The forgotten Indian warrior - Dilip Sardesai's career defining effort on the 1971 tour of West Indies
The 1971 tour is remembered for Gavaskar's exploits but it was Sardesai who truly carried the Indian team.
The year was 1971. The Indian cricket team were touring the West Indies for a full-fledged five-match Test series against what were the real 'dons' of international cricket. The Clive Lloyd-led outfit were, arguably, the most complete set of players that you could ever see in the history of the game.
Quality batsmen, lethal fast bowlers and a good spinner made them a fierce unit in any conditions, let alone at home.
Under such circumstances, India stood little to no chance. What is more, they had a new captain in the form of Ajit Wadekar, who had replaced the Nawab of Pataudi, a rookie yet a very competent spin bowling quartet, and a couple of inexperienced batsmen, fresh off the domestic circuit.
There was one member from the touring party who had a point or two to prove to himself and the rest of the Indian cricketing fraternity. Dilip Sardesai had made his Test debut for India in 1961 and was the surviving member of the Indian squad that had got whitewashed 5-0 by Frank Worrell's men.
These were interesting times in the right-hander's career. With the Nawab not featuring in the squad, the Indian middle-order needed someone who could be relied upon and Sardesai was picked as the one to shepherd that part of the line-up.
"As a batsman, Dilip was really superb. He could face any attack. At the start of his innings, though, he was bit susceptible, which is the case with any batsman since they are new to the crease.
"Once he settled down, he faced no problems except that he was not great when it came to running between the wickets," Wadekar told Sportskeeda over a telephonic chat.
However, Sardesai was heading into the tour on the back of a run-drought, having made a mere 41 runs in his last six innings. His last big score for India had come six years back, when he made 106 against New Zealand at home.
This, then, was a make-or-break tour for him and one which would give an indication of where his career was headed.
India might have hoped to begin at a place like Trinidad, which provided slower pitches as the ones in the southern parts usually did, but instead got Jamaica, considered among the quickest decks in those days, as the venue for the first Test.
However, after the batsmen, led by a brilliant 212 from Sardesai in a total of 387, had done their bit, the bowling attack, with three spinners bowling the bulk of the overs, dismissed the hosts for 217 and the visitors enforced the follow-on against all the odds.
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Rohan Kanhai then showed his class with a 390-ball 158 to ensure his side drew the game.
The importance of having a stable opening stand to lay the foundation for the rest of the line-up is given much emphasis today and it was no different in those days as well.
On to Trinidad and Guyana
And so, understanding that need, Wadekar decided to take a punt on a 22-year-old Mumbaikar who went by the name of Sunil Manohar Gavaskar, regarded highly in Indian cricketing circles.
If in Jamaica India had shown they were no pushovers, in the next Test at Trinidad, they went one better, beating the hosts by six wickets to announce themselves to the world.
Gavaskar laid the platform in Trinidad, but it was Sardesai who played the defining innings of the game, making a crafty 112 which included 11 fours.
The off-spinner Jack Noreiga took astonishing figures of 9 for 95 on his home ground, but could not prevent Sardesai from giving India the lead after the bowlers had dismissed them cheaply once again.
What it meant was that India held the aces in both the batting and the bowling departments and the West Indies were not used to visiting teams dominating them in their own den.
In the third Test at Guyana, the hosts’ batsmen put in a better performance to lift the spirits of their side and the cricket-mad public.
Sardesai was demoted to No. 6 in the batting order, with Gundappa Vishwanath returning to the fold, and it showed in his performance, as he could muster up just 45 runs with the bat.
A total of 363 in the first innings gave the Windies bowlers some hope and they responded by bowling India out for 376. West Indies batted big again in the second innings, leaving India to chase 295 runs for a win.
Gavaskar and Ashok Mankad ensured a safe end, putting on a 123-run stand for the first wicket and drew the game.
Sardesai's true moment of reckoning arrives
But like is the case with all champion sides, when they are pushed to a corner, they come back with a vengeance. The coin fell in India's favour at Kensington Oval in Barbados, another pitch renowned for its pace.
