Two important episodes had taken place in Indian cricket history during the first fortnight of March. The first happened 50 years ago when India defeated the West Indies for the first time ever at Port of Spain, Trinidad, by a margin of seven wickets, while the second occurred in 2001 when the hosts effected arguably the greatest turnaround in the annals of the game to triumph over Australia at Kolkata. Both these victories were epochal ones as in addition to being in the nature of upset wins, they served to chart the course of the game in the country during the years that followed. Further, they also helped to lift the morale of the followers of the game, who were upset and distraught over the performances of the national side in the immediate past.
When the team under Ajit Wadekar began its visit to the West Indies in early 1971, even the most die-hard supporters did not harbour much hopes about a win. The reasons were not far to seek as the performance of the side during the previous couple of seasons did not inspire any confidence. India had lost the home series to Australia in 1969-70 by margin of 1-3. Even worse was the fact that during the during the series against New Zealand that preceded the Tests against Australia, the hosts managed a 1-1 draw only due to the intervention of Almighty and slackness on the part of groundsmen. The sight of New Zealand skipper Graham Dowling and his side mopping the water of the pitch and outfield at Hyderabad after the ground staff showed a distinct reluctance to do this work following overnight rains showed the depths to which the national side had plummeted. India avoided a certain defeat in this Test only due to the pitch not being rendered fit for resumption of play after heavy showers.
When the time for selection of the side for the tour of West Indies came, national selectors responded to this poor show by sacking Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who had been leading the side from 1962 onwards and appointed Wadekar in his place. The removal of Pataudi was not easy as he commanded respect and regard not only from the public but within the cricket establishment as well. It took the casting vote by chief selector Vijay Merchant to accomplish this act, as votes were tied between the four selectors attending the meeting. Merchant and H T Dani supported Wadekar, while C D Gopinath and M M Jagdale were in favour of continuance of Pataudi. If M Datta Ray, the selector from Kolkata and a known supporter of Pataudi, was not prevented from attending the meeting due to illness and injunction order from court, the latter would have continued at the helm in all likelihood.
The team led by Wadekar was a new look one and carried many youngsters, one of who was Sunil Gavaskar. West Indies was led by the great Gary Sobers and had in their ranks such brilliant batsmen as Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd. However, as the Indians soon found out, their fast bowling cupboard was rather bare after the retirement of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. Their replacements - Vanburn Holder, Uton Down and Grayson Shillingford - possessed neither the speed nor the skills which had made facing the fast bowlers from Caribbean islands a formidable task for opposing batsmen in the past. The Indian batsmen, led by Dilip Sardesai who struck a purple patch with the bat, tackled them with comfort and ran up big total scores.
Indian victory at Port of Spain in the second Test was the result of excellent team effort. The game started with medium-pacer Abid Ali dismissing West Indies opener Roy Fredricks with the very first ball of the match. Erapalli Prasanna and Bishen Bedi shared seven wickets to restrict the hosts to 214 in the first innings. After Prasanna got injured, S Venkataraghavan came into his own when the hosts batted again to pick up five wickets, but the hero was Salim Durani who claimed the vital wickets of Sobers and Lloyd within the space of a few balls. India ran up a substantial lead in the first innings, helped by a superb knock of 112 by Sardesai and half-centuries by debutant Gavaskar and Eknath Solkar. Gavaskar remained unbeaten on 67 when India reached the target of 124 with seven wickets to spare.
India hung on to this lead and won the five-match series 1-0. This victory gave confidence to the side when they toured England during the second half of the summer of 1971, where after holding the hosts to a draw in the first two Tests, they won the last match at the Oval to clinch the series 1-0.
These back to back series victories over two of the strongest sides in international cricket gave a tremendous boost to the the game and the popularity of cricket and cricketers shot up across the country. This helped the spread of game to smaller cities and soon players from these places started knocking at the doors of the national squad. The most famous among them, Kapil Dev, led India to victory in the 1983 World Cup, besides blowing away the myth that Indians could not become fast bowlers.
The series against Australia in 2001 commenced at a time when Indian cricket was yet to recover from the damage to the repute of the game caused by allegations of match-fixing involving players in the national squad. At this juncture, reins of captaincy were thrust on Sourav Ganguly and he set about the task of rebuilding the side. India also recruited the services of John Wright as the coach of the national side, thus taking a break from their erstwhile policy of having only Indians in this critical position. The first major challenge that the Ganguly-Wright combination faced was the tour by Australia led by Steve Waugh in early 2001.
Australia had won a record 15 Tests on the trot starting from October, 1999, and Waugh made clear his ambition to vanquish India in their home conditions, which was described by the Aussie skipper as the “final frontier”. When the visitors won the first Test at Mumbai easily by a margin of 10 wickets, it appeared that they were on their way to a series win. But India turned things around in the second Test by staging an amazing recovery after a poor batting performance in the first innings saw them concede a lead of 274 runs, which led to they being forced to follow on.
Though V V S Laxman was the architect of India’s “great escape” with his monumental innings of 281, one should not downplay the effort of Rahul Dravid, who scored a polished 180 and was involved in a 376-run stand for the fifth wicket with the former. After India placed themselves beyond defeat by setting Australia a target of 384 on the last day, Harbhajan Singh swung into action and picked up six wickets for 73 runs. He was assisted well by Sachin Tendulkar who scalped three to send the visitors hurtling to a 171-run defeat. Thus, the Aussie juggernaut well and truly ground to a halt in the home city of the Indian skipper.
The Indian camp was so reinvigorated by this performance that they became a different side overnight. They won the last Test at Chennai, another closely fought match, by a margin of two wickets to clinch the series 2-1. This victory wiped away all bad memories of the previous year from the minds of the Indian public, besides serving to place Ganguly firmly in the saddle. He led Indian cricket through a period of recovery and renaissance, taking the side to the final of the ICC World Cup of 2003, besides winning a Test series in Pakistan for the first time ever and holding the Aussies to a draw on their home terrain. The fire lit by Ganguly was carried forward first by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, under whose stewardship the country emerged on top in all versions of the game, and subsequently by Virat Kohli.
India is today the powerhouse of world cricket, winning matches both at home and abroad in all formats of the game, besides possessing financial resources that make it the envy of other nations. Many developments have taken place during the last nine decades since the nation made its bow into international cricket at Lord’s in 1932. It might be coincidental that two of such instances that contributed to the growth and popularity of the game inside the country happened during the first fortnight of March.
Ides of March might have proved to be unlucky for Julius Caesar and the Roman empire but to Indian cricket, it has usually brought happy tidings.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)