The importance of India’s Test series victory against the West Indies in 1971 cannot be emphasised enough. Up until then, India had struggled to find even a semblance of consistency in international cricket. But the Caribbean tour of 1971 saw the likes of Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Sardesai help India announce their arrival on the biggest stage with an unforgettable win.
After losing 0-5 in West Indies in 1962, India travelled to the islands for another five-match series in 1971. Till that tour, since making their Test debut in 1932, India had won just 15 of the 116 matches they had competed in. The odds were heavily in favour of the Windies, who had legends like Gary Sobers, Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd in their ranks.
Ajit Wadekar and his men, though, had other plans. The unheralded tourists fought valiantly to defy the mighty West Indies and script a famous 1-0 series victory. With a staggering 774 runs in four matches, Sunil Gavaskar, making his international debut in the series, was undoubtedly the standout player for India. But the triumph would not have been possible without some key contributions by Sardesai, Salim Durani, Eknath Solkar, S Venkataraghavan, Erapalli Prasanna, Bishan Singh Bedi and others.
Here’s a look at each of the five matches in that historic series:
India went into the first match in Kingston without Gavaskar, who was ruled-out due to an injury. Batting first, the visitors were in all sorts of trouble after being reduced to 75/5 as Grayson Shillingford, Vanburn Holder and Arthur Barrett put the Windies on top with quick strikes. But from there on, Sardesai went on to play one of the finest knocks by an Indian in an away Test. The right-handed No 4 batsman dug deep to score 212 off 470 deliveries and along with Solkar, who got a crucial 198-ball 61 at No 7, helped India get to 387.
Prasanna then led India’s charge with the ball with a four-wicket haul as the West Indies were bowled-out for 217 runs. Wadekar asked the hosts to follow-on but Kanhai slammed an unbeaten 158 to help his team get to 385/5 and draw the Test. It was an important result for India, especially considering the start they got, and set the stage for what was to follow.
This time the Windies batted first and once again, the hosts struggled to negotiate the Indian spinners. Prasanna got another four-for and Bedi picked up three wickets as the West Indies crumbled to 214 all out despite Charlie Davis’ unbeaten 71. Gavaskar then strode out with Ashok Mankad to open India’s innings in what was his first outing with the bat in international cricket. The right-hander made an impression immediately with an elegant 65. But once again, it was Sardesai (112) and Solkar (55) who got the all-important partnership for India and helped the team get to 352. That innings is also remembered for Jack Noreiga’s nine-wicket haul. Despite this stunning performance, the off-spinner managed to play just four Tests for the West Indies in his career.
With a healthy first innings lead of 138, the Indians were full of confidence when they came out to bowl in the second innings. West Indies were in a decent position at 150/1 but that’s when the Indian spinners triggered a game-changing collapse. Venkataraghavan bagged a five-for as the hosts lost eight wickets for 111 runs to get bowled-out for 261.
Needing 124 runs to win their first Test against the West Indies in 25 attempts, India got off to just the start they were hoping for as Mankad and Gavaskar added 74 runs for the first wicket. There was a bit of a scare as the Windies picked up three quick wickets for just 10 runs, but the then-21-year-old Gavaskar held his nerves to guide India to a seven-wicket win with an unbeaten 67. That historic victory at Port of Spain was a decisive moment in the series as all the other matches ended in draws.
The series moved to Georgetown and the Windies batted first once again. They shuffled their batting order slightly, with Lloyd walking out at No 4 and scoring 60 runs. Wicketkeeper Desmond Lewis got an unbeaten 81 as the hosts were cleaned-up for 363. Venkataraghavan was the pick of the Indian bowlers once again with figures of 3/59.
Gavaskar then went on to score the first of his 34 Test tons with a masterful 116 off 265. The right-hander had found his footing after an impressive debut in the previous game and was in command as he struck 11 fours. Another Indian batting legend, Gundappa Viswanath, who was playing just his fifth Test, also impressed in that innings with a half-century at No 4 as the visitors posted 376 runs.
It was Sobers’ turn to then to stamp his authority on the match. After picking a three-for, the Windies captain remained not out on 108 after walking out to bat at No 5. Davis continued his good form for the hosts with an unbeaten 125 as West Indies declared at 307/3 with a lead of 320 runs. However, there wasn’t enough time to force a result, with Mankad (53) and Gavaskar (64) remaining not out to take India to 123/0 at the end of the match.
The first half of this match at Bridgetown saw West Indies do what was expected of them from the start of the series. They batted first and hammered the Indian attack to post a mammoth 501/5 declared. Lewis (88), Kanhai (85) and Davis (79) played fine knocks but it was Sobers who stole the show with an unbeaten 178. India found themselves in a massive hole when they were reduced to 70/6 as Holder, Sobers and Ulton Dowe blew away the top order.
But yet again, it was the absolute brilliance of Sardesai (150) and Solkar (65) that bailed India out. The No 6 and 8 batsmen, just like they did in the first Test, showed incredible discipline and skill to add 186 runs for the seventh wicket as India were bowled-out for 347.
With a strong lead, West Indies went searching for quick runs and declared at 180/6 in their second innings to set India an improbable target of 334. The visitors could easily have crumbled under pressure but Gavaskar stepped up once again to score an unbeaten 117 off 315 balls to help India finish with 221/5. The draw was a bitter pill for the Windies to swallow as they were unable to finish off their opponents despite bowling 103 overs in the second innings.
Finally, we get to the match that went on to be known as ‘Gavaskar’s Test’. The visitors batted first this time as the series returned to Port of Spain. And once again, it was the Little Master who dominated proceedings with a second successive century (124). Sardesai continued his brilliant run as well with a 75, and Venkataraghavan got a crucial half-century too as India posted 360 runs.
West Indies, though, were highly motivated to square the series and put in a commanding performance with the bat in their first innings. Lewis (72), Davis (105), Sobers (132) and Maurice Foster (99) played starring roles to help their team get to 526 all out.
And then came one of the most iconic knocks by an Indian batsman in Test cricket history. Having scored a ton in the first innings, Gavaskar went to register another big score, this time a double-century. He faced a staggering 529 deliveries, hit 22 fours and almost single-handedly helped India remain in the contest with his 220 runs. Skipper Wadekar finally got going with the bat too as his team got bowled out for 427. Set a target of 261 with half a day’s play left, West Indies were nearly bowled out as pacer Syed Abid Ali picked a three-for. But Lloyd’s gritty 64 helped the hosts get to 165/8 and draw the Test.