By Ayaz Memon

India yearned to compete with the best in the business but it wasn't until 1971, with the arrival of Gavaskar and under the captaincy of Wadekar, that the wheels truly started to turn

Indian cricket came of age in the 1970s and 1980s. Stragglers for the better part of the preceding half century, in spite of several outstanding players and performances, these two decades saw Indian cricket making a splendid turnaround, burgeoning talent allying with growing ambition.

This was the era in which cricket, from being a hugely popular sport, became India’s all-consuming passion. The ensemble cast of characters who made this transformation possible is colourful and fascinating for their skills and their personalities.

In the lead role to start with was a quartet of extraordinary spinners (Bedi, Prasanna, Chandrashekhar, Venkataraghavan) , joined soon by a couple of diminutive batsmen, one a run machine (Sunil Gavaskar), the other an exquisite strokeplayer (Gundappa Vishwanath), and later by an abundantly gifted all-rounder (Kapil Dev) who could win matches with ball, bat or both. These extraordinary performers were supported by a slew of dazzling batters and bowlers, making for a remarkable period in Indian cricket history. A brief roll call of their names would read: Anshuman Gaekwad, Brijech Patel, Karsan Ghavri, Dilip Doshi in the 1970s, Mohamed Azaharuddin, Chetan Sharma, Krish Srikkanth, Maninder Singh, L Sivaramakrishnan in the 1980s, with Mohinder Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Roger Binny, Madan Lal, and Syed Kirmani straddling both decades.

From these, Gavaskar and Kapil went on to become the pillars on which Indian cricket in this era was structured.Both finishing as record-breakers in their respective area of expertise, leaving behind a legacy that has inspired generations of young Indian cricketers since.

But I am getting ahead of the story.

The 1960s decade had ended in tumult and turmoil with the Nawab of Pataudi, Mansoor Ali Khan, being ousted from the India captaincy by chief selector Vijay Merchant’s casting vote. The 1970s began with unexpected yet stupendous triumphs in the West Indies and England in early 1971 to signal a seismic shift in how Indian cricket would be perceived, and indeed even play out, in the future

These victories were seminal. India had never beaten West Indies in a Test, home or away. On six tours, India had never won a Test in England. On the previous visit to these two countries (1962 in WI, 1967 in England), India had been whitewashed 5-0, 3-0. The results of 1971, therefore, were unforeseen and melodramatic, but there was nothing fluky about the wins.

When the squad for the West Indies was announced, most critics thought India would be cannon fodder for Sir Garfield Sobers’s marauding side which also included the likes of Rohan Kanhai, Wes Hall, and Clive Lloyd.

Concerned about how swiftly and well captain Ajit Wadekar would settle into the job Tiger Pataudi had handled with aplomb for eight years, the selectors gave him a cluster of seniors for support -- ML Jaisimha, Salim Durrani, Dilip Sardesai, Abid Ali – along with experienced spinners Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, and S Venkataraghavan.

The juniors were Gundappa Vishwanath, Ashok Mankad and Eknath Solkar, who had made their debuts a couple of years earlier, and 21-year-old Sunil Gavaskar, whose prolific run-getting in schools, university and domestic tournaments had earned the approval of Merchant, no less.

Most Indian players, old and young, had some vital contribution to make in the win over the West Indies, but none more than Sardesai and Gavaskar. Weaned on the “Bombay school” of batsmanship, both scored heavily, Sardesai making 642 runs in the five Tests, Gavaskar raising the bar further, making a whopping 774.

No batsman, before or since, has scored as many runs in a debut series.

From the outset, Gavaskar showed he was cut from a different cloth, his 18-year-career becoming a saga of relentless run-getting against all bowlers in all conditions with immaculate technique, grit, determination, concentration, and insatiable ambition.

Neither Sardesai nor Gavaskar could replicate their form of the West Indies in England. But India found other match-winners, notably unorthodox leg spinner Chandrashekhar, and also Solkar as a fearless and sensational forward short-leg fielder. Chandra’s bowling in the win at the Oval, is redolent of his unique skills despite a polio affected bowling arm, and he was India’s most potent bowling force in the 1970s

The twin wins in 1971 made it an “Indian summer” in cricket. But excellence is easier to achieve than sustain as India were to learn. On the next visit to England in 1974, Wadekar’s team were walloped 3-0, including being bowled out for an ignominious 42 at Lord’s, the disappointing tour made worse by bitter infighting among senior players.

Yet, despite the debacle, Indian cricket was on its way up. Wadekar’s brief but telling stint as captain ended prematurely in 1974. In a stunning turn of fortune, Pataudi was back as captain. The quartet, which he had nurtured, was at its zenith, spinning webs around batsmen everywhere. With fantastic support from close-in-catching from the likes of Solkar and Abid Ali, India were a major force.

