The euphoria of the Indian win at The Oval was unparalleled. Up until then, it was arguably India’s finest moment in the sport. The outpour of emotion and celebration at The Oval reflected the magnitude of the event. For a country that was ruled by the United Kingdom for many years, sporting success against them, that too in their own backyard, was a momentous occasion. Not only was it huge for the millions back home in India but also those who had settled in the UK and were earning their bread.
Although India were slated to play a First-Class game the day after the third and final Test, the players did manage to let their hair down. The disciplinarian, Col Hemu Adhikari, did not enforce his usual regimes and let the team soak in the moment. The team celebrated the occasion at an Indian restaurant, which had hilariously rebranded its menu to include items such as Gavaskar Curry, Wadekar Cutlet, Chandrasekhar Soup and Bedi Pulao.
Following the celebrations, India made it to Brighton late in the night and took the field to face Sussex the next day. Farokh Engineer drove down to Manchester to turn up for Lancashire against Derbyshire.
The next morning, Sunil Gavaskar and Kenia Jayantilal walked out to open the batting against Sussex. Eknath Solkar’s 90 helped take India to 220. In reply, Sussex got 386. The three-day encounter was a drawn affair. The tour continued for India though as the day after they finished their tour game against Sussex, they took on Somerset at Taunton. Solkar and S Abid Ali’s centuries were the highlights of that match for the tourists.
India did get a day’s break after the Somerset game before taking on Worcertershire at New Road. The tour ended with a final First-Class match against the TN Pearce’s XI. While the Tests were the major focus, the tour games formed an integral part of the visit to England.
‘Only Hindi’ Says Wadekar to Johnston
Brian Johnston was one of the well-known cricket commentators on the BBC. During India’s tour to England in 1971, he had developed a rapport with the visiting captain Ajit Wadekar. During one of the matches, the Indian captain decided to pull a prank on his English friend, leaving the veteran broadcaster stumped and baffled.
As was the practice, Johnston was tasked with the responsibility of interviewing batsmen soon after they were dismissed. Wadekar walked back after he was out and Johnston approached him for a quick chat near the boundary.
“No English,” Wadekar proclaimed to Johnston’s surprise. The commentator pursued Wadekar and kept asking him questions even as the latter said, “No English.” A baffled Johnston then said, “Ajit, you have been talking to me throughout this tour in English. How could you forget English so soon?” The Indian captain didn’t relent in his prank and then said, “Only Hindi!”
Talk about a language barrier!
Air India Flight Diverted to Delhi to Facilitate Meeting With Indira Gandhi
The year 1971 was pivotal in more than cricketing ways for India. While Ajit Wadekar and his men inspired the nation with their wins in West Indies and England, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took a firm stand with Pakistan on the Bangladeshi liberation struggle. By the end of the year, Bangladesh was born and India’s victory in that conflict with their neighbours is still remembered as one of its most defining moments. When Wadekar’s team won the Test match at The Oval, there was a congratulatory call from the Prime Minister’s Office.
When Wadekar and his men got ready to head back home, they were told that their Air India flight was specially diverted to Delhi. This was unlike April, where they had flown back to Bombay directly. This time, the Prime Minister wanted to meet the team and congratulate them on a special achievement. “Palam Airport was decorated with festoons and banners,” said Wadekar. There were also a few dancers performing the Bhangra to welcome the team.
A felicitation with numerous dignitaries was then held at the Feroz Shah Kotla. There was a lot of talk about India being the “world champions” having vanquished England in their own den. However, captain Wadekar was cautious and announced that “We are yet to beat Australia.”
The following day, the team departed for Mumbai, where the festivities continued.
Victorious Team Gets Motorcade in Bombay
“I know the board does not have a long enough carpet but if the Government of India or Maharashtra can organise it, let it stretch from Santa Cruz to CCI,” said Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, hailing the Indian team’s achievement in England. Pataudi’s suggestion was taken in spirit as a carpet of warmth, appreciation and fanfare was laid out along the said path.
If the players were moved by the scenes at the Bombay airport in April 1971 following their victory in the West Indies, it went a notch higher when they returned from England. The short trip to Delhi to meet the Prime Minister was only the beginning! When the team landed in Bombay, the festivities started from the tarmac.
“It all started as we left the flight,” Kenia Jayantilal recalls. People had come forward to receive them at the tarmac. “We were told not to worry about our luggage and that it would be delivered to us,” Jayantilal said as the Indian team went along with the festivities.
An open-roof motorcade was organised through the streets of Bombay. Thousands of people had gathered along the streets as Wadekar and his men waved back at them to acknowledge all the fanfare. “What was most touching was that it was so spontaneous. People lined the streets and cheered. Rose petals were showered on us as we passed through Shivaji Park and Girgaum. I remember spotting Nandu Natekar (former badminton champion) somewhere cheering in the crowd,” Wadekar said.
Wadekar and his men were felicitated at the Brabourne Stadium, which was then the unofficial home of Indian cricket. Once the celebrations were done, the players quietly retired to their homes or their accommodation. Wadekar took a taxi back home.
Fast forward to 2007, these scenes were replicated when Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men lifted the inaugural ICC World T20 in South Africa – an event that created a major shift in world cricket. A city that never sleeps had been brought to a standstill by a group of young men 36 years apart.
Excerpted with permission from Twice Upon A Time - India’s Fairytale Cricket Victories of 1971 by Nishad Pai Vaidya and Sachin Bajaj, Notion Press