The death of Dilip Sardesai reminds us how thin and star-struck Indian cricket writing is. A dense archive of cricket writing will have its share of heroic biography, but it will also explain collective achievement and failure and, in doing so, will describe (and commemorate) the times when good players, who werenít stars, rose above themselves to turn a match. The turning points in Indian cricketís history often hinged on the performances of players whose career stats were less than stellar, but whose talent and will flared briefly but fiercely enough to win us landmark victories.
Dilip Sardesai hit five centuries in his Test career. Luckily for Indian cricket, three of these came in one series at the fag end of his Test career when Ajit Wadekarís men toured the West Indies in 1971. He hit a double century and two centuries: the double century set the tone for the series by forcing the West Indies to follow on in the first Test, and then his century in the second Test at Port of Spain, Trinidad, helped India win the match and the series. Sardesai had a series aggregate of 642, an Indian record, breaking Vijay Manjrekarís earlier mark of 586 runs. It was a golden year for him because he went on to play an important supporting role in the victory at the Oval where B.S. Chandrasekhar bowled India to another unprecedented 1-0 away series win against England.
So he hit big centuries at the right times, broke records, played the critical part in winning an away series against the West Indies, hit a crucial fifty and a forty in a low- scoring match to help seal another Test rubber and basked forevermore in the love of a grateful, win-starved nation. Wrong. One year later, Sardesai had played his last Test and retired to the obscure limbo that was the fate of all but the most successful Indian cricketers before television.
Sardesai turned in one of the three or four most significant series performances ever by an Indian batsman but he was unlucky that the crowning moment of his career coincided with the greatest batting debut in Test history. He had barely set the record for aggregate runs in a series, when Sunil Gavaskar broke it, by scoring 774 runs in four Test matches with four centuries at the absurd average of 154.80. I was in high school at the time and I can testify to the way in which Sardesaiís achievement was obscured. India had beaten the West Indies in their backyard and found a great young champion: in a fourteen-year oldís head the two things had to be related, the script cried out for the connection. So we made the connection.
And it wasnít that far-fetched: Gavaskar had struck two fifties in the Test we won and his subsequent heroics (including that double century and century in the same match) kept Indiaís 1-0 lead safe. The knowing ones gave Sardesai credit: his captain, Wadekar, made it clear more than once that Sardesaiís batting had contributed more to the series win than even Gavaskarís, but in the publicís mind (and mine!) it was Gavaskarís series. The fact that Gavaskar went on to become Indiaís greatest batsman confirmed that judgment for posterity.
Alert cricket writing might have redressed the balance because a) professional writers donít have the excuse of being fourteen and b) they have the advantage of hindsight. What Sardesai achieved in 1971 was the equal of V.V.S. Laxmanís run of genius thirty years later. I grant that Australiaís bowling was superior to the West Indian attack in 1971 and, yes, the Australian team was one of the greatest sides ever. As against that, in Sardesaiís favour, is the enormous fact that we were playing away, that to beat the West Indians, even a team in transition, on their own grounds, Indian cricketers had to chart unknown regions of self-belief. The year, 1971, was the year Indian cricket learnt to walk, became adult, made its bones, call it what you like, and Sardesai did more than anyone to make that possible. And he did it without a helmet.
Till the mid-Seventies, great Indian performances couldnít be watched by the majority of fans: they had to be heard or read about. Weeks after Wadekarís team returned from their glorious tour, Doordarshan showed us twenty-odd minutes of film that summarized a five-Test series. Great Indian performances in the West Indies suffered from the double disadvantage of no television and radio silence.
Geniuses like Gavaskar donít need television to immortalize their deeds. They perform so consistently at such a high level that they live godlike lives in lore and legend. Journeymen or the merely good, do. This is not to suggest that Laxman is merely good. Laxman is an under-performing genius, but if he had had an interrupted run of thirty Tests over a dozen years as Sardesai did, and ended with an average around forty (which, given Laxmanís inconsistency and selectorial whim, is possible), cricketís public and its posterity would take a dimmer view of his career without the live telecasts, the archival footage and the DVD nuggets which keep that incandescent 281 alive in our minds. In cruel contrast, Sardesaiís heroics in the West Indies didnít even have radio commentators bearing witness because AIR was too cheap to send any and there was no Caribbean World Service broadcasting a West Indian version of Test Match Special.
Indian fans worship the loaded individual career. Looking through the contents page of my book on cricket, Men in White, I realize that all the Indian players profiled in it have one thing in common: they were all conspicuously successful, they were the best. It might seem reasonable to celebrate excellence, but the problem with the heroic tendency in cricket writing is that it confuses great deeds with great men. So the great works of lesser men donít get the recognition they deserve and our understanding of Indian cricket is skewed.
Our plaintive demand that Sachin Tendulkar ought to win us more matches has more to do with our need for heroes than it has to do with winning. Not giving a Ďlesserí player credit where he has earned it is the flip side of our hero-obsession. When we neglect Sardesaiís role in that famous rubber we donít merely do him an injustice, we misread our past and we devalue our victories. India hasnít won often enough for us to be careless with our triumphs: we need to attend to them and to pay our dues to the men who made them possible, men like Dilip Narayan Sardesai.