 – a few overs and he would have got his double hundred – second century in the match. (He would have become the only player to have got a century and a double century in the same match on two occasions).

But since it was nearing the end of the fourth day, and he was pressing for a win, he chose to declare – and get a bowl at the Windies that evening. As things turned out on a nail-biting fifth day, the Windies just about managed to save the game by the skin of their teeth ending at 197/9. It was very disappointing for most Indians as they felt Sunny could as well have gone for his double hundred the previous evening. However, Sunny had absolutely no regrets about his decision – he said it was the right thing to do. It was just a pity India could not finish off the job. Selfish? I should think not!

Second, that Sunny was a very defensive captain – he never took risks. Come on – Sunny did not exactly have the Indian side that Ganguly has today. He opened the innings – when you see wickets falling like ninepins at the other end, you can be forgiven if your first instinct is to save the game. All his career, right down to his very last game, he was fighting to save India. Often he did not succeed – but never for want of trying. Sure, he may have taken a defensive position at times – but his teammates had not exactly vindicated his confidence in them, had they?

Third, that he was a slow batsman. Some even call him boring. They immediately cite his 36 not out as the example.

Sunny will be the first person to admit that the 36 not out innings was “horrible” in the context of limited-overs cricket. Perhaps in the context of any cricket. It was one of those innings which he himself jokes about nowadays – instead of avoiding the subject. At that time, much was made of it – as if India lost the match because of this innings. I myself listened to the commentary of that innings and, while his batting made no sense at all, in my opinion, India had long lost the game when England ran way with a huge 330-0dd runs with Amiss hammering Ghavri all over the place. No excuse for that slow innings but let us not make a big deal of it.

This can definitely not be taken to make a statement that Sunny was a “slow batsman”. He was a very responsible batsman, always aware of the expectations from him. He played one loose shot early in his career, hooking carelessly and getting out. For the rest of his career, he cut the hook out of his repertoire of strokes. And, for those who think he had a limited range of strokes, think again. He was technically brilliant, he had a wide variety of strokes, both on the offside and the legside. He chose to play in the arch between mid-off and mid-on most of the times, offering the full face of the bat. All the strokes he did not play were those he chose not to because of his sense of responsibility. And, he was definitely not a slow scorer. He would not play rash strokes but he would punish any ball slightly loose – but you don’t get many loose balls when the bowlers are on top. And why are they on top ? Because they have taken a few wickets. In those days, run-rates were anyway much less than today and, if you exclude marauders like Richards, Greenidge and Lloyd, Gavaskar’s run rate would not compare too unfavourably with many others of that time, considering his opening role and team position.

And lastly, one of the biggest criticisms about him. That much of his success came against weak bowling attacks. Much is made of the fact that against the relatively weak Windies attacks of 1971 and 1978-79, Sunny made hay while in 1982-83, facing Marshall, Holding and co, he was suddenly exposed to genuine high-quality fast bowling and his average was suddenly not-so-impressive. Similarly in the 1980-81 series against Lillee, Sunny had a poor showing while he bullied a B-grade Aussie team in 1977-78.

I really wish Sunny had played Marshall and Lillee much more in his career than he did. I feel he would have silenced many of his critics. I believe Marshall was the most dangerous bowler in the world in the 80s – to be facing him (with or without helmet) would be any batsman’s worst nightmare since Marshall, without the advantage of height that Garner had, still had the ability to get the ball to rise off the pitch and come straight at the batsman’s throat. Yes, by his own lofty standards Sunny did not have the most successful of series against Marshall in 1983. But in the early and mid-80s, Sunny’s form did dip a bit compared to his form in the 70s. This happens to any batsman. It had nothing to do with facing Marshall. That most top players chose to go to World Series Cricket in the late seventies for huge sums of money thus impoverishing Test cricket, is not Sunny’s fault. He chose not to go – he preferred to play Test cricket for India (note this aspect to his character too). The bottom line is he played whichever bowlers were bowling to him at that time and if they were not the best of that country, he could not be blamed for it. And what people conveniently forget, is that Gavaskar did play Imran very well in what was Imran’s dream series in 1982 in Pakistan against India. Imran himself admitted as much.

So, I will not accept the line of reasoning that since Gavaskar did not play top-quality fast bowling all his career, he could not play top-quality fast bowling.

