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Dilip Sardesai: Stamping his legacy in the joyful islands of sun and sand

Dilip Sardesai: Stamping his legacy in the joyful islands of sun and sand

The first month in high school can often be unnerving and discomfiting in a new environment. As a six-year-old stepping into Mumbai’s Campion School in January 1971, I was worried about being bullied by seniors and being away from home all day. I needn’t have bothered. Barely a month into school, I was being feted in the morning school assembly. It had nothing to do with any sporting or academic achievements on my part. My father, the late Dilip Sardesai, had in February 1971 just become the first Indian to score an overseas double century and everyone in school suddenly seemed to know that the scrawny little boy in class one was the “son of Sardesai.” It was a calling card that I have had to live with for much of my life, especially in cricketing circles.

The significance of the innings of 212 in Kingston, Jamaica, I would later realise, was beyond just the runs scored. At a time when India’s cricket ambitions were modest, the double century would send spirits soaring, nurture a self-belief in facing up to a team led by the redoubtable Sir Garfield Sobers and offer a lasting memory for an entire generation to cherish. I recall being at Bhubaneswar airport in 2015 when a CISF officer came up to me and offered a seat in the VIP lounge. “You must be watching news TV,” I said with a grin. “Not really, sir. But I remember your father’s batting. Kingston 212, who can forget!” he replied excitedly. I was taken aback slightly. If more than four decades later an innings was being recalled with such affection, then it surely had left an enduring imprint on cricket fans.

When in the very next Test in Port of Spain, Sardesai scored another century, this time taking India to its first win over the Windies, the enthusiasm in our house was palpable. A hazy memory is of an uncle who was staying with us waking everyone up late in the night and screaming elatedly, “Another century, your dad has hit another century!” The uncle had been listening intently to radio commentary through the night: while we slept comfortably in our beds, my dad was stacking up the runs on the pitch. It was the pre-TV era, and the crackle of the transistor was an enduring guide and companion.

In the fourth Test in Barbados, Sardesai (or Sardee Maan as he was warmly known in the Caribbean) would hit another match-saving century, perhaps his best since it enabled India to avoid a follow-on after being a parlous 70 for six. Three hundreds in four Tests, this was a series-defining performance. Ironically, Sardesai’s 642 runs for the series were eclipsed by a stunning 774 runs from debutante Sunil Gavaskar, but it didn’t really matter to my father. He had gone to the West Indies as the last-choice player in the squad, picked because his Mumbai teammate and newly appointed captain, Ajit Wadekar, insisted he wanted him in the