The year 1971 was truly special in the history of Indian cricket. It was the year India came of age in international cricket, defeating the West Indies and England in their own den. It was also the year when a new batting sensation named Sunil Gavaskar made his appearance on the arena and started rewriting record books with proficiency. During the course of this remarkable year, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, who had been ignored for the tour of West Indies, ran though a strong England batting line-up to set up a series win for India. The year had begun with Ajit Wadekar taking over the reins of the national side when a casting vote by the chief of selectors deposed the long serving skipper Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. But in cricketing circles, the name most associated with the exploits of Indian side during this seminal year would be that of Dilip Narayan Sardesai, widely hailed as the “man responsible for the renaissance of Indian cricket”.
Sardesai had created history as the first cricketer from Goa to make it to the national squad. In fact, he became part of the Indian side against Pakistan in 1961 even before Goa became a part of India! His family had moved to Mumbai during the early 1950s, where Sardesai sharpened his skills with the bat in the famous maidens of this city. He was fortunate to have grabbed the attention of the great Lala Amarnath, then heading the selection committee during the trials for choosing the Combined Universities side for playing against the touring Pakistan side. He scored a half-century against Pakistan and was promptly selected to play for Board Presidents XI , where he scored a century. These two knocks brought him into national reckoning and he was drafted into the side even before he had made his debut for the all powerful Bombay side in first-class cricket!
Forced to become an opener
After making his Test debut against the touring English side at Kanpur in December, 1961, Sardesai made it to the Indian squad to tour the West Indies in early 1962. He was one of the youngsters drafted into the side to gain experience from playing against the powerful West Indies side on their home turf. During this tour, he was asked by skipper Nari Contractor whether he could open the innings as the specialist openers were scared to face the fast bowling duo of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. Sardesai saw this as an opportunity to gain a place in the playing eleven and did reasonably well in his first Test as opener scoring 31 and 60 in the third Test at Bridgetown, Barbados. These two innings carry much more merit than the amount of runs scored as they came soon after the tour match where Contractor suffered a fracture of his skull bone after being struck by a bouncer from Griffith and most of the Indian batsmen were scared even to take guard against him.
The unfortunate sequelae to this incident was that Sardesai was pitchforked into opening from then on for the national side. He did reasonably well in this position till the end of the home series against New Zealand in 1964-65, even scoring a brilliant double century against the Kiwis at Mumbai. His difficulties started during the tour of England in 1967 when he found runs difficult to come by. They grew worse during the twin tours of Australia and New Zealand that followed in 1967-68, and he was a passenger after failing with the bat in the first two Tests in Australia. During the 1969-70 season, he was made to sit out during the series against the visiting Kiwis and got to play only in the first Test against Australia, where he did not score much.
Thus, Sardesai’s career was at a crossroads when the Duleep Trophy matches, which served as selection trials for deciding the team to tour the West Indies, began in December, 1970. He did not make runs by the mountains but found himself in the squad, more at the insistence of the new skipper Wadekar, who wished to have some players who had toured the Caribbean islands before. Good fortune came Sardesai’s way from the time the team landed in the West Indies. An injury to G R Viswanath opened the place for him in the first tour match where he scored 75 and this brought him into the playing eleven for the Test matches. And the rest is history.
Record books would show that Sardesai scored 642 runs in that five-Test series, coming second in the run aggregate after Gavaskar, who hit 774 runs in the four matches that he played. But the impact that these runs made on the hosts and the manner in which they helped to resurrect the tourists were such that, critics tended to place his contributions on a higher pedestal than that of Gavaskar. To be fair, Gavaskar also admitted that it was Sardesai who showed the way for the rest of the squad. He made one double century, two hundreds, besides a knock of 75 in the last Test. As could be expected it was his innings of 212 that has been remembered more by statisticians and followers of the game as this was the first double century by an Indian batsman outside the country. Besides, this came in the first Test on a dry wicket, when India had lost 5/75. The second hundred (112 at Port of Spain) helped India to post a huge total in the first innings that served as the base for wining this Test. But the most important knock, from the team’s point of view, came in the fourth Test at Bridgetown, Barbados, as India were in deep trouble having lost 6/70, in reply to West Indies first innings total of 501, when Sardesai and Eknath Solkar started the repair job, putting on 186 runs for the seventh wicket. However, wickets fell quickly after that and India had not averted follow on when last man Bishan Singh Bedi joined Sardesai. But the duo took the score to 350 when Sardesai was dismissed with his individual score at 150. He had ensured that India saved this Test with his magnificent batting.
Sardesai was not the same force when India toured England later in the year though he played two crucial knocks (54 and 40) in the last Test at the Oval where the visitors recorded their first ever win on British soil. His last appearance in Test cricket was against England at Delhi in December, 1972, after which he lost his place in the playing eleven. He announced his retirement from first-class cricket after the Ranji Trophy final at Chennai in March,1973.
Huge personal loss
With the benefit of hindsight, it can be stated that the decision to open the innings for the country did not serve Sardesai well in the long run. He was an excellent player of spin bowling and used his feet very well to smother the turn and find the gaps in the field. It was his physical courage that led to he being asked to open the innings but that alone was not sufficient when it came to tackling top quality fast bowling on overseas wickets. After he started opening the batting, he got an opportunity to play at a slot other than at the top of the order only in one series - against England in 1963-64, when he batted at No. 3 and amassed 449 runs in five tests - till the visit to the Caribbean islands in 1971. One can only imagine how many runs he would have scored more than his final tally of 2,001 runs in Test cricket, had he stuck to batting in the middle order throughout his career.
Life was not a smooth one for Sardesai after he hung up his cricketing boots. He served as a member of selection committee in Mumbai for some seasons and was manager of Indian side on a couple of occasions. His critical remarks about the conduct of skipper Kapil Dev during the Delhi Test against the West Indies in 1983, which was leaked to the media, ensured, in the words of noted cricket writer Raju Bharatan, that this was his “last innings as manager of the national side”. Sardesai passed away in July, 2007, losing a battle with a disease of kidney that had hampered his life during his last years. His son Rajdeep showed keen interest in the game initially but changed course midway through to emerge as one of the leading political commentators on national television, besides being a writer of repute.
Wadekar had written in his autobiography “My Cricketing Years” that Sardesai had a superstitious streak within him and insisted on staying in rooms whose number added to eight, as August 8 was his birthday. Sardesai would have turned 80 on Saturday had he been alive. Indian cricket had undergone so many changes since his demise 13 years ago that it would be unrecognisable for someone like him who played for honour and pride, with little coming by way of cash or cheque. But Indian cricket would never forget this doughty fighter who helped to craft the momentous victories in the West Indies and England during the golden year of 1971.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)