Now to something completely different. Throughout his career, Sunny played a number of memorable innings. He has often quoted his 57 at Manchester in 1971 as his favourite. A bit ironic considering he has 34 hundreds. It is very difficult for me to pick one of his innings – there are so many gems. But, purely for quality, magic, pitch condition, match situation and the drama of the dismissal, I would choose his very last innings – an absolutely magnificent 96 against Pakistan at Bangalore in 1986-87 – a match that India lost by 16 runs and where Sunny was controversially given out. Apparently the next day the umpire admitted that his decision may not have been the right one. This in an India-Pakistan game. Rubber-deciding game. Gavaskar on 96. Last Test innings. They don’t come much more critical than that.

If after this long blog, you are still skeptical about Sunny, fine. Don’t take my word for it. Here is what some illustrious players had to say about him. They cannot all be wrong.

Sir Don Bradman : “I would have been proud to have played cricket with him."

Viv Richards : “I personally would like to say that Sunny Gavaskar is the best. His record speaks for itself."

Ian Botham : “The Indian combines Boycott's steadiness and Greenidge's ability to keep the runs flowing."

Mike Proctor : "If I have to bet on someone making a hundred in a match he is the one most likely to achieve it."

Imran Khan : "His perfect technique makes him the most difficult batsman alive to dismiss."

Sir Len Hutton : "If I were to recommend a schoolboy to copy a modern master, I would go for Gavaskar."

Sir Colin Cowdrey : “A pocket-sized battleship armed with an impenetrable defence and astonishing gunpowder. The bigger the battle, the better the performance."

Mohinder Amarnath : "You cannot compare Sunny with anyone. For him batting was everything. He didn't want to fail or throw away his wicket. He had perfect technique, perfect temperament”.

Andy Roberts : "He had scored tons of runs against all countries but not one against India,which has the weakest attack.It speaks volumes about his greatness."

If all these great players feel this way, who am I to argue?

So let’s end this criticism now and appreciate and respect what we have.

This article has suddenly lifted my spirits. Just discussing Sunny tends to do that to me.

I hope Anju is reading this article – or any of the Indian participating contingent currently in Athens.

It is a matter of pride to represent your country.

If you feel that way, you give your best.

Now if only Anju or any of the others can pull off something fantastic, wouldn’t it be great for Indian sport?

Sunny would wholeheartedly approve.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Cricket Memories : 1971 - India in the West Indies

One of the very first series that I have any memories of at all is, coincidentally, one of India’s most memorable series. It had to be – after all, it was India’s first overseas series win. I must admit rightaway I have very faint memories of this series. I was a little over seven at that time and, much as I would like to pretend that I remember a lot of that series, the truth is, I do not. My clearest memory of that series is in fact my eldest sister throwing down the newspaper – the Statesman (we were in Eastern India) - muttering something like “this Gavaskar is just too much”. Only later I realized that by “much” she meant “good” and this was more an expression of approval from her than tiredness (an emotion that I more readily associated with her in those days as she desperately tried – often quite unsuccessfully - to keep her younger brother under control). Knowing her interests better as the years went by, I realized that cricket did not rank among them and it must definitely have been an achievement of considerable magnitude by Mr. Gavaskar to have evoked any sort of reaction from her.

And some achievement it was. This series that I am talking about was not only memorable for India’s first overseas series win – it will be remembered as the series when a young Gavaskar, making his debut, rocked the world with a performance so solid that even my sister just had to notice. In just four Tests (he did not play the first), he scored 774 runs at an average of 154 – with four hundreds and two fifties. One of these hundreds was a double hundred (and, for good measure, this was in the second innings of a Test in which he had already got a hundred in the first outing). Gavaskar had announced himself boldly to the world – and for the next 17 years, the world would see the broadest of bats in defence and the firmest of straight drives in attack from a man no taller than 5 ft 4 inches but with the determination and concentration that would be the despair of many a fast bowler.

But I am getting ahead of myself. In this series of blogs, as I discuss India’s fortunes through the 70s and 80s, there will be many occasions to discuss Gavaskar – in fact there will hardly be a series where he did not have an impact. So let me take it one series at a time.

