August 8, 2000

The Renaissance man of Indian cricket turns 60

`The man responsible for the Renaissance of Indian cricket' as Vijay Merchant hailed him, turns 60 today. Public memory is proverbially short and it is easy to forget some of the great deeds performed by cricketers 30, 40 or 50 years ago. It is however reasonable to believe that Dilip Narayan Sardesai's exemplary role during the India Rubber Year of 1971 will not only be recalled fondly today but also be remembered by future generations.

Surely there has never been a knock that marked a turning point in the history of the game in any country than Sardesai's 212 at Kingston that year. Indian cricket, till that day in February 1971, was a sad tale of defeats and disappointments. In the period 1932-1970 India played 116 Tests and won only 15 of them. There has been marked improvement in the fortunes of Indian cricket in the last 30 years and while there have been many contributory factors, let's not forget the genesis. And the origin of the great turnabout was enacted at Sabina Park and the author of the dramatic tale was a 30-year-old batsman from Bombay.

Adding spice to the tale was the fact that Sardesai's inclusion in the touring squad was criticised. His career seemed to have grounded to a halt at 29, for he had failed in the only Test he played against Australia in November 1969. Prior to that he had had little success on the tours of England in 1967 and Australia in 1967-68. His cricketing obituary had already been written and the general tenor of it was a cricketer of immense potential who did not live up to this promise. Sure, he had enjoyed tremendous success during 1964-65 when he made runs consistently - combining style and technique - against England, Australia and New Zealand. This included an unbeaten double century made in adversity and a hundred which was then the fastest made by an Indian batsman.

By 1971 however, successive failures, a couple of injuries and the reputation of being an ordinary fielder saw to it that he was a forgotten man. However newly appointed captain Ajit Wadekar insisted on his inclusion - and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history. India were in familiar terrain at 75 for five in the first innings of the opening Test against West Indies. Sardesai with the able support of Solkar and Prasanna lifted the total to 387. His 212 was a record for Indian on foreign soil. India forced the home team to follow on. It was for the first time in 24 Tests that India had even taken the first innings lead against an opponent who had generally rode roughshod over them.

Sardesai's innings transformed the Indians. Led by Sunil Gavaskar's remarkable batting, the visitors went on to win the five match series 1-0. Gavaskar himself admitted freely that he had been inspired by Sardesai who went on to score two more hundreds. It is true that but for Gavaskar's 124 and 220 India would have most probably lost the fifth Test, but where would they have been in the fourth Test without Sardesai's heroic 150, made in a desperate situation?

Sardesai played a crucial role in India's victory over England at the Oval later that year with scores of 54 and 40. The forgotten man of Indian cricket was now the Renaissance man of Indian cricket. And even though his career did not last very long thereafter and came to a rather undistinguished end at New Delhi the following year, Sardesai takes his place as one of the most notable figures who helped shape Indian cricket's finest hour.