The early Caribbean jaunts

Charlie Griffith's action would come in for SCRUTINY over the years and he was called for chucking more than once, writes GULU EZEKIEL.

As India embarks on its ninth tour of the West Indies, a look back at the encounters since the first in 1952-53 makes for rather depressing reading for the Indian fans.

The record shows just one series rubber (in 1970-71) and only three wins in all (1971, the famous run chase in 1976 and then in 2002). In fact, all the wins were at the Queen's Park Oval in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

Indian cricket was still finding its feet when it visited the Caribbean for the first time. The year before in England, Fred Trueman and Co destroyed the Indian batting. Then in the home season India won a series for the first time, beating debutants Pakistan 2-1. But the team's record abroad was awful and it was feared that they would be crushed by the might of the legendary three Ws — Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott.

Instead, it turned out to be a series marked by brilliant performances from the likes of Subhas Gupte (27 wickets), leg-spinner, and batsmen Polly Umrigar, Pankaj Roy and Madhav Apte.

It was, however, the fielding of the tourists that won the applauds of the West Indian crowds. Never before had they seen such a brilliant show in the field from a touring side. Indeed, till the 1970s this was possibly the best Indian fielding side of all time.

India was beaten just once in the five Tests, a sterling achievement against a side packed with so many formidable players. That defeat came on the final day of the second Test at Bridgetown, Barbados, when on a crumbling wicket spinner Sonny Ramadhin picked up five wickets and West Indies won by 142 runs.

The performance had a tremendous impact on the `East Indian' community made up of descendants of indentured labourers who had been brought by the British from India a century ago. The community, which felt it was marginalised, lacked role models. Ramadhin was the first from this group to represent the islands when he made his debut in England in 1950.

Now the sight of this wonderful Indian team matching the mighty West Indians in every department of the game inspired many to take to cricket and this would enrich the Caribbean team in the decades to come. The first visit was a resounding success and would become known as the `happy tour'.

Sadly, those happy memories were wiped out when India made its next visit in 1961-62. This was not only an unhappy tour, it was tinged with tragedy that would have a tremendous impact on the future of Indian cricket.

Not only did the West Indians, under Worrell, pull off a clean sweep, winning all the five Test matches (two by an innings and one by 10 wickets), but half-way through the tour, India lost the services of their captain Nari Contractor due to head injury.

Though India was in with a chance till the third day of the first Test at Port of Spain, a second innings batting collapse saw it go down by 10 wickets. The second Test at Kingston, Jamaica, was lost by an innings and 18 runs. This despite a sterling batting display in the first innings by the tourists who totalled 395. But they had no answer to the home side, which rattled up 631 for eight declared with three centuries.

It was during the tour match against Barbados at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown that tragedy struck. The day before the match at a party Worrell had warned the Indians of the presence of Charlie Griffith in the Barbados side. The West Indian captain had warned them that Griffith did not have a very clean action and was ruthless.

Griffith's action would come in for scrutiny over the years and he was called for chucking more than once, including in the second innings of this match itself.

Barbados raced to 394 in its first innings. The next day (March 17, 1962) the Indian innings began just before lunch. Griffith bowled the lone over before the interval and in the next by Wes Hall, Dilip Sardesai was out for a `duck'.

Rusi Surti joined his captain and was at the non-striker's end. Then came the blow. Contractor was struck on the head by a Griffith delivery.

The first three balls were bowled at lighting pace and Contractor just managed to fend them off. Then as Griffith came in to bowl the fourth, suddenly someone opened a window in the pavilion. With no sightscreen at that end, the distraction affected the batsman's concentration for a split-second. According to Contractor: "The thought flashed in my mind that I would play this delivery and then tell them to close the window. In retrospect I now realise that I was not concentrating 100% and that was the reason I was hit."

After the third ball had been bowled, Surti had shouted across to him, "Skipper, he is chucking." Perhaps that too was playing on Contractor's mind. The photo of the incident shows the batsman after he had sunk to his knees once he had been struck, still clutching the bat. Over the years this has given the impression that he had ducked into the ball that was not rising. But Contractor has always maintained that it was a short-pitched delivery that did him in on that day and it was only after he was hit on the head that he fell to his knees. This has been corroborated by a number of eye-witnesses, both cricketers and journalists.

The tourists were shell-shocked after this and were beaten by an innings. But all that seemed inconsequential as Contractor battled for his life over the next few days, his skull fractured. After surgery an iron plate was inserted in the skull and though he tried valiantly to make it back to Test cricket, his international playing days were over that day.

Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi (jr.), was appointed vice-captain in a bid to groom him to eventually take over from Contractor after a few years. Less than a year earlier the 21-year-old had lost an eye in a car accident. Now captaincy was thrust on him. He became the youngest captain in the history of Test cricket. Having been unfit to play in the first two Tests, Pataudi now took charge in the third Test at Bridgetown. Still reeling from the loss of their regular captain at the same venue just days before, the Indians were understandably not at their best. They were beaten again by an innings in this Test and then lost the next two by seven wickets and 123 runs respectively.

For nearly a decade `Tiger' Pataudi would be in charge of the Indian cricket team. It would be a period of turmoil and triumph and throughout he led with dignity and astuteness.

But it would not have come about if not for that one delivery that dramatically and sadly ended the reign of one captain and began that of another. Indian cricket would never again be the same.