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Fifty years, not out: Glory at the Gabba can be traced to the coming of age of Indian cricket in 1971

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What is Indian cricket’s coming-of-age moment? 1983 would be up there — colour television had just arrived in urban India; we saw Kapil Dev lift the Prudential Cup — but many would remember the twin overseas series wins in the West Indies and England. Underconfident India, all of 50 years ago, wasn’t a $2.8 trillion economy. Nor was nuclear-armed India waiting to join the UN Security Council as a permanent member. Today, India isn’t four years away from a near-famine, living ship-to-mouth on PL-480 grain.

Adolescence isn’t always easy. The Sixties, for India, wasn’t about the joyous rebellion of Woodstock and the optimism of Neil Armstrong’s “giant step for mankind”. It was catastrophic. Think of the Himalayan blunder of 1962 and the deaths of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. The 1965 war wasn’t a decisive victory; nor was socialist planning. In 1967 began the slow decline of the Congress. And we first heard about the Naxalites.

The 1971 team began as “no hopers”, just like India’s Brisbane XI of 2021. That they were wrongly described as “lucky”, after splendid series wins, is another matter. Mansur Ali Khan of Pataudi had lost his captaincy and his princely privileges. India, before a 3-1 series victory in New Zealand, had lost seven Tests in a row in England and Australia. In Melbourne, in 1967-68, India was 27-5, halfway to 36-9, before Pataudi inspired a recovery. India hadn’t learnt how to win, losing by just 39 runs after scoring 355 in the second innings, in yes, Brisbane. After that, at home, India barely clung on to a 1-1 draw against Kiwis and lost 3-1, primarily because of poor catching, to Aussies.

This series too began like that. If Virat Kohli’s India lost in Adelaide, they’d be Aussie-washed 4-0, predicted experts Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting and Michael Vaughan, 395 Tests between them. Those missing in action in Brisbane included Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma and — after the working over by hostile Australian fast bowlers — Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Shami. Ravichandran Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah, Hanuma Vihari and Umesh Yadav were also injured. Looking at the XI for Fortress Brisbane, one remembers what a Pakistani player said, seeing Debasis Mohanty and Harvinder Singh before a bilateral series. “Kya team laya (What a team you’ve brought),” he told an Indian player. He was as wrong as Warne, Ponting and Vaughan were.

Like in Brisbane, the Indians in 1971 had youngsters who were a season old, if that: Eknath Solkar, Ashok Mankad, P Krishnamurthy and two men who changed Indian cricket: GR Viswanath and Sunil Gavaskar. Bishen Bedi, the great spinner, once said that under Pataudi, Indians played like a team, not just players from Bombay, Delhi and the South. The team touring the West Indies had a new captain, a State Bank of India junior officer with a desi scooter: Ajit Wadekar.

We weren’t submissive, apologetic Indians overawed by history. In 1962, India had lost all five Tests, and also, the captain, Nari Contractor. Hit on the head, he underwent brain surgery and never played Test cricket again. In 1971, Garry Sobers’ West Indies, a side in transition, didn’t worry India. Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith had retired; Andy Roberts and Michael Holding hadn’t surfaced. Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd and Charlie Davis were stars, but Viv Richards, Lawrence Rowe, Alvin Kallicharran and Gordon Greenidge were waiting in the wings. You couldn’t underestimate their captain though. Yet, the no-hopers found a way, won in Trinidad, and because of Gavaskar (774 runs in 4 Tests) and also, Dilip Sardesai and Solkar, came back with the series.

Then, against a full-strength England in England, just back from an Ashes win in Australia, after two rain-affected Tests that India nearly lost, came the miracle at the Oval with BS Chandrasekhar’s 6-36 and a series win. What had changed was the close catching, with Solkar at forward short-leg taking blinders. Whoever imagined Indians could field well? They had spent decades escorting balls to the fence! How the English players looked in defeat — surprised, despondent, chewing their fingernails — and what they did — captain Ray Illingworth, Geoff Boycott, John Edrich and John Snow declined to tour India in 1972-73 — told the story of the insurrection. “How could these little brown men defeat England in England?” they would have asked over pink gins.

However, after a 2-1 win against England at home in 1972-73, we were back to the old shambles — 42-9 in 1974. India had got away once with S Abid Ali and Solkar, it couldn’t happen twice. How old Indian teams missed the likes of Bumrah. Indians couldn’t bowl fast, we were told: we weren’t big enough, we weren’t strong enough, most of us didn’t eat beef. Poor Javagal Srinath, the greatest vegetarian fast bowler; he was born only in 1969. If, in 1974, an astrologer had predicted that India’s fifth, sixth and seventh best opening bowlers would win India a series in Australia nearly 50 years later, he would have been laughed out of town.

India has changed. Indian cricket has changed. Professional cricket attracts people from all over India. Who imagined that a remarkably successful Indian captain would be from Jharkhand? And the leading fast bowler from Gujarat? Six of the top seven (Gavaskar, Mankad, Wadekar, Sardesai, Solkar and Farokh Engineer) of the team that won the Oval Test in 1971 were from Bombay. Plus Viswanath, strictly military-medium opening bowler Abid Ali and three great spinners. The team that hit back after the Adelaide reverse and won by 8 wickets had only one player from Mumbai — stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane. Rohit Sharma and Shardul Thakur, both from Mumbai, were in the team that won in Brisbane, but neither is an automatic choice.

It’s also about class. By the Seventies, maharajas had given way to urban middle-class boys. Today, Mohammed Siraj and T Natarajan are classic working-class heroes. Their fathers, an autorickshaw driver and a powerloom operator, respectively, had the wisdom to encourage them to play cricket.

Nor is this a bhookha-nanga team, like the ones in the Sixties and earlier were, with a daily allowance of $5 at best for players who would beg NRIs for daal-chawal-sabzi. Unlike in the bad old days, there are hundreds of Tricolour-waving Indian supporters. Also, the support staff. The Indian team physio is the cynic’s candidate for the man of the series. Can you even imagine a Sixties Indian side with a physio and batting, bowling and fielding coaches? Or, a team czar like Ravi Shastri with a 200 in a Test in Australia?

The much-criticised IPL is responsible for how confident some young players are. Not many Indian No. 7s have reverse-swept, with the Test and series on the line, the way Washington Sundar did. He probably hasn’t heard of George Hirst’s “We’ll get them in singles” suggestion to fellow Yorkshireman Wilfred Rhodes in 1902 at the Oval against Australia. He doesn’t need to. Young Indian cricketers have practised with and played against some of the world’s best players. They know they belong. They know they are good enough.

A final thought. Wadekar and Rahane, both middle-class boys from Mumbai, had young openers making their debut in a foreign land. Both the openers missed the first Test, in Kingston in 1971 and in Adelaide in 2021. Both have the same initials: SG. Sunil Gavaskar and Shubhman Gill. We celebrated Gavaskar for decades. What will Gill (and also, Sundar and Rishabh Pant), do when he finally grows up?


The writer is consulting editor, national affairs, Times Now.

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