July 05, 2007

Sardesai – One of the Architects Who Reshaped Indian Cricket History

By H Natarajan

P Krishnamurthy, ML Jaisimha, Eknath Solkar and now Dilip Sardesai. Four members of the Indian team that changed the course of the nation’s cricket on that watershed 1971 tour of the Caribbean are now just memories. The death of Sardesai, earlier this week, was particularly poignant. In contrast to the media blitz – the visual media in particular – that is devoted to trivial pursuits of modern cricketers, Sardesai’s death went relatively unsung. It does not reflect well about our appreciation of cricket history.

On that tour of 1971, Sunil Gavaskar came like a whiff of fresh air, but neither his record-breaking debut nor India’s history-making series win would have been possible without the sustained excellence of Sardesai and Solkar.

Gavaskar scored 774 runs from four Tests, but Sardesai was not far behind, amassing 642 runs. But more than the quantum of runs, it’s the timing at which he scored those runs and the difference it made to the innings, Tests, series and Indian cricketing history itself that needs to be appreciated and applauded.

It was a do-or-die tour for Sardesai. If he made it into the team, it was solely due to the bargaining and convincing power of Ajit Wadekar, who himself got the captaincy in a manner that took the cricketing world by surprise. Wadekar unseated Tiger Pataudi as India captain after Vijay Merchant, selection committee chairman, gave his casting vote in favour of Wadekar.

Sardesai’s selection was greeted with widespread disproval and it was clear that he would not be in contention for a place in the eleven for the first Test. It’s said that Lady Luck was Wadekar’s favoured child. And Wadekar did not have to wait long to see Sardesai proving his judgment right. Gundappa Viswanath got injured and Sardesai got in and scored 97 in the tour opener against Jamaica. He then got 92 in the game against Trinidad & Tobago. The two near hundreds ensured Sardesai a place in the first Test at Kingston.

It was not too unfamiliar a tale on the opening day of the first Test when India were reeling at 75 for five. But Sardesai dropped anchor and, in the company of Eknath Solkar and EAS Prasanna, took India to a total of 387. Sardesai went on to score 212 – the first India to hit a double hundred on overseas soil. Thanks to Sardesai’s innings that turned around India’s fortunes, West Indies suffered the ignominy of following-on. The hosts, however, hung on to save the Test.

India created history in the second Test at Port-of-Spain, beating Garry Sobers’s West Indies by seven wickets – Sardesai being the only centurion (112) from either side. The third Test ended in a draw, but India took the first innings lead for the third successive time in the series – Sardesai scoring 45. If India managed to save the fourth Test after being 70 for six replying to West Indies’ first innings score of 501 for five declared, it was thanks largely to Sardesai’s 50 – Solkar was yet again Sardesai’s partner-in-crisis, chipping in with the second highest score (65). The third highest was Mr Extras with 30. Sardee maan – as Caribbean Islanders called him - scored 75 in the final Test to ensure with Gavaskar (124 & 220) that India hung on to their lead and won the series.

A technically correct player, the wristy Sardesai was known for his proficiency against spin, but in West Indies he emphatically showed his mettle against pace. Wadekar judgment in picking Sardesai against popular pre-tour opinion was proved right and Merchant hailed Sardesai as the Renaissance Man of Indian cricket.

But there was lot more glory ahead in 1971 for India and Sardesai. India toured Ole Blighty later that year and victory at Oval saw India beat England and win the series 1-0. It was Sardesai's pivotal innings of 54 and 40 that allowed Bhagwat Chandrasekhar to work his magic.

Sardesai has been in the thick of some of the most unforgettable moments in Indian cricket history. Apart from playing major contributory roles in India’s epic series wins against the West Indies and England in 1971, he was at the non-striking end when Nari Contractor suffered that career-ending blow to his head in 1962 and when Farokh Engineer came six short of scoring a hundred before lunch on the opening day of the 1966-67 Madras Test.

Sardesai was limpet-like and usually defensive, but he had the ability to attack when needed. It was his contention that he was defensive on the orders of his captains. He scored what was one of the fastest hundreds by an Indian batsman for a long time - against New Zealand at Delhi in 1964-65. In the previous Test, his 200 not out at Bombay salvaged a draw after India had been shot out for 88 in the innings. Sardesai enjoyed playing against England: he made his Test debut against them in 1961-62, even before he'd played for Bombay, and it was against England, at Kanpur two years later, that he scored 79 and, after India followed on, 87 to help save the game.

Sardesai left his roots in Goa to grew in cricketing stature in Mumbai and became an integral part of his adopted city’s stranglehold on the National Championship. He played for Mumbai for 13 seasons – between 1960-61 and 1972-72 – and never once saw his team lose a match outright. And that’s one record he was immensely proud of. He was from the old school of Mumbai cricket and never lost interest in grass-root level cricket. For a man with that kind of passion, Indian cricket did not make judicious use of his experience and expertise.

I knew Sardesai as a man who believed in speaking his heart out. He told me when I was interviewing him for Cricinfo: “Vijay Merchant didn't want me on the 1971 tour to the West Indies. I told him in front of everyone in the dressing room not to offer useless explanations if he didn't want to select me. I am extremely forthright.”

But Sardesai spoke without malice. He was journalists’ delight; he was not only candid but he also never acted pricey during the many, many times I sought his time – sometime late at night.

Sardesai also had a good sense of humour. Wadekar once related to me an incident on the 1971 tour of West Indies. “During the tour he (Sardesai) suffered a tummy upset and was asked to stay away from solid food for three days, and restrict himself to chicken soup. But that same evening we found him hogging a chicken away to glory. When questioned, Sardesai replied: "What's the difference? After all chicken soup comes from chicken!"

Fielding was not Sardesai’s forte. On the tour of Australia, he was chasing the ball in the longish part of the field and found that by the time he could reach the ball, the batsmen were on way to completing their fifth run. Sardesai dived and pushed the ball to the boundary before the batsmen could complete their fifth run! The Indian dressing room was in splits.

Indian cricket celebrates its 75th year in International cricket. Let’s hope that Sardesai’s contribution in masterminding the turnaround of India’s fortunes will get its posthumous due from the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

RIP, Dilip.

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