This India, this 'Spain'

RAJU BHARATAN

AS slim as the waist of Audrey Hepburn still was India's batting, early in 1971, as Rex Harrison (playing Prof. Higgins) carried rare repeat value while having My Fair Lady Eliza Dolittle compulsively singing: The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain. Plain sailing it was not, amazingly, for Gary Sobers and the West Indies even as the Reign in 'Spain' began for Ajit Wadekar's India by the time our team moved into Trinidad for the Port-of-Spain second Test set to determine the Queen's Park Oval shape of things to come. The ground position, five minutes before close of play by that second Test's fourth evening (Wednesday, March 10, 1971), was that the Port-of-Spain conquest by Wadekar's India was compellingly complete, leaving Gary Sobers' West Indies numbed as never before. Dare we, therefore, hope that Sourav & co. would have moved into a similar winnable position on the eve of yet another second Test at Port-of-Spain?

Sourav and his boys, if they are men, must remember that the Calypsolo act of Sunil Gavaskar (distinguishing that milestone 1971 rubber) erased the memory of 40 years of non-achievement in Indian cricket. However much Ajit Wadekar and Bishan Singh Bedi might loathe each other, both fell head over heels in love with Port-of-Spain. For here at the Queen's Park Oval was where Bedi's India won the third Test as mind-freezingly (by six wickets - beginning-April 1976) as had Wadekar's India (by seven wickets - beginning-March 1971). The Caribbeans looked upon Sunil Gavaskar - 11 of his 34 Test hundreds (including three of his four double tons) to be against the West Indies - as a one-man high-road block. This much was obvious from what Tony Cozier had to say about Sunil's 156 in the end-March 1976 second Test (also at Port-of Spain):

"The West Indies relief at watching Gavaskar turn to walk back to a standing reception from the pavilion (c Deryck Murray b Michael Holding 156) needs no elaboration," wrote Tony Cozier. "His feats at Queen's Park Oval have become legendary and no one doubts that he could have capped them by seeing his team to a famous and historic victory." That legendary victory ultimately materialised in the next Test (moved back to Port-of-Spain), while the landmark rubber in the West Indies had come to seal that 1971 series as fresher Gavaskar's breakthrough in world cricket. Before G. R. Visvanath came up with his vintage victory strike of 112 (run out) at Port-of-Spain on the Sunday of April 10, 1976, Sunil had been the linchpin of Bedi's India with the victory-pathfinding 102 he crafted in that third Port-of-Spain Test. Where Sunil here batted with a mature head on young shoulders, a mere fledgling had been Gavaskar when creating for Wadekar's India the opening for a 1-0 series win without parallel in the annals of our cricket - with 65 & 67 not out in the March 1971 second Test at Queen's Park Oval.

This then is India's hearty hunting-ground, so that here is where Messrs. Sourav, Sachin, Laxman and Rahul must take a vice-like hold on the rubber. Televisionary India, by the final (April 23) day of the 2002 Port-of-Spain Test, should be settling for nothing less than a handsome win giving India a distinct series edge. It is well to remind Sourav and his team that Ajit Wadekar's India had had the West Indies (as a world cricket power still) on the rueful run from that head-spinning moment (during the first Test at Sabina Park) in which the smug Caribbean dressing room was brashly invaded to ask Gary Sobers' status-conscious team of world-beaters to follow on. Indeed Wadekar is insistent that the third Test at Georgetown, too, would have been India's for the clinching (to make the series score 2-0) but for a perverse umpiring intervention bailing out Gary Sobers. Read what Ajit Wadekar has to say about this Indian heartbreak in My Cricketing Years:

"We nearly won that third Test, too, but for a disputed catch. The catch offered by Gary Sobers (1) was taken by Dilip Sardesai off Salim Durrani. It was clear as daylight, it was not given by umpire Cecil Kippins. There was no question of the fielder's obscuring the umpire's view. Sobers did not walk, though there was no doubt that the ball had curled off his defensive bat. Durrani appealed twice in disgust. Had that catch been allowed, Sobers' scores in four innings of the second and third Tests would have been 29 & 0; 4 & 1. Sobers was then struggling hard for runs. He went on to score an unbeaten century (108). He not only took the (Georgetown) game out of our hands but gained the confidence he needed for the big scores he was to make in the two subsequent Tests (178 & 9; 132 & 0). Sobers was always an uncertain starter against our spinners."

