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That '70s India-West Indies show

Polly Umrigar bats William Vanderson / © Getty Images

The first time I followed a whole Test series involving West Indies was during Australia's 1954-55 tour of the Caribbean. Though the touring Australians were pretty much invincible, there was instant identification for me with the gallant losers. The three Ws were in top flight, with Clyde Walcott scoring two hundreds in a Test twice in the series, Everton Weekes coming close to performing the feat once, and Frank Worrell batting serenely.

Bowling was West Indies' weak suit, with spinners Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine in decline; and their quickest man, Tom Dewdney, was no demon fast bowler. But eight-year-old me fell hopelessly in love with the islanders for whom a certain Garfield St Aubrun Sobers had made a quiet but impressive debut that season.

The love affair was to continue even when the West Indians soon thrashed India home and away. I was almost intuitively a fan of Sobers and Rohan Kanhai, but also diehard supporter of Polly Umrigar and Chandu Borde. Especially unforgettable was Borde's hit-wicket dismissal on 96, even as his hook shot crossed the boundary, in the Delhi Test of the 1958-59 series against West Indies after his first-innings 109.

The tall and majestic Umrigar was one of my boyhood heroes, even when he was accused of backing away from Fred Trueman's pace and fury. I watched how he took the vicious deliveries of Roy Gilchrist and Wes Hall on his broad back rather than ducking or weaving out of the way, at the Corporation Stadium in Madras in January 1959. He only made 4 and 29 in the match, and his technique might have been faulty but nobody who saw him that afternoon could have charged him with lack of courage.

''Polly Kaka'' must have worked at polishing his batting against the short stuff soon afterwards. That would explain his extraordinary farewell to Test cricket (56, 172, 32 and 60 in his last four innings) on the 1962 West Indies tour, when almost everyone around him was surrendering to the pace and fury of the fast bowlers.

Umrigar was one of the senior players in that team to solidly stand by the young vice-captain, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who had been pitchforked into the job following the head injury that nearly killed Nari Contractor and sent him back home quite early in the tour. In his autobiography, Tiger's Tale, Pataudi remembers the kindnesses of Umrigar and Co. with gratitude. He was only 21 and almost everyone else in the team was older. Vijay Manjrekar was a batsman Pataudi had great respect for, especially for the quiet courage he displayed against Charlie Griffith after Griffith had hit Contractor on the head and there was blood on the pitch.

Three outstanding talents began to blossom on this tour. Legend has it that Salim Durani, who had been moved around in the batting order earlier in the series, volunteered to go in at No. 3 in the second innings of the fourth Test, in Port-of-Spain. His brilliant 104 was talked about with awe, as was the story of his snatching the ball from the captain, Ajit Wadekar, to dismiss Sobers and Clive Lloyd at the same venue nearly a decade later, and returning the ball to Wadekar once the ''job was done'', as India marched to their first Test win in the West Indies.

Erapalli Prasanna was impressive with his 3 for 122 in 50 overs in the second Test, in Jamaica. Strangely, he did not play another Test on the tour.

Another player who made waves was the ebullient Farokh Engineer, who scored briskly in different batting positions. From the Indian point of view, the most cheerful headline was the one that appeared in the Times of India referring to the after-hours acrobatic prowess of a couple of players: ''Borde and Durani do the limbo!''

The excitement continued through the next few series. Engineer narrowly missing out on a hundred before lunch on the first morning of the Madras Test in 1967 gave the match a spectacular start. Matinee idol MG Ramachandran had been shot in the city by fellow actor MR Radha the day before the match started. It had been in doubt whether the Test would be played till the toss. Luckily, MGR survived.

With its twists and turns, the match gave spectators their first live introduction to Sobers' genius; he had failed in Madras in 1958, while playing under the captaincy of Gerry Alexander. This time he was the captain and already a modern great as a batsman, bowler and fielder. If his first-innings 95 was effortlessly executed, his unbeaten 74 in the second was a model of patience and concentration as he batted with the tail (Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith) on the last evening to save the match for West Indies.

Sunil Gavaskar made history in 1971, and so did India, winning a series for first time in the West Indies. The young opener had been a sensation in university cricket just before the tour, and many had predicted great things for him, but the surprise package was Dilip Sardesai, the veteran, who was prolific and domineering in the middle order.

This was a new chapter in Prasanna's career, as he was sidelined, with captain Wadekar preferring his rival offspinner and vice-captain S Venkataraghavan. Venkat, for his part, bowled well, and with India winning, not much was said about the way Prasanna was treated. Prasanna had to wait for Pataudi to return as captain for the 1974-75 home series against Clive Lloyd's West Indies.

The Indian spinners bowled well throughout, but Prasanna was at his best in the Madras Test, when the spinners wrested the initiative from the rampaging West Indian batsmen. The match will always be remembered for Gundappa Viswanath's fighting 97 not out in the first innings, when he launched a superb counterattack against a fiery Andy Roberts.

Most cricket watchers believed that that innings was the finest that little Viswanath had played in his career. We were State Bank of India team-mates then, and I asked him if he agreed. "My 139 in the Calcutta Test was a better innings," he said. "I had to dig in and bat for the long haul that time, turn a losing cause into victory. At Chepauk I had nothing to lose, with wickets tumbling at the other end. Batting with the tail, I just played all the shots in the book. With the attacking field, my carefree approach paid off."

After losing the first two Tests in Bangalore and Delhi, India fought back in Calcutta and Madras to square the series 2-2. India were then outplayed in Bombay, where Clive Lloyd pummelled the bowlers to make a brutal 242 not out.

That tour was our first sighting of Viv Richards, Roy Fredericks, Gordon Greenidge, and Alvin Kallicharran. Lloyd himself was already an old favourite. The bowling featured Roberts, Bernard Julien and Keith Boyce, backed by offspinner Lance Gibbs. It was also the only time left-arm spinner Rajinder Goel made it to the Indian Test squad. He came in for Bishan Bedi - who was disciplined by the BCCI for an alleged misdemeanour - in the first Test, but was kept out of the playing XI, perhaps because a good performance by him might have embarrassed the selectors after Bedi had served his suspension.

It was an altogether exciting series. Soon, India would successfully chase the unlikely fourth-innings target of 403 at Port-of-Spain, and the radio commentator Ravi Chaturvedi would attribute the team's success to the merits of prime minister Indira Gandhi's 20-point economic programme! Apparently, the plan did not work when India were beaten black and blue in Kingston a week later, and Bedi, the captain, was forced to declare India's second innings and virtually forfeit the match because several of his players were injured while facing hostile fast bowling.