Anindya Dutta’s fifth book The Greatest Year celebrates the achievements of the Indian cricket team in 1971 in beating both the West Indies and England away for the first time in almost four decades.
Dutta follows an altogether different narrative technique in this book – a nonlinear one. The book commences with the triumphant heroes returning home from England with a bemused yet happy skipper Ajit Wadekar, contemplating the extraordinary run of good fortune experienced by him and his team. It was a reception that was spontaneous and thousands lined up along the entire route of the motorcade both in Bombay and later in Delhi, where they were feted by none other than Prime Minister Indira Gandhi herself.
Dutta now goes back forty years in the narrative to acquaint the reader of our four decades of frustration in England. He is subtly ruthless in laying bare the petty intrigue planned and executed by the overlord in BCCI, Vizzy, whose ‘shenanigans’, as described by the writer, destroyed the very spirit of ‘unity in diversity’ of the Indian team. Even after Vizzy, India continued to languish between the 1940s and 1970s.
When one of our finest cricketers, Vijay Merchant, became the Chairman of the Selection Committee, much was expected of him with such a dynamic captain, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi at the helm. Both Merchant and Pataudi Jr believed in youth and it had paid off. People’s expectations soared following India’s 3-1 away victory away in New Zealand. Pataudi.Jr “wanted a team that could win matches” and “that meant finding bowlers who could take twenty opposition wickets.” After just one loss at home, Pataudi was removed, in a move described by the author as “Machiavellian in execution.”
Dutta very candidly confesses that the Caribbeans were a weaker side than the ones faced by previous Indian teams touring the West Indies. Their bowling had lost the main fast bowlers, and the sole spinner of class, Lance Gibbs, was battling injury and played just one Test. Their batting, however, had substance with the presence of some great names like Sobers, Kanhai, Lloyd, and Fredericks. India’s first victory, Sardesai’s heroics, and the emergence of Sunil Gavaskar were enough to make any Indian cricket fan proud.
The hallmark of Dutta’s writing is that his statements are substantiated and subsequently authenticated by quotes from several sources. When the Indian side arrived in England, their Press was rather dismissive of the visiting side. Their wily captain Ray Illingworth however wrote in Sportsweek that “…..for my money, they look the very best side ever to come to this country. Whatever happens, these will be Test matches between two very good sides.” Illingworth’s words came true with India prevailing after two pulsating Tests, winning the last encounter at the Oval. India had created history.
The writer enlivens the narrative with numerous anecdotes, quotes from books and journals, and hours of personal conversation with the players involved in both the tours. Many of us may be unaware of how Sunil Gavaskar rose to great heights by scoring those phenomenal 774 runs on the West Indies tour. Many may also be unaware of how Chandra rose to the occasion to demolish England in one splendid spell and India registered their first-ever victory in England. The book brings all these stories to the fore.
Long after going through the book, one’s mind and ears resonate with words like “popatwadi” and “Mill Reef”. Dilip Sardesai emerges not merely as a batting hero but as a lovable human being. Just fifty-odd pages are crammed with incidents and anecdotes to last half a lifetime. Any more pages might have diluted the pleasure of enjoying the fruits of a great, or rather, The Greatest Year.
The Greatest Year is a long-running #1 Bestseller and is available on Amazon India as an ebook.
Prof. Chinmoy Jena is a former Indian first-class cricketer. After laying down his bat, he had a long and distinguished career as the Head of the Department of English at Ravenshaw University in Cuttack. He continues to hold responsible positions within the Odisha Cricket Association, helping secure a bright future for the cricketing talent in the state.