An umpiring reprieve for Gary Sobers meant the difference between the rubber firmly grasped (2-0) and the series still remaining open (1-0). At that sensitive March 24, 1971 point, when his West Indies captaincy was under serious siege by East Indian Rohan Kanhai, even the mighty Gary Sobers, believe it or not, would not walk. And now, in 2002, Sachin has clearly begun to entertain second thoughts on this "show business" of walking. Could we then logically expect Brian Lara to follow non-walking Sachin suit in a Test series in which this cultured left-hander is under unprecedented Tendulkar stress to press "home" his Sri Lanka Test series advantage of 178 & 40; 74 & 45; 221 & 130? Gary Sobers, by March 1971, had built a healthy reputation for walking. Prudence (as the name of the Aussie girl Gary had married) then dictated that West Indies interest, during that flashpoint final day in the third Test, would be better served by Gary's staying his Georgetown ground.

In such a tight setting, the great Gary Sobers, sad to note, temporised. Like Gary Sobers before that "core" March 1971 Georgetown Test, Brian Lara (as we know from tele-rewind) moved instinctively towards the pavilion each time he knew he had got a tender touch. S. Venkatraghavan, for instance, was giving Brian Lara not out (c Nayan Mongia b Venkatapathy Raju) in the December 1994 West Indies-India Mohali Test, when Our Man Brian walked - and that when 91. This was the signal for the venerable Venkat to point a belated finger at Lara to keep walking!

But I digress, when the burden of the Calypsong is that there is no alibi whatsoever, now, for Sourav's India to be seen as doing anything but winning this five-Test rubber comprehensively enough to set the centrestage for a similar decisive triumph in a style of cricket best described as: "Here "one-day' and gone tomorrow!" Sachin has already reset his cap at the captaincy, so that, from five-day to one-day, it is Sourav's pressure hour in which this humdinger left-hander simply has to find his bearings afresh as a smasher skipper. If Merchant's casting vote as Chairman of Selectors is by now something of a chestnut, bolt upright sat Wadekar in the CCI selection room - after India's captaincy had been Vijay-bestowed upon Ajit at a pinpoint when the crown still looked to be firmly in the "princely" custody of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi.

Vijay Merchant, there and then, let it be candidly known to Ajit Wadekar that he wanted spot results even in the mighty West Indies - else. Vijay Merchant had written as much on the eve of that 1971 tour of the West Indies, inveighing: "We are the champion nation in making excuses for failure. Whenever we do badly, we are ready to put forward all kinds of reasons. Believe me, more often than not, these are excuses: 'The wickets were different!' 'The weather did not suit us!' 'We had a big casualty list!' But does all this not apply to teams visiting India as well? Surely it is not suggested that, when we go overseas, we carry our own wickets, our own weather and guaranteed protection from injuries and ill health?"

What was this Vijay Merchant caveat if not a reassertion of something prophetic that Karl Nunes, as the West Indies Cricket Board President, had stated towards the end of the trail-blazing 1951-52 tour of Australia by John Goddard's West Indies? As the West Indies skipper John Goddard - while flaunting in his touring team the "Three W's" in the swarthy shape of Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott - whined about the Aussie tour itinerary's having done his side in (1-4), intoned Karl Nunes: "If we have not the wisdom, temperament and ability to adapt ourselves to conditions of other countries, as we expect them to adapt themselves to ours, if we cannot take what we give, we do not measure up to the calibre of international cricket."

Ajit Wadekar's 1971 team's response - to a like Vijay Merchant-implied castigation - was to cut the big-made West Indians to size by shrewdly insighting the devil-may-care Caribbeans to be a team of "tonkers" still. Indeed Ajit Wadekar's Indian team then improved not just day by day, but from session to session. Gary Sobers thus made the agonising discovery that there was not a moment during which he could rest on his laurels. The conclusion is firm and clear. If Ajit Wadekar and his men could have the 1-0 measure - on their own wickets and against their own umpires - of a West Indies still rating among the three superpowers in the game, Sourav & co., now, are clearly expected to put it right across the Caribbeans in their current mental state of total unpreparedness. A total of five Tests compressed into seven weeks and five ODIs telescoped into a nine-day frame is a tall performing order, no doubt. But it would be in the physical fitness of things for Sourav and his men not to forget that the opposition they now face (in the land of Butcher) is easy Caribbean meat.