Book Review: The Greatest Year: The 1971 Tours of the West Indies and England

As 2020 wends its tortuous path, it sets a bar so low that we can only hope and imagine that 2021 will be a great year by comparison. But 2021 will also be the fiftieth anniversary of what author Anindya Dutta has described in the title of his new book as “The Greatest Year”.

1971 was the year that India arrived as an international cricket force. Consecutive overseas tours to the West Indies and England resulted in back-to-back Test series wins. Apart from victories in New Zealand in 1969, this was the first time they had punched above their weight to defeat stronger opposition on their own turf.

Dutta’s book is a short, sharp account of the two tours, a blend of behind-the-scenes tales with concise match accounts that could almost be imagined as Pathe newsreel scripts without the pictures.

Kenia Jayantilal, whose solitary Test appearance came in the opening match of that West Indian tour, has provided Dutta with some valuable insights to that series as will as some of the photos that appear in the book. Jayantilal’s opening batting partner on that one and only occasion was Syed Abid Ali, who was also interviewed for “The Greatest Year”.

Jayantilal’s replacement in the remaining Tests of the West Indian tour was a 21 year-old newcomer named Sunil Gavaskar who accumulated an astonishing 774 runs in his four matches in the Caribbean. But as Dutta tells us, Gavaskar was fortunate to be playing at all, a diversion of the team’s trans-Atlantic flight to New York enabling urgent treatment on an infected finger.

India’s unexpected triumph over England at The Oval came through the spinning fingers of Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, a reluctant choice of chair of selectors Vijay Merchant who considered him too “unorthodox”. But it was one of Merchant’s more contentious picks, using his casting vote to appoint Ajit Wadekar as captain instead of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, that proved an inspired choice.

The rigours of the English tour circuit of 1971 are highlighted with the case of the Indian team completing a three-day match against Kent, and making the three-hour trip to Leicestershire that evening to start the next game in the morning. Try telling today’s highly-paid professionals to do that.

“The Greatest Year: The 1971 Tours of the West Indies and England” is a worthwhile diversion from the not-so-greatest year that is 2020.

“The Greatest Year: The 1971 Tours of the West Indies and England” is published by Westland Books and available in India on Kindle through Amazon. It will be available worldwide shortly.

Book Review: Wizards: The story of Indian spin bowling

The sub-title of “Wizards”, the fourth book of cricket history from Anindya Dutta, is “The story of Indian spin bowling”, but it could so easily be described as “the history of Indian cricket through spin”.  

Dutta presents a fascinating and thoroughly researched journey through more than one hundred years of Indian cricket teams whose journey from failure to success has been underscored by the efforts those slow bowlers, many of those still living having been interviewed by the author, who exercised their wizardry on the pitch. 

Dutta’s mostly chronological study begins with the remarkable story of Palwankar Baloo, the left arm bowler who broke through the caste barriers to play in England with the All India team of 1911. Rustomji Jamshedji was, at the age of forty, the first spin bowlers to play Test cricket, and Dutta gives space to Baloo, Jamshedji, and some seventy spinners, most of whom wore the Indian cap at Test, one-day or more recently Twenty20 level. 

Vinoo Mankad’s unfortunate entry into cricket’s lexicon is but a passing item in the chapter on his remarkable career. There is the account of Subash “Fergie” Gupte, capable of bowling two types of googlies and described by Sir Garfield Sobers as a better leg-spinner than Shane Warne. Gupte’s playing career came undone after a hotel incident involving room-mate Kripal Singh in which he was not involved. 

The greatest slow bowlers of the past two decades, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh are featured in the second half of “Wizards” but much of the middle section is taken by the four spin bowlers who dominated for much of the 1960s and 70s: the “Spin Quartet” of Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Bishen Singh Bedi.  

Test matches in which some or all of the quartet played are described more than once in the book, but through the perspective of each bowler’s performance. Dutta invokes the theory more recently known as Blue Ocean Strategy to describe how the great captain “Tiger” Pataudi brought out the best in his Spin Quartet. 

Fine spin bowlers whose time in the Indian team never came because of the shadow of the great Quartet – Rajinder Goel, Paddy Shivalkar, Rajinder Singh Hans – and Dilip Doshi, whose opportunity was delayed by their presence – all take their place in Wizards. So too Maninder Singh and Laxman Sivaramakrishan, both unable to deliver all their talents had to offer. Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag find their way into the pages as “Breakthrough Bowlers”. 

Among the many examples of maladministration detailed in the book, players dropped, careers delayed, captains chopped and changed for reasons of politics or personal jealousies. There is perhaps scope for a history of Indian cricket as defined by how bad decisions by selectors and administrators have held the team back. 

As Kapil Dev says in his foreword, “Today is a different world”, and the role of the match-winning fast bowlers such as Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma is a world whose beginnings trace back to him. But as Dutta concludes this comprehensive and enjoyable history with the wrist-spin duo of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, he ponders whether they are the Wizards to take Indian cricket into the future. 

“Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling” is published by Westland Sport and available worldwide through Amazon. This review is based upon the Kindle edition. ISBN 9789388754514

The ABC Cricket Book: The First 60 Years

This is a marvellous document, both of Australian cricket and of a long and successful episode in Australian broadcasting history.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, formed in 1932 as the Australian Broadcasting Commission, has right from its beginnings shown a committment to the reporting of major sports to its listeners, and in 1932 there were fewer more popular sports in this country than cricket, with Bradman’s genius displaying full bloom. In 1934 the ABC produced a booklet called “International Cricket – The Australian Team In England”. As they stated in their foreword, “the Australian Broadcasting Commission will throughout the tour broadcast authentic and detailed descriptions of play… and this booklet is offered to listeners in the hope that it will assist them to understand those descriptions fully and to follow the tour with yet greater interest.”