This wouldn’t have been possible, of course, without batsmen providing runs for bowlers to defend. Gavaskar and Gundappa Vishwanath were the batting mainstays.

Gundappa Vishwanath was a batting mainstay for India during the 1970s.

Gavaskar had not looked back after his amazing debut series. Vishwanath, who started with a century on Test debut, had also come into his own, and between them, the two Little Masters provided a rhapsody of batting exploits that had everyone in the cricket world in thrall.

Not every match or series was won, but several were closely fought, adding to the aura of Indian cricket and its cricketers.

In 1975-76, India lost narrowly 3-2 at home to the West Indies after recovering from 2-0. Vishwanath, Bedi, Chandra and Prasanna were the heroes in this edge-of-seat fightback. The series against Against Australia in 1977-78 was another humdinger, Australia prevailing narrowly 3-2. For India,

Gavaskar scored three centuries, but Vishwanath made the most runs. In bowling, the magical spinners shared the spoils.

India’s best performance, however, came at Port of Spain in 1975-76, making 406 in the fourth innings to win and breaking a four-decades old record set by Sir Don Bradman’s Invincibles. Both Gavaskar and Vishwanath made centuries in this amazing run chase, their jugalbandi exemplifying their own prowess as well as steely resolve.

By this time, Gavaskar was recognised as the world’ best opener. Secure in defence like Fort Knox, his immaculate technical skills and mental toughness made him a master in any condition or situation. Vishwanath of the explosive wrists and dazzling range of strokes was a whit behind, in runs maybe but not in heroic deeds.

Indian cricket hadn’t looked stronger.

However, there was one glaring absence – of a wicket-taking fast bowler.

Towards the end of the 1970s, that void was to be filled by a lithe, strong youngster from Haryana. Ironically, his arrival was also to signal the demise of the spin quartet that had brought India so much glory, and given the game so much charm and charisma.

Kapil Dev Nikhanj was a surprise choice for the tour of Pakistan in 1978. After 17 years, cricket ties between the two countries were to be resumed thanks to the Janata government which came to power in the post-Emergency political upheaval. Cricket was used as a tool to improve diplomatic relations. However, on the field of play, the battle between the arch rivals was tough and bitter.

Pakistan won the series comprehensively. While India’s leading batsmen Gavaskar (particularly) and Vishwanath scored heavily, the much-vaunted spin trio of Bedi, Prasanna and Chandra was mauled by majestic the Zaheer Abbas, with the twinkle-toed street-smart youngster Javed Miandad adding salt to the wounds.

The sole redemption for India came from 19-year-old rookie Kapil Dev. Working up good pace, he hit Sadiq Mohamed a few times with short-pitched deliveries, forcing the opener to wear a helmet. In the context of Indian cricket, where fielders would roll the ball along the ground to take the shine off and hasten the introduction of spinners, this was a cathartic development. Kapil showed decent prowess with bat too, and was brilliant in the field. The energy he brought to everything he did was to give fans – and Indian cricket – an adrenaline rush over the next decade.

When Pakistan came to India the next season, the smell of revenge was in the air.

Indian fans -- and players -- were smarting from the setback in 1978. Surviving defeat against the arch rival was impossible for captains of either country. Bedi had been deposed, Gavaskar was now at the helm, infusing his team with ambition, demanding total effort for the cause, leading from the front with customary resolute and determined batting.

Not unusually, he scored a mountain of runs, but the star of this series was Kapil Dev. A swift learner, within a year he had honed his fast-bowling skills to a sublime level, and was now the epitome of technical virtuosity that made his swing and seam bowling potent even at fast-medium pace. With bat, he was unorthodox, flamboyant, sometimes outrageous, but always entertaining and of tremendous value.

In the 1979 series, Kapil’s all-round brilliance put the more renowned Imran Khan in the shade. And his streak continued unabated over the next couple of years, including an incredible 5-28 effort with a broken foot to help square the series. Within a few years Kapil was the fastest to 200 Test wickets and 2,000 Test runs, challenging Botham, Imran and Hadlee for the status of the world’s best all-rounder.

But something even more even more significant than just this accolade was in store for him In 1982-83, India travelled again to Pakistan, and ran into Imran Khan at his most devastating. The series was lost 3-0. Inevitably, Gavaskar lost the captaincy. Kapil Dev, only 24, was given the job. His second assignment was to be the 1983 Prudential World Cup.

