Philip Barker

In the sport's corridors of power, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) wields tremendous influence.

So much so that its provisional backing of a campaign for the sport’s Olympic inclusion at Los Angeles 2028 is considered essential for the bid to have any chance of success.

On the field, India are "box office" and this weekend millions will follow their Test series decider against Australia in Brisbane.

India bounced back to level the series after a humbling defeat in the first Test, when they were bowled out for 36, their lowest total in test history.

It is a resilience that Indian cricket did not always display, particularly away from home.

India are currently in Australia, 50 years after they won two away Test series ©Getty Images
India are currently in Australia, 50 years after they won two away Test series ©Getty Images

Fifty years ago, they had only won one series outside the subcontinent since they first became a Test playing nation in 1932.

In 1971, their two series were away from home and both ended in victory. They celebrated the arrival of a new superstar batsman while a quartet of superb spin bowlers sealed their reputations.

"It was the shot in the arm which Indian cricket needed," said All India Radio commentator Berry Sarbadhikary.

In February, the tour party flew into Jamaica to begin a tour of the Caribbean.

They had a new captain, 29-year-old Ajit Wadekar, a middle order batsman from Mumbai. He was chosen to replace the Oxford educated Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, nicknamed "Tiger" but previously known more formally as the Nawab of Pataudi.

"To replace Tiger was a bit difficult. He had all the charisma and the touch of royalty," Wadekar later told ESPN.

His side played two full four-day warm-up matches and two days before the Test, a one-day game over 45 overs a side against the West Indian Universities.

The series was set to open at Sabina Park in Jamaica but rain washed out the first day.

West Indies superstar captain Garry Sobers won the toss and, influenced by a damp patch on the wicket, invited the tourists to bat. It seemed to have paid off when, thanks to the bowling of Vanburn Holder and Grayson Shillingford, India tottered at 75-5.

"The Indians entered the match highly underrated and the series was in danger of losing all of its appeal by mid- afternoon," observed the distinguished Bajan cricket writer Tony Cozier.

Indian officials have signalled their backing for cricket becoming an Olympic sport ©Getty Images
Indian officials have signalled their backing for cricket becoming an Olympic sport ©Getty Images

Then India began to fight back. Batsman Dilip Sardesai struck a magnificent 212 to spark the Indian recovery. He enjoyed support from allrounder Eknath Solkar in a stand of 137 for the sixth wicket. 

Erapilli Prasanna, primarily a spin bowler, gave Sardesai valuable support in a record ninth-wicket stand of 122.

India reached an improbable total of 387, which enabled their bowlers to attack.

Prasanna now demonstrated his skill with the ball. He had support from fellow spinners Bishen Bedi and Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan, known to all as in the cricket world as "Venkat". The last six West Indian wickets fell for only 15. Wadekar was determined to make a psychological point and asked the home team to follow on.

Although the test was drawn, thanks mainly to 158 from Clive Lloyd and 93 from Sobers, the Indian performance demanded respect.

In the two provincial matches which followed, the tourists introduced a new opening pair. Ashok Mankad was the son of Vinoo Mankad, a legendary figure in Indian cricket. 

Mankad was partnered with a 21-year-old destined to forge a similar legend - Sunil Gavaskar from Bombay University, who had missed the earlier matches because of a finger injury but he was now fully recovered.

He made an immediate impact with 82 against the Leeward Islands in St Kitts and also struck a superb century against Trinidad in Port of Spain.

Sunil Gavaskar emerged as star of Indian cricket in 1971 ©Getty Images
Sunil Gavaskar emerged as star of Indian cricket in 1971 ©Getty Images

West Indies batted first in the second Test but their frailties were exposed from the moment opener Roy Fredericks was dismissed by the first ball of the match. They were all out for 214, once again the spinning trio of Venkat, Prasanna and Bedi had been responsible for the damage.

When India batted, debutant Gavaskar demonstrated how he was not overawed, though he did have a stroke of fortune when he was put down by Sobers. He went on to  score 65 and with Sardesai hitting another century, India’s 352 put them in control.

In West Indies’ second innings a five-wicket haul from Venkat left India with only 124 to win. Gavaskar’s unbeaten 67 took them home and many felt it was appropriate that he should hit the winning runs.

