Cricket interest in India has always been high, but during the 1966-67 season the following was unprecedented, and spectators packed grounds as never before. The West Indies were touring that year, and never before had such a clear-cut world-champion side visited India. They were a formidable outfit, with some of the biggest names in world cricket, and in the 60s, there was no bigger name than Gary Sobers.
The greatest all-rounder in the game's history was then at the peak of his powers. During the summer of 1966, he had led the West Indies to a 3-1 victory over England, and his contribution to the triumph in the five-match series was mind-boggling 722 runs, 20 wickets and 10 catches.
The West Indies team itself was in the midst of a glorious run during that decade, and they came to India eager for a quick and easy kill. In addition to Sobers, the other batting stars included Rohan Kanhai, Basil Butcher, Conrad Hunte, Seymour Nurse, and a 22-year-old bespectacled lanky youth of whom much was expected Clive Lloyd. The bowling too matched the batting, with Wesley Hall and Charlie Griffith having established themselves as a devastating duo; as back-up, there was always the spin of Sobers and Lance Gibbs.
A 2-0 victory for the West Indies in the three-Test series was predicted, and that was how the contest ended. But once the series was over and it came time for a post-mortem, the feeling was that it was closer than the final result. India ran the formidable opposition close for long and gave them many anxious moments before they took the first Test at Bombay by six wickets.
The final Test at Madras too was close and need not have been drawn. India were on top midway through the game and on the final afternoon were in fact in a winning position. But dropped catches Sobers was let off twice - saw the West Indies wriggle out. Only in the second Test at Calcutta were India outplayed by an innings and 45 runs, and this was entirely excusable as the batsmen were up against Sobers and Gibbs on a pitch turning square.
Sobers of course lived up to his lofty reputation, scoring 342 runs at an average of 114.00, taking 14 wickets and latching on to seven catches. The other batsmen were in the great one's shadow, but the Indian crowds did get to see some fine batting from Kanhai, Nurse, Butcher, Hunte and Lloyd, who made a splendid debut at Bombay by scoring 82 and 78 not out. But the astonishing aspect was that neither Hall nor Griffith really caused the batsmen problems; it was Gibbs who with 18 wickets proved to be most destructive.
The hosts, despite being defeated, were far from disgraced. In the 60s, under the inspiring leadership of the Nawab of Pataudi Jr., Indian cricket had made notable strides. There was greater solidity in the batting, more variety in the bowling (in fact the famed spin quartet was formed during that series), and vast improvement in the fielding. Chandu Borde was by now the sheet anchor of the Indian batting, and he maintained this reputation by getting two hundreds in the three Tests. Pataudi, through consistent batting, confirmed his stature as one of the leading batsmen in the world.
There were also spells of bright batting from Budhi Kunderan, Salim Durrani, ML Jaisimha, Hanumant Singh, V Subramanyam and Farokh Engineer - the latter at Madras in fact almost got a hundred before lunch on the first day. With enthralling strokes all round the wicket, the flamboyant batsman flayed the vaunted attack to reach 94 by the interval and went on to get 109. A welcome discovery during the series was Ajit Wadekar, whose hook for six off Hall during his innings of 67 at Madras is still talked about by old-timers lucky enough to have seen the thrilling spectacle.
The spin quartet made up for the lack of adequate new-ball bowlers. BS Chandrasekhar was head and shoulders above everyone else, and he took 18 wickets, including a match-haul of 11 for 235 at Bombay, a classic display of attacking leg-spin bowling. Erapalli Prasanna, making a successful comeback, Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Bishan Singh Bedi, who made his debut in the series, all played a notable role in curbing the free-stroking Caribbean batsmen.
Unfortunately the tour will also be remembered for the major riot at the Eden Gardens, which came about following the over-selling of tickets by officials. On the second morning - New Year's day 1967 - the agitated crowd, already spilling over onto the field of play, gave vent to its feelings when, following a police lathi charge, the stands were set on fire. Considerable damage was also done to the outfield, and some miscreants dug up the pitch. It was only after the intervention of government officials - and many assurances of safety - that the West Indies agreed to continue with the match and the tour.