The Indian side that went to the West Indies on this 1970-71 tour can be forgiven if, before the tour, they had dared to dream of winning a game or so. True, the last Indian side to the West Indies – in 1962 – had been so comprehensively beaten, losing all five Tests, that it was clear that history was against the Indians. But, in all fairness to the West Indies, by 1970-71, they were a shadow of the side of the mid-60s. Not only had the three Ws long since left the scene, more worryingly for them, their fast bowling powerhouse – once so safe in the hands of Wes Hall and Griffith – was a shadow of its former self. Both these bowlers had left the scene and the West Indies were in a stage of rebuilding their fast bowling attack. Their batting was still fairly formidable - no batting with Sobers, Kanhai and Lloyd can be considered anything less – but Butcher had left the scene and this was definitely not a side that you would consider anywhere near the best of West Indian cricket. Having said that, you still have to go out there and win – and I will not take anything away from India’s achievement in this series by talking any less of the West Indies side of that era.

The rest of the description of this series will be largely based on what I have read in books and articles. This was a well-documented series in the 70s, as you can imagine, and I will borrow liberally from my memory of those readings. There may be the odd factual error – I hope the reader will bear with me. None of those sources is available with me now so I must depend largely on memory and on statistics of those matches from the Internet.

The Indian side that visited the West Indies then had a couple of surprises. For one, there was no Farokh Engineer. The first wicketkeeper was a P. Krishnamurthy from Hyderabad who had yet to play a Test for India when selected for the tour. The reserve wicketkeeper (who got many chances in the first-class games on the tour but never played a test) was R. Jeejeebhoy. Similar fate lay in store for one of the main fast bowlers, D. Govindraj, who did play rather creditably in the first-class games but never made it to the Test side. The Indian bowling was invariably opened by Syed Abid Ali and Eknath Solkar.

Another surprise was the absence of Chandrasekhar. This was not so much a surprise as a disappointment – Chandra had been out of action for more than three years after sustaining an injury in a scooter accident. Although it was hoped he would recover in time for this series, it was not to happen. He was not fit in time and had to sit this one out. Maybe he was saving his best for the series to follow (but that is another story).

The team had a mix of experience and youth. While on one hand, there was the youthful exuberance of Ashok Mankad, Eknath Solkar and Gundappa Vishwanath (who had just made their Test debuts about a year ago) and Gavaskar (still only a first-class player - first-class in every sense), there was the experience of a Dilip Sardesai, M.L. Jaisimha, Salim Durani, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan to balance this youth. And India had that eternal trier – Syed Abid Ali – I used to marvel at his tremendous energy and never-say-die attitude.

The team was being led for the first time by Ajit Wadekar – he had just been made India captain when Vijay Merchant, casting the deciding vote as chairman of selectors, voted in his favour. Wadekar thus took over the reins from Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi.

The rival captain was Gary Sobers, easily one of the all-time greats of the game. He was leading a side still in the process of finding itself after a series defeat in England and the loss of some key players like Basil Butcher and Wesley Hall.

Now, let us look at the series itself.

First Test, Sabina Park, Kingston, Jamaica
In keeping with India’s traditional performance in inaugural tests of series, India could have been excused a first Test disaster. The first day’s play was totally lost to rain but when the match resumed on the second day, the way India batted, one could have easily mistaken this to be a warm-up match. Had it not been for that veteran Dilip Sardesai and his fighting stand with Eknath Solkar, India would not have batted out that day. As it turned out, these two stayed put, taking India from 75./5 to 212/6 – Sardesai was eventually ninth out with the score on 382 (his own score being 212). India finished on 387.

When the West Indies batted, they were probably not expecting the type of collapse they had. Riding pretty at 201 for 4, they suddenly found the Indian spinners in a dream spell – and crashed to 217 all out. Suddenly India were very much on top. Since the first day had been washed out, a lead of l50 would have been enough for India to impose the follow-on – which it did. But any visions India had of victory (especially with West Indies on 32/2, following on) were quickly disposed of. They ran into their old tormentor, Rohan Kanhai , who with Lloyd and Sobers for company, played out the rest of the game and ensured India got no more than a draw from this one. Many were left to rue what might have happened if a day had not been lost but, after the first Test, it was clear that India had drawn first blood. Foreboding of things to come.

Second Test, Queen’s Park Oval, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
For the second Test, India made two changes. Two of the four Hyderabadis in the side, the dour Jayantilal and the flamboyant Jaisimha were replaced by two young batsmen from Bombay, Ashok Mankad and Sunil Gavaskar. Gavaskar had just scored a century and a half-century in the tour game against Trinidad and had virtually forced himself into the side on the merit of this performance. These two batsmen were to open the innings, with Abid Ali batting lower down.