Wadekar inserted the hosts in to bat and it was a decision that backfired as, led by a strong batting effort by the top order and a superb knock of 178 by Garry Sobers, the West Indies put a huge score of 501 on the board.
With runs under their belt, the bowlers ran in with renewed confidence and dismantled the Indian top-order, reducing them to 70 for 6. Sardesai, once again batting at No. 6, had it all to do against a pace attack that was breathing fire.
He needed some company at the other end and found that in the form of Eknath Solkar, who provided some excellent resistance. Sardesai began to steadily join the broken pieces of India’s innings and Solkar helped him in the process.
The duo put on an invaluable stand of 186 runs before the latter was dismissed by Uton Rowe, who captured his fourth scalp of the innings. Sardesai, though, carried on and brought up his ton. The tail held on for as long as they could and eventually with nine down, the right-hander had no option but to go for the juggernaut.
At 347 for 9, he was out lbw to a Vanburn Holder delivery for an exceptional 150 that had helped his side recover from a precarious score of 70 for 6 and reach 347. It was the kind of performance which gave a glimpse of his ability to not throw in the towel.
On far too many occasions before that and even after, we have seen Indian teams failing to hang in there and grind it out. They needed to make the bowlers earn every wicket and put in a fierce level of concentration into their batting and it was refreshing to see Sardesai and co. not repeat that error.
The fightback was an indication of the kind of confidence the Indians were carrying at that stage. They realised that they had to hang in there and that they did, and despite the hosts taking a lead of 154 runs, would have been happy to have not gotten dismissed for a paltry total.
The match ended in a draw again and significantly for India, it meant that they could not lose the series. When asked if Sardesai specifically had any plans while facing the quicks, Wadekar said that he was excellent at letting the ball go with little to no trouble.
"He was absolutely perfect when it came to leaving the ball. I never saw him face any issues, when let the ball regardless of the length on either sides of the wicket," he said.
Seal the deal
The teams headed to Port of Spain and the West Indies now had a task on their hands to forge a win.
Opting to bat first, India made 360 on the back of a 120 from Gavaskar and a 75 from Sardesai. In reply, the West Indies made a mammoth 526 with Sobers getting another hundred.
The huge score meant that the bowlers had to raise their game and bowl India out quickly. However, led by a masterclass from Gavaskar, who made 220, India drilled the West Indies firmly to the ground, making 427 to take the game completely out of their reach.
Defending 262, the spinners got in to the act, but the hosts managed to escape with a draw, making 165 for 8 to hand a historic win to the Indians. A look at the stats from the tour would show Gavaskar as the highest run-getter but a deeper look into the individual scorecards might give a different picture.
In the opening Test at Jamaica, India were 36 for 3 batting first and Sardesai produced a masterclass to take India to a respectable total. In the game at Trinidad, India found themselves at 186 for 4 with all recognised batsman, barring Sardesai back in the hut.
He rallied the lower-order with him and helped India reach 352 and take, what proved to be a match-winning lead. And then came the Barbados classic where, with the team again in dire straits, he produced the goods with an exemplary knock of 150 to take his side to safe waters.
Sardesai got the runs when India needed it the most, and hence, when people talk about this tour, it should be remembered for his exploits. In the five Tests that he played in, he made 642 runs at an average of 80.2 to finish as India’s second highest run-getter of the tour.
He would go on to play in the England tour that followed, which India won by a 1-0 margin as well, but that was to be his last hurrah and he would retire from all forms of the game in the 1972-73 season.
In a career spanning 11 years, Sardesai could only play a mere 30 Tests and Wadekar felt that was a result of a poor run of form that he endured during his career.
"Yes. But in between, he endured a bad spell. Ultimately, the performance matters, the form matters. If the player is not in form, it is difficult to pick him in the side," he said.
Sardesai passed away on July 2nd, 2007 following a cardiac arrest and Wadekar felt that had he been alive today, he would have been a great guide to the present day cricketers.
"He was thoroughly knowledgeable about the game and all. Perhaps the present day youngsters, who are a bit impatient sometimes because of T20 and 50 overs game.
“Without taking much risks, he managed to get runs and I think that way he would have definitely been a great guide to the present day cricketers," he concluded.