The book was a success, and the ABC has continued to produce what is now known simply as “The ABC Cricket Book” in conjunction with every major tour both in Australia and overseas. In 1994 ABC Books published “The ABC Cricket Book – The First 60 Years” as a compilation of the highlights since 1934. ABC cricket commentator Jim Maxwell compiled and edited this work.

Each international season has its previews and its background features from some noteworthy guest writers. The evolution of not just the book itself, but the game in Australia and of the culture of the ABC can be seen in the 238 pages of this book. The excerpts from the 1934 edition take us through pen portraits of the Australian tourists, show us the field placings of Clarrie Grimmett, define no less than fifteen types of pitch conditions, and tell us about the expert commentary team of the day – including M.A.Noble (whose resemblance in later life to Babe Ruth I still find uncanny), and Mr R.H.Campbell, “the prince of cricket statisticians” who saw the very first Test in 1877.

In “Test Cricket 1938 – National Broadcasts”, as it was called, we have action shots of all the leading players of both Australia and England, and a new face on the commentary team: McGilvray, A.D. Following the War the title “ABC Broadcast Cricket Book” appears, as does a purchase price of sixpence. Keith Stackpole snr is pictured as one of the hopefuls for the Australian team of 1946-47, twenty years before his son gave the family its first baggy green cap. For the 1947-48 tour by India, we get a short lesson in how to pronounce Indian vowels. In 1948 the voices of Rex Alston and John Arlott grace our airwaves, and the ABC’s Federal Sporting Supervisor joins the crew in England, long before “Executive Producers” were invented.

In 1951-52 the first semblance of a lift-out pictorial featuring the three W’s Weekes, Worrell and Walcott. The “ABC Coronation Cricket Book” of 1953 includes the first of many guest appearances in print of Sir Donald Bradman. The 1958-59 book tells us, for the first time, when to watch the Tests on TV. (Sadly, the mighty Packer dollar slowly extinguished the ABC’s involvement in televised cricket during the 1980’s, an involvement which ended ignominiously in the middle of the 1991-92 India series due to some quirky “aggregation” rules for country TV coverage.)

Two shillings would buy you the 1960-61 ABC Cricket Book with Norman O’Neill (who, as I write, is ailing with throat cancer) on the cover. Learie Constantine writes of “Hopes for revival in W.I. aggression”. The extracts throughout the sixties show that the three series in that decade against the West Indies represented Australian cricket’s happiest moments of the era. McGilvray, A.D is now Alan McGilvray, and he is not only still commentating on the game, but is by now the ABC Cricket Book’s editor.

The 1970-71 book reminisced on the synthetic broadcasts of ABC Cricket’s early days, where commentators in Sydney called games in England by means of telegram and pencil rubber. (I do that now with the live comms from IRC. Some things don’t change that much.) The seventies saw great change in publishing style of the book as they showed change in the decorum of the ABC, and they saw irreversable changes in the game of cricket itself, courtesy of Kerry Packer and WSC. The ABC remained steadfastly loyal to the traditions of the game… after all, they were a big part of the Australian traditions of the game. Bradman wrote in the 1978-79 edition of “Cricket’s past, present and future” – a long and heartfelt essay on the great man’s views of the game.

The eighties – the book now cost a dollar, the ABC was playing second fiddle to Channel Nine as telecaster of the game, but they still had the upper hand over all comers on radio. Alan McGilvray became a reluctant star of their marketing push, but finally in 1985 he hung up the mike and moved off into a retirement which ended with his passing in July 1996. That other NSW stalwart of the thirties, Bill O’Reilly, wrote in 1988-89 of the Sydney Cricket Ground that now a bore a grandstand with his name.

Come the nineties – the book now costs $4.95, but at least the price remains unchanged since 1989. Merv Hughes is the popular hero with his passionate behaviour and his outfield aerobics – but maybe if Chuck Fleetwood-Smith was on that 1989 tour and not the ABC’s first tour of 1934, he may have indulged in the same activities. Arthur Gilligan and Vic Richardson may have been the hot radio pairing of the 1940’s, but now it’s H.G.Nelson and Rampaging Roy Slaven. H.G, in the 1990-91 book, gives us the Australian XI if it were captained by Ray Bright. Keith Stackpole (jnr) is featured in a way that both he and his dad would never have imagined. Finally, this compilation takes us to 1993, where veteran novelist Jon Cleary writes of “Nostalgia: Everyone’s Twelfth Man”, and we end the book in the new South Africa, as world cricket embarks on an exciting new era.

“The ABC Cricket Book – the First 60 Years” is a microcosm of everything great about the ABC’s committment to Australian cricket. They promote themselves as “your ABC” and, yes, I look upon them as “my ABC”. Amidst all the threats to the ABC’s viability that the present anti-public-sector Government poses, long live the ABC and long live the ABC Cricket Book. And thanks to Jim Maxwell, and Alan McGilvray before him, for making this compilation possible.

(“The ABC Cricket Book – The First 60 Years”, edited by Jim Maxwell was published by ABC Books, Sydney in 1994. ISBN 0 7333 0406 0.)