India’s record in two previous World Cups had been pathetic. In 1975, Gavaskar’s ignominious crawl, scoring 36 unbeaten runs in 60 overs, earned India the ungratifying sobriquet “Dull Dogs Of Cricket”. In the 1979 tournament, all matches were lost. Given this dismal track record, nobody gave India a hope in hell. But over three weeks of scintillating cricket, Kapil Dev’s team turned the cricket world upside down, The driving force in this triumph was the captain himself, clearing the path into the knockouts with a stirring 175 not out, pulling his team out of hopeless situations.

As Kapil stood at the Lord’s balcony, Cup in hand, his toothy smile infectious, the 1983 World Cup win was to be a major inflection point. The popularity of cricket soared in the country, and sponsorship support started growing geometrically. At the global level, a shift in the power matrix of the sport had taken germ.

Hosting the 1987 World Cup

Emboldened by the 1983 win, and upset by the lack of respect from MCC’s stiff-upper-lipped managers, India’s leading cricket administrators – N K P Salve, IS Bindra and Jagmohan Dalmiya -- decided to challenge England’s hegemony in the tournament. Incredible as it may seem now, the BCCI sought, and got the support of the Pakistan Cricket Board in this endeavour. The respective governments backed their boards to scale up the prize money and other perks to an extent that England and Australia were forced to back off from the bidding after a protracted and bitter battle. The 1987 World Cup would be jointly hosted by India and Pakistan.

Cricket relations between India and Pakistan reflect the political relations between the two countries, and these had never been better. Bilateral tours were a regular feature in the era, and joining hands for the 1987 World Cup was a coup, causing an upheaval in cricket’s world order.Not just that, the massive appeal of India-Pakistan cricket created opportunity for offshore tournaments in Sharjah, which was exploited to the fullest by promoter Sheikh Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, the respective boards, and uncomplaining players who earned handsome purses.

Cricket in the petrodollar rich Gulf brought in glamour, thrills, and an ever-expanding fans base for cricket in India.

The 1980s was a decade in which Indian cricket showed excellence consistently in both formats. There were setbacks, of course, but outnumbered by successes. In the wake of the 1983 triumph came victories in the Asia Cup (1984), the Rothmans Cup (1985) and notably the World Championship of Cricket (1985).

In 1986 came a memorable Test series win in England, 15 years after the path-breaking one in 1971. Dilip Vengsarkar, with a third successive century at Lord’s, made the hallowed ground his own backyard. In late 1986, India and Australia finished the Madras Test as a tie, only the second in the history of the sport.

Interestingly, the captaincy in this period oscillated wildly between the two reigning superstars, Gavaskar and Kapil. Stories of ego battles and one upmanship between them proliferated, reaching a crescendo when Kapil was dropped for the third Test against David Gower’s team in 1984-85. That dressing room dynamics can throw up differences between players is hardly unique to team sport. In Indian cricket, riven with politics, nepotism, selectorial biases, and what have you, this could get more pronounced, with players more often victims of manipulation by those in authority.

Whatever their differences, or not, the contribution of Gavaskar and Kapil to Indian cricket was monumental and has had a lasting impact on the Indian psyche.

A run-machine, in 1983, Gavaskar broke Sir Donald Bradman’s record of 29 Test centuries. In 1987, in his final Test series, he went past the 10,000-run barrier. Kapil Dev, meanwhile, was gobbling up bowling landmarks, and kept himself in hot pursuit of a clutch of world-class fast bowlers, including Imran, Botham, Marshall and Hadlee, to become the highest wicket taker in history. He finally achieved that in 1994

The 1987 World Cup was Gavaskar’s swansong. Once derided for his slow scoring, he made the then fastest ODI century by an Indian as India stormed into the semi-final. In his 38th year, the bones were creaking, but the flame had not been extinguished. Kapil Dev, 10 years younger, was still in his pomp.

With these superb players in the vanguard, India were favourites to win the title, but stumbled in the semi-final against England, shocking the entire country into silence. Gavaskar announced his retirement. Kapil Dev, who lost his captaincy after this defeat, hurtled into the home stretch of an illustrious career. The future suddenly looked gloomily uncertain.

But among the ball boys at the Wankhede Stadium during that semi-final was a curly-haired 14-year-old who, inspired by the exploits of these two giants, had made cricket his passion. Within a year, the boy was to set a slew of records in junior cricket that marked him out as special and fast-tracked him into first-class cricket. In 1989, at only 16, he made his Test debut. Less than a year later, he scored his first Test century. The baton had been passed. Indian cricket’s next era was to bear Sachin Tendulkar’s signature, and be defined by his extraordinary achievements.

(Ayaz Memon is an Indian sports writer, journalist, columnist, commentator and author. He has been the editor at Mid-Day, Bombay Times and DNA and the sports editor of the Times of India and the Independent at various stages)

1971 - 1988