"The older I get, the better I was" goes a familiar saying, referring to the human tendency to embellish the past and exaggerate one's abilities in a now-distant youth. I am often reminded of this when I encounter references to India's alleged glory days in the 1970s, when, one may be led to believe, the side were world beaters.

According to this myth, the quartet of great spinners - Chandra, Bedi, Prasanna and Venkat - backed by sharp close-in fielders and doughty batsmen made India a formidable opponent, especially at home.

A nine-year-old who became a fan of the game the moment GR Viswanath hit that debut century against Bill Lawry's visiting Australians in the 1969-70 series, I was a keen witness to the decade that followed, and humbly suggest a fair amount of selective recall has rendered that era a tad more glorious than it really was.

It would be churlish to deny that India did well to win in the West Indies and in England in 1971. But what followed thereafter is difficult to describe as "great" on any comparative yardstick. The MCC team that toured India in 1972-73 had exactly two Test players with any real experience - Derek Underwood and Alan Knott. Regulars like Geoff Boycott, John Snow, Bob Willis, John Edrich, Ray Illingworth, Basil D'Oliveira and others had either chosen to skip the subcontinent, retired, or been dropped on form.

They were led by Tony Lewis, who was yet to play a Test match, and their top order was composed mainly of batsmen who had failed to establish themselves over the years (Dennis Amiss, Keith Fletcher, Mike Denness) or were just a few Tests old (Barry Wood and Tony Greig, for instance). Medium-pacer Geoff Arnold, himself a non-regular in the England team, was joined by Bob Cottam (playing his third Test) and Chris Old (yet to make his debut). Underwood was supported by three other spinners, who were best described as journeymen - Pat Pocock, Norman Gifford and Jack Birkenshaw.

Despite the evident weakness of the MCC side, India managed to lose the first Test quite badly. They beat the visitors in Calcutta by 28 runs in a low-scoring thriller, and almost made a meal of chasing a mere 86 to win at Chepauk. The series was effectively over after the third Test since the featherbeds in Kanpur and Bombay spelled draws. While India's spinners, especially Chandra, took the lion's share of the wickets, the 2-1 win was hardly indicative of any greatness on India's part.

When India returned to England in the summer of 1974, they were trounced so badly that it hurts to recall it even now. In the course of three Tests, they lost 60 wickets (well, 59 - an injured Chandra did not bat in the infamous 42 at Lord's), while England lost 24 - only two in the third Test - and won the second and third Tests by an innings each. India's spinners were completely ineffective in the first half of a cold English summer and their batsmen simply unable to play the moving ball.

India's Test series between 1970 and 1979
Series Matches Won Lost Draw Batting avg Bowling avg
West Indies v India, 1970-71 5 1 0 4 39.97 40.50
England v India, 1971 3 1 0 2 25.38 29.84
India v England, 1972-73 5 2 1 2 27.67 27.86
England v India, 1974 3 0 3 0 19.54 67.87
India v West Indies, 1974-75 5 2 3 0 25.07 36.76
New Zealand v India, 1975-76 3 1 1 1 27.89 30.45
West Indies v India, 1975-76 4 1 2 1 37.34 37.32
India v New Zealand, 1976-77 3 2 0 1 45.80 22.19
India v England, 1976-77 5 1 3 1 20.21 26.39
Australia v India, 1977-78 5 2 3 0 33.54 28.17
Pakistan v India, 1978-79 3 0 2 1 37.00 67.06
India v West Indies, 1978-79 6 1 0 5 50.30 32.22
England v India, 1979 4 0 1 3 31.34 46.69
India v Australia, 1979-80 6 2 0 4 46.54 29.55
India v Pakistan, 1979-80 4 1 0 3 27.31 46.69

While we proudly recall coming back from 2-0 down to level the home series against Clive Lloyd's West Indies in the 1974-75 series (before losing the decider at the Wankhede), we tend to forget how inexperienced India's opponents were. Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards had yet to play a Test, and Andy Roberts had just made his debut at the time. Only Lloyd, Lance Gibbs and Roy Fredericks had played much Test cricket at all. With their experienced spin quartet ostensibly in their prime, and bowling in home conditions, India were favourites going in, yet lost the series.

This was followed by back-to-back tours to New Zealand and the West Indies. India tied 1-1 with New Zealand in a three-Test series, and lost 1-2 against West Indies, the lone win of that tour being the record chase of 403 in Trinidad. That West Indian team had just been hammered 5-1 by the Australians, and two of India's four Tests were played in Port-of-Spain, where the wicket was known to be both slow and ideal for spinners.

When Greig led an England team to India later in 1976, once again the hosts began as firm favourites but proceeded to lose the first three Tests. England showed that patience and occupation of the crease were the secrets to succeeding on the slow tracks, and their tight bowling lines directed away from the strengths of India's batsmen ensured a steady supply of wickets for their largely faceless bowling attack. Another home series lost.

Perhaps the definitive indicator of the real worth of the Indian team back then was the tour to Australia in 1977-78. The Australians were severely depleted by the desertion of all their main cricketers, barring Jeff Thomson, to Packer's World Series Cricket, and were effectively fielding a 2nd or even 3rd XI, led by Bob Simpson, who had come back after retiring from Test cricket a decade prior.

Six Australians made their debuts in the first Test. India's bowling attack included Chandra, Bedi and Prasanna, yet they lost by 16 runs. They also proceeded to lose the second (with Venkat replacing Prasanna), where nightwatchman Tony Mann, playing the second Test of his career, made a century to help Australia chase down 339. India did well to come back to level the series but eventually lost 3-2 - against a team that was, to put things in perspective, beaten 5-1 at home the next season by England.

In October-November 1978, India lost 2-0 in a series in Pakistan that effectively finished tje spin quartet (even if some of them played on for a few more Tests). Later that season India prevailed 1-0 in a six-Test home series against Alvin Kallicharran's Packer-depleted West Indians. The sole victory amid five boring draws came at Chepauk, where India lost seven wickets on the way to chasing down 125.

It is not my intention to query the skills of those players, or to deny that India had their moments of individual and team glory. It's rather to put those accomplishments back then in a comparative perspective in assessing their true worth. Most importantly, it's to guard against that all-too-human tendency to view the past through rose-tinted lenses.

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu. @SankaranKrishn