KN Prabhu, sports editor of The Times of India, observed: "From the moment he took his stance in the first big match, it was apparent that Indian cricket had found the opening batsman it had been looking for these many years."

The next test in Georgetown Guyana was drawn, but notable for Gavaskar’s maiden Test century in the first innings and an unbeaten 64 in the second.

In the fourth Test in Bridgetown, the West Indies batting fired on all cylinders as Sobers made 178 and declared at 501-5.

Gavaskar was dismissed for a single, his first failure in Test cricket, and India tottered at 70-6. The recovery was again led by Sardesai with 150.

West Indies went for quick runs and declared again, leaving India a target of 335 but another Gavaskar hundred made sure of the draw.

Bishen Bedi was part of a formidable Indian bowling attack which won two away series in 1971 ©Getty Images
Bishen Bedi was part of a formidable Indian bowling attack which won two away series in 1971 ©Getty Images

Gavaskar took all the batting plaudits in the final Test back in Port of Spain, scoring a century in the first innings and a marathon 220 in the second.

His 774 Test runs at an average of 154 represented an astonishing first series, especially considering he had missed the opening Test.

Cozier’s assessment was particularly prescient. "It will be surprising to all who saw him in this series if this young man does not develop into the newest of the great Indian batsmen," he said.

India’s next challenge was to play England, who had recently regained The Ashes from Australia. There were no official rankings in 1971 but in preceding years, England had beaten all the other Test match nations and that summer had already won a series against India’s neighbours Pakistan.

India arrived in mid-June and acclimatised by playing no fewer than eight first-class matches before the first Test match at Lord’s in London. This proved a close contest but rain came when India were 38 short of victory with two wickets left.

The flashpoint came early in the Indian second innings when England fast bowler John Snow collided with Gavaskar in the middle of the wicket. Gavaskar’s autobiography records how the "hefty fast bowler gave me a violent shove".

Snow was reprimanded and dropped from the next Test match. A brilliant fast bowler, he was an individualist who had also published a book of his poems. Many felt it appropriate that one of the verses was entitled "on being dropped".

Rain intervened in the second test at Manchester, which was drawn as a result of the weather. This meant the final test at Kennington Oval in South London decided the series.

Ashok Mankad, son of Vinood, was among the Indian party which toured England in 1971 ©Getty Images
Ashok Mankad, son of Vinood, was among the Indian party which toured England in 1971 ©Getty Images

The many Indian supporters in the crowd arranged for a baby elephant called Bella to be brought from Chessington Zoo to celebrate the Hindu festival of Ganesh Chathurthi.

After the first three days of the match India trailed by 71 in the first innings.

The respected Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack noted that "England seemed to have the match well in hand".

They were 19-0 in their second innings when the ball was thrown to Bhagwath Chandrasekhar. It was the turning point of the match. Chandra’s right arm had been withered by polio as a child but it enabled him to bowl unusual deliveries and he gave the batsmen no relief. "The innings disintegrated," said Wisden. England were all out for only 101.

Chandra finished with six wickets for 38 runs and was aided by some superb fielding, particularly from close catching specialist Solkar. The spell was lauded much later as the Indian bowling performance of the century.

India’s victory target was only 173, but Gavaskar was soon dismissed leg before wicket for a duck by his nemesis Snow and the tourists closed the fourth day on 76-2.

There came a further blow early on the fifth day when skipper Wadekar was run out and the next few hours proved tense as India took three hours to make the final 97 runs. All-rounder Syed Abid Ali hit the winning boundary.

"India’s finest hour," was the headline in the Times of India, where Prabhu wrote: "Indian cricket achieved its ultimate ambition. A large section of jubilant Indian supporters with the national tricolour borne aloft took over the Kennington Oval."

Twenty20 cricket is hugely popular in India ©Getty Images
Twenty20 cricket is hugely popular in India ©Getty Images

In his summary for Wisden, Indian writer Dicky Rutnagur wrote: "Bombay, birthplace of Indian cricket, witnessed unprecedented scenes. Revellers stopped buses to convey the news to commuters."

Most had followed by listening to the BBC Radio commentary and "children garlanded the wireless sets". In those days wireless meant radio. 

In 1971, international cricket meant five-day Test matches.

India did not play a one-day international until 1974.

They would later do so to packed houses and T20, an even shorter format, would be even more popular. In 1971, such a notion would have seemed little more than the wildest fantasy.