The other great 1971 cricket victory

08 April,2021 06:55 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Clayton Murzello

It’s 50 years since Ajit Wadekar led India to their unprecedented triumph in the West Indies. It’s also the golden jubilee for Mumbai’s sterling Ranji Trophy win under Sudhir Naik

Former India and Mumbai batsman Sudhir Naik displays a photograph of his 1970-71 Ranji Trophy-winning team, at his Dadar residence on Wednesday. Pic/Ashish Raje



The year 1971 was a watershed one for Indian cricket. It was when Ajit Wadekar’s Indian team beat the West Indies and England on their soil for unprecedented series victories.

That year was also significant for Mumbai cricket. While India had one Test to go for their series win in the Caribbean, a young Mumbai side, led by Sudhir Naik, overcame Maharashtra in the April 2-7 Ranji Trophy final at the Brabourne Stadium.

The city team were without five players who were in the West Indies — Wadekar, Dilip Sardesai, Ashok Mankad, Eknath Solkar and the find of the tour, Sunil Gavaskar.

Chief selector Vijay Merchant had to decide on the stand-in Mumbai skipper once Wadekar & Co left for the West Indies. His fellow Mumbai selectors were Polly Umrigar, Madhav Mantri and Sharad Diwadkar.

Umrigar and Mantri urged Merchant to give Naik the reigns. At 26, Naik had the experience of successfully leading college teams, Bombay University and his club National CC. It took Merchant less time to be convinced about Naik’s captaincy than he took to agree with his new skipper about the inclusion of 33-year-old Vijay Bhosle for the semi-final against Bengal. “Merchant explained to me that Bhosle had no chance of playing for India at that stage and I should opt for a younger man. I responded by saying I needed a senior man in a young batting order. He would be invaluable with his vast experience. Merchant gave in. I had the backing of Diwadkar and he agreed to support me at the selection meeting,” Naik told me on Tuesday.

Bhosle responded with a half century against Bengal. His 55 after a first innings duck in the final was worth its weight in gold. More of that later.

Bengal were conquered on the basis of Mumbai’s first innings lead. The hosts followed-on after being dismissed for 158 in response to Mumbai’s 459. But Mumbai couldn’t achieve an innings victory.

A strong Maharashtra travelled to Mumbai led by Chandu Borde. They had emerged on top in the West Zone league stage, with Mumbai emerging second best. Had the BCCI not increased the number of teams that qualify for the knockout stage to two that year, Mumbai wouldn’t have progressed.

Naik was impressive under the captain’s hat at the Eden Gardens. Former Test star Dattu Phadkar (who shifted base from Mumbai to Kolkata) had praised his captaincy during his interactions with the Mumbai team manager SV Kadam. Phadkar’s comments were conveyed to Naik. “I was happy that Phadkar had nice things to say of my captaincy. It motivated me to be a better leader,” Naik revealed.

It was time to be assertive when it came to the selection of the playing XI for the final. Naik wanted to include 1967 India Schools captain Ajit Naik (his cousin) in the XI. The committee was wary of picking an uncapped player but Naik said he had seen enough of Ajit to be convinced that the team will profit from his all-round skills. The selectors agreed and Ajit didn’t let the captain down.

Padmakar Shivalkar was the side’s chief spinner with an abundance of ability but Naik believed he needed some assurances. “I told Paddy that he should bowl without any fear of giving away runs,” Naik said.

The Mumbai team were a tight fielding and catching unit and that, according to Naik, could be attributed to the voluntary work of PK ‘Joe’ Kamath. “He was not our coach but used to arrive at the Brabourne Stadium from his Bank of India office at 5:30 pm sharp to give us fielding practice, which used to commence after nets. Kamath made us better fielders and catchers,” recalled Naik.

Naik beat Borde to the toss in the final and Mumbai scored 287, built on Ramnath Parkar’s 108. Maharashtra’s leg-spinner Nicky Saldanha claimed 6-66. Saldanha also top-scored with 50 in the visitors’ total of 230. Armed with a 57-run lead, Mumbai were in early trouble just like in the first innings. Naik was dismissed for five again. Parkar and Ajit scored two apiece and it was left to Bhosle (55) and Mahesh Sampat (60) to steady the rocking boat. Their 99 runs for the fourth wicket was followed by Milind Rege scoring a valuable 33. Maharashtra’s left-arm spinner Vithal Joshi claimed five wickets to restrict Mumbai to 196. “It was a turning pitch and I had to use all my ability and patience to score those runs. Mahesh batted well too and I remember telling him he must only attack the loose ball. Maharashtra knew that I was the main man to see off at that stage. I was playing against my former team but here I was playing for Mumbai and couldn’t let my team down in a crisis. I also knew how much Sudhir had fought for my inclusion and what Mr Merchant said about me,” Bhosle remarked from New Zealand.

Maharashtra were set a 254-run target and ended the fourth day on 144 for five. Legend has it that they booked a room at The Taj Mahal hotel to celebrate a possible triumph but they fell short by 48 runs on the following day, extending their Ranji Trophy drought to 31 years. Shivalkar’s 6-56 gave him match figures of 8-103, while tireless pacer Abdul Ismail claimed seven in the game. Naik was hailed in the media for outwitting the astute Borde in the captaincy stakes. He deserved every accolade as he studied the strengths and weaknesses of his opposition like the good student that he was.

A few days later, the Indian team drew the fifth and final Test at Trinidad, which helped them end the series 1-0 in the West Indies. The cricket authorities who organised a celebratory reception for Wadekar’s men also ensured the Mumbai team were felicitated at the very venue where Naik had led Mumbai to a memorable championship win.

Naik remembers sitting alongside Wadekar in the front row. He deserved nothing less.

mid-day’s group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello

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