Playing with head and heart
Dilip Narayan Sardesai was an important link between an India which knew mostly defeats and one which, for a brief period in the 1970s considered themselves world champions.
Between 1932 and 1970, India played 116 Tests, but won only three outside the subcontinent. Then in 1971, they triumphed 1-0 both in the West Indies and England. Sardesai made the only century in that Port of Spain victory and played crucial innings of 54 and 40 at The Oval.
Vijay Merchant, the chairman of selectors who had wanted to drop Sardesai before those tours, was quick to praise him as the renaissance man of Indian cricket. Even if the usage was wrong, the sentiment was understandable. For in the year that Indian cricket turned the corner, much of the driving was done by Sardesai.
In the first Test at Jamaica, after India were 75 for 5, Sardesai's 212 forced the West Indies to follow on. In the fourth in Barbados, India were 70 for 6 before Sardesai saved them again with 150. His 75 and 21 in the final Test were overshadowed by Sunil Gavaskar's 124 and 220; Sardesai took his aggregate to 642, but held the record for just a day before Gavaskar - who has given Sardesai credit for his mentoring role - broke it.
Sardesai, a sound middle-order batsman, paid the price many Indians have for being sound middle-order batsmen. He was asked to open, and that might have curtailed his effectiveness. In 1961-62, when Nari Contractor was struck on the head by Charlie Griffith in Barbados, Sardesai was the non-striker. In the Test that followed, he took Contractor's place as opener. He did reasonably well, but a pair in the next Test cried halt to that experiment for a while.
Sardesai returned as opener after a productive series in the middle order against Mike Smith's England in 1963-64 (449 runs in five Tests). His first Test century was an unbeaten 200, as opener against New Zealand. Just when it seemed that India had found a batsman to carry the team on his shoulders, Sardesai fizzled out; he was taken to the West Indies only on skipper Ajit Wadekar's insistence.
Perhaps Wadekar thought that Sardesai would be a lucky mascot if nothing else, for he played 13 years for Bombay without once finishing on the losing side. The game has seen few better players of spin, and perhaps Wadekar realised that pace would not have a role to play in the two series.
In a decade which saw the great spinners, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Bishen Singh Bedi, and S Venkatraghavan make their debut, there was no single batsman of similar stature. Tiger Pataudi's limitation meant that he was unlikely to be consistent; and Gundappa Vishwanath made his entry almost in the new decade. Sardesai's record suggests he might have played the role, but injury and fast bowling kept him ineffective in England and Australia.
Sardesai, the only Goa-born cricketer to play Test cricket, graduated from University cricket, his scores in the Rohinton Baria (435 runs at an average of 87) bringing him into national focus. He made his debut in the same series as some of the stalwarts of 60s cricket - Pataudi, Farokh Engineer, Prasanna - the most romantic and romanticised bunch of players in Indian cricket.
Sardesai fit in easily, especially after taking his cricket to Bombay where he absorbed the culture of batsmanship that laid great store by correctness and the ability to grind out the long innings. His first century, after India were asked to follow-on, occupied him for 548 minutes and raised visions of Vijay Manjrekar at his best. His second, in the next Test, was for a long time the fastest made by an Indian.
|He was never the fastest man on the field, and the story is told of Sardesai chasing the ball in Adelaide when he turned around to see the batsmen going for their fifth run. With remarkable presence of mind, he kicked the ball over the boundary to save a run|
It was this contradiction that Sardesai was never able to shake off. Was he an under-achieving major batsman or an over-achieving limited one? He was never the fastest man on the field, and the story is told of Sardesai chasing the ball in Adelaide when he turned around to see the batsmen going for their fifth run. With remarkable presence of mind, he kicked the ball over the boundary to save a run.
It doesn't matter if the story is true. What matters is that everybody assumes it is, and the stories told of a person - even the apocryphal ones - say more about him than volumes of biography. Sardesai was a quick-thinking player with an ever-ready smile and a love for good food that was a by-word in the teams he played for. Asked to restrict himself to chicken soup after a stomach upset, he was seen eating a chicken. "I am going to the source of the soup," he explained.
Sardesai's life, like his cricket, had both head and heart, or to put it another way, both Mumbai and Goa.