The crowd had not even settled down in their seats when Abid Ali, as if as a precursor of things to come, clean bowled Roy Fredericks with the first ball of the match. Thanks to a fighting, unbeaten 71 from local boy Charlie Davis, West Indies managed to reach a somewhat respectable but not entirely adequate 214. Throughout this series, Charlie Davis would prove to be a thorn for the Indians.

The Indian reply began solidly. Gavaskar , in his debut innings, was sedate while Mankad was the more aggressive partner. With Mankad’s 44, Gavaskar’s 65 and yet another excellent partnership from Sardesai-Solkar, India managed 352 – a lead of 138. Sardesai got his second successive century of the series, Solkar his second successive half –century. A remarkable achievement for West Indies in this innings was the nine-wicket haul of spinner Jack Noreiga. He claimed all the wickets except the first one to fall – that of Ashok Mankad.

The West Indies second innings began equally solidly. Kanhai got out with the score on 73 but by the end of the third day they had wiped out the deficit and had got themselves comfortably to 150 for 1.

Nobody could have been prepared for the drama on the morning of the fourth day. First Charlie Davis got himself injured and had to retire hurt. Then Roy Fredericks, never the best of runners, got into a mix-up with Clive Lloyd (himself run out in both innings of the first test) , and got himself run out for 80. West Indies had not added a run to their overnight score.

More drama was to follow. In fact, much more. Salim Durani, who had until then had a quiet match and series, came up with the ball of the series to clean bowl Sobers for a duck (152/3) and a short while later, got rid of Lloyd (169/4). When Venkat clean bowled Camacho at the same score 169/5), the injured Davis returned to the field to salvage the game. But Venkat would not be denied. Durani having opened up the innings, it was Venkat now who ripped through the batting, finishing with 5/95 as West Indies were dismissed for 295, Davis with a fighting unbeaten 74, watching on helplessly.

India now needed just 124 to win. Mankad and Gavaskar, with a handful of tests between them, went about their job very confidently and though Mankad fell before the end, triggering a mini-collapse, it was perhaps only fitting that Gavaskar was there at the end to see India to a memorable win – its first ever in the West Indies.

Third Test, Bourda, Georgetown, Guyana
West Indies, one-down, were keen to come back into the series. They replaced Camacho with Carew, Holder with Boyce and keeper Findlay with Desmond Lewis who had done very well in the tour game against the Indians.
India made one change – Gundappa Vishwanath finally got a chance to play while Prasanna missed this game.

Without any spectacular performance, the West Indies still managed a workmanlike 363, Lloyd getting run out yet again for a useful 60 while newcomer Desmond Lewis continued his good form, topscoring with an unbeaten 81.
In reply, India once again began solidly and eventually went on to 376, Gavaskar continuing his fine form – this time getting his first century in Tests. There would be 33 more to follow. Vishwanath managed a 50.
The West Indies second innings was equally solid – (that man) Davis and Sobers hitting unbeaten centuries as West Indies set India a target of 295 to get. This being unreasonable in the time available, India preferred to get some batting practice with both Mankad and Gavaskar helping themselves to half-centuries. Test drawn – India still one-up with two to go.

Fourth Test, Kensington Oval, Bridgetown, Barbados
India had just suffered their first defeat of the tour – to a strong Barbados side, containing players like Sobers, David Holford, Vanburn Holder and Keith Boyce. It was not good for their confidence, within hardly a day of this defeat, to be playing a hungry West Indian side, now very keen to get back on level terms. For this Test, the West Indians made many changes to their side, dropping Gibbs, Noreiga, Shillingford and Boyce. Instead they gave Test debuts to Trinidadian spinner Inshan Ali and, as this was Bridgetown, a raw fast bowler Uton Dowe. Besides, local fast bowlers, Vanburn Holder and John Shepherd got a chance to play in front of their home crowd. India made just one change – Jaisimha coming back in the side in place of Durani.

The West Indies batted like they meant business. Sobers blasted his way to an unbeaten 178, (that man) Davis, Kanhai and new man Lewis all chipped in and they had 501 on the board when Sobers declared. He must have thought it would be enough to force India to follow-on.

