Vijay Merchant was one of the most prolific batsmen during the early days of Indian cricket. An opening batsman in the classic mould, his batsmanship was built on the foundations of strong defence and patient run making, which he went about eschewing all risks. He believed in playing the ball along the ground and seldom lofted the ball. His style of batting and approach towards it so influenced an entire generation of cricketers that till Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi emerged on the scene in the early 1960s, Indian batsmen scrupulously avoided playing strokes that involved lifting the ball over the fielders!
However, when Merchant became the chairman of the selection committee in the late 1960s, he embarked on a bold move to blood youngsters into the national side. During the 1969-70 season when India played three Tests against New Zealand and five with Australia, all under home conditions, eight players made their debut. Such huge infusion of new cricketers was objected to by skipper Pataudi but Merchant and his committee had their way. India did not do well during this season, which paved the way for Merchant to drop his biggest bomb, which he did by using his casting vote as chairman to remove Pataudi from captaincy and appoint in his place Ajit Wadekar, a quiet left-handed batsman from Mumbai.
Wadekar and his side created history by defeating the West Indies and England in two back to back series played in those countries. These victories helped Merchant to end his tenure as chief selector in a blaze of glory. Later, when he was once asked by a scribe whether or not his decision to appoint Wadekar was a gamble, Merchant replied tongue in cheek, “when a gamble succeeds, it is hailed as wisdom”!
Cricket is often described as a game of glorious uncertainties. The beauty of this sport lies in the manner in which fortunes can fluctuate from one extreme to the another, within a short period of time. That this happens in all versions of the game, may it be the Tests played over a span of five days or T20 matches which get over in a few hours, adds to its charm and allure. India’s win at Kolkata against Australia in 2001, defeat suffered by the West Indies in the final of the 1983 World Cup and the numerous close and nail-biting finishes, starting with the final of the 2007 ICC World T20 stand as testimony for ability of this game to generate and sustain edge of the seat excitement, besides creating upset results.
If one analyses some of the upset victories, it will be seen that most of them were fashioned by some unorthodox decisions that changed the course of the game. When India defeated the West Indies for the first time ever in the second Test of the series of 1971, played at Port of Spain, the crucial wickets of Gary Sobers and Clive Lloyd were taken not by any of the frontline bowlers, but by Salim Durani, who was brought into the attack by skipper Wadekar.
In the 2001 Kolkata, India were dismissed for a paltry total of 171 in their first innings and did not stand any chance, even to force a draw, when they were asked to follow on. But captain Sourav Ganguly decided to promote V V S Laxman, who had scored a half-century in the first innings, to the crucial No. 3 spot after the first wicket fell. Laxman and Rahul Dravid scripted the most amazing turnaround in the history of Test cricket through a humungous stand of 376 runs for the fifth wicket to pull the game out of Australia’s grasp. And a brilliant spell of off spin bowling by Harbhajan Singh on the last day helped to seal one of the greatest wins for India.
During the 1983 World Cup final, India were considered as rank outsiders and the game appeared to be headed for an early finish when they were dismissed for an abysmally low score of 183. Viv Richards, the best batsmen in the world then, was in murderous mood and he toyed with the Indian bowlers treating them like club level trundlers. He was particularly severe on Madan Lal, whom he hit to the fence thrice in an over. But to the surprise of one and all, skipper Kapil Dev persisted with Madan Lal and Richards, a trifle over confident, skied a pull off a ball just short of good length, and the resultant catch was pouched by the captain himself. This dismissal brought India back into the game and soon the underdogs gained the upper hand to shock the reigning champions.
In the final of the 2007 ICC T20 World Cup, India looked a winner till Misbah-ul-Haq changed the complexion of the game with an inspired innings. Misbah helped Pakistan, who were tottering at 104/7, at the close of 16th over, to reach 145 runs, with one wicket remaining when the last over began. At this juncture Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni made a surprise decision and handed over the ball to Joginder Sharma. After conceding seven runs of the first two balls, Sharma got Misbah to scoop at ball uppishly and the resultant catch was held by S Sreesanth to seal the Indian victory.
When we analyse each of these decisions, it will be seen that they were not mere gambles, but there was some underlying logic behind each of them. Durani was a left-arm spinner, who preferred to “hit the deck” rather than give the ball air by flighting it. Pitches in the Caribbean islands tend to be firm and they offer bounce, thus helping spin bowlers who deliver the ball from a height without offering much flight. This explains the success of S Venkataraghavan (Venkat), who always picked up wickets in the West Indies. Durani’s bowling style was more similar to that of Venkat, rather than Bishan Singh Bedi or Erapalli Prasanna, and hence more likely to fetch wickets in Trinidad. Wadekar introduced Durani to complement the efforts of Venkat, who was bowling from the other end. It is a tribute to Durani’s genius that he was able to ensnare both Lloyd and Sobers in a short span of time and swing the game India’s way.
In the 1983 World Cup final, Kapil realised that the only way to dismiss Richards was to make him commit a mistake. It was this thought that prompted him to continue with Madan Lal and when Richards saw the same bowler who he had thrashed in the previous over coming in again, he let down his guard and played a loose shot. This was what Kapil had hoped for and Madan Lal delivered the outcome that the whole of India prayed for fervently.
At Kolkata in 2001, Ganguly found that Laxman had only tail enders for company for most part of the first innings. As the man in top form, the skipper wanted Laxman to stay at wicket longer as that would bring more runs on the scoreboard. A less noted but equally significant result of this shake up in the batting line-up was Dravid finding his feet at his new position and scoring a brilliant century. That this move helped Dravid also to rediscover his touch was a pleasant development, which might not have been expected when this decision was taken. It would have required all of Ganguly’s intuition and keen sense of the game to make up his mind to effect this change, which, as subsequent events proved, altered the course of the game in our country.
Misbah had wrestled the initiative from India during the 2007 ICC T20 world Cup final by leading a charge that brought Pakistan 41 runs in three overs. Dhoni must have sensed that he would continue in the same vein if any of the regular bowlers sent down the last over. Hence he chose to “disrupt” Misbah by introducing an unknown element in the form of Joginder . Misbah treated the first two balls, one of which was a wide, with some circumspection. But when he struck the third delivery for a six, he became complacent, thinking that the job was over. This led to he playing a pre-planned scoop shot to a simple innocuous delivery could have been tapped for a couple of runs, without breaking any sweat. Had Dhoni tried one of the regular bowlers, Misbah would not have dared to attempt this adventurous stroke, which proved to be fatal for Pakistan.
Thus, it can be seen that none of the moves discussed above fall under the category of absolute gambles. There existed logic and reasoning behind all of them, but more importantly the element of luck also helped, as a result of which all of them they emerged successful. There are many more instances of such intuitive moves by captains, which changed the course of a match at short notice. All of them were backed by sound thinking, borne out of experience.
Before one concludes, one should make a mention about the biggest gamble made by Merchant as a selector. Of the 8 youngsters tried out by him in 1969-70, only Gundappa Viswanath and Eknath Solkar made it to the squad that toured the West Indies in 1971. But this did not deter him from proposing the name of another young cricketer who had not even been chosen to the West Zone side for the Duleep Trophy that was held just prior to the selection of this squad. This young man, however, did Merchant proud and came back with 774 runs in his kitty in the four Tests that he played in the Caribbean islands. But Sunil Manohar Gavaskar was also helped by huge strokes of good fortune in West Indies as he was dropped by none other than Sobers, one of the best fielders ever, on more than one occasion, during this record breaking batting saga.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)