It very nearly was. The Indian top order crumbled. Mankad went for six. Unable to resist the temptation to hook, Gavaskar was caught by Holder off Dowe for just one. (In his memoirs, Gavaskar recalls this innings, saying he learnt his lesson from this one shot – he never again threw his wicket away trying to hook). Soon India was 70/6 and it was once again upto that pair – Sardesai and Solkar – to put on a marvelous rescue act – this time all of 186 runs – to see India out of the woods. They got their third century and half-century of the series respectively and , while in the analysis of this series, Gavaskar’s contribution will far outshine others, spare a thought for these two men who were as instrumental in securing India’s series win as probably Gavaskar. A fighting last wicket partnership of 61 between Sardesai and Bedi ensured that India avoided the follow-on and India finished on 347.

Having been forced to bat a second time, the West Indies must have looked for some quick runs but they had not reckoned with some fine bowling from, this time, Abid Ali who put the brakes on their ambitions and managed to restrict them to 180/6 declared. India were set a score of 335 in a little over a hundred overs.

At another ground, in another time and in another situation, India may well have attempted this target. But this was Bridgetown, Barbados - they were still not one-day cricket days – and India was not going to take any risks and let go its precious series lead. As it turned out, it lost Mankad cheaply and wickets continued to fall but Gavaskar had no intentions of repeating his first innings mistake. He would stay till the very end – and deny the West Indians, in the process getting another Test century. The lead was still intact – and there was just one more Test to go.

Fifth Test, Queen’s Park Oval, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
The Indians went into this Test knowing they had only to save it to win the series. They were back at the very ground in Port-of-Spain where they had just a few weeks ago pulled off a remarkable victory. But if they thought this would work in their favour, they had not reckoned with the resolve of their rival captain, Gary Sobers. This match would be as hard-fought as the previous one with no quarters given or taken.

The West Indians had recalled Noreiga, dropping Inshan Ali who had had a largely uneventful game in Barbados. They had also brought in David Holford (famous cousin of Sobers and famous for their stand against England in 1966) in place of Roy Fredericks.
For India, Prasanna was back in the side for Ashok Mankad. Abid Alid would open with Gavaskar.

India batted first and lost Abid Ali early to Sobers. But Gavaskar was “in a zone” by this stage of the series. He, together with Sardesai (who at this late stage in his career suddenly seemed to have finally answered his many critics), shored the Indian innings and , thanks to a useful half-century from Venkataraghavan, India managed a score of 360.

In itself, not a bad score. But the way the West Indians went about their batting, it began looking very inadequate. First Lewis (for a wicketkeeper he was amazingly prolific) got 70-odd, then (that man) Charlie Davis decided to have one last go at the Indians with his first hundred of the series and captain Sobers hit what was becoming rather routine – another century. Maurice Foster was very unlucky to be bowled by Abid Ali for 99 (many West Indians in the stands are reported to have lost their bets on this one) and West Indies managed an imposing 526 – a lead of 166.

It was the afternoon on the fourth day now but when Abid Ali fell cheaply to Sobers yet again, India could not have been very comfortable. Having come so far and with just another day and a half to go, this would be a really cruel anti-climax, were India to give it all away now.

But that little master Gavaskar was going to have none of it. This time he even surpassed himself – playing serenely and taking on everything that Sobers, Dowe, Shepherd and Noreiga could throw at him. By the time he was out, with the Indian score on 377, his own share a magnificent 220, he had seen India to relative safety. India finally managed to get 427, thus setting West Indies a target of 262 to win.

Any ambitions the West Indians would have had of chasing this were quickly snuffed by Abid Ali, especially when he bowled Kanhai and Sobers off successive deliveries – the latter to an absolute snorter. A middle-order collapse from the West Indians ensured that in the end they were fighting for survival and had lost all appetite for the chase. Most importantly, India had managed to hang on to that precious lead and on the 19th of April, 1971 India completed its first ever overseas series win.

Ajit Wadekar and his men returned home, heroes. Deservedly so. It was a proud moment for Indian cricket. It had taken all of 39 years for this to happen.

I was just 7 or 8 years old then. Too young to really understand what was going on. In later years I would be much more part of the Gavaskar juggernaut. But maybe it was this series that not only started off Gavaskar on his route to fame but started me off too on my love for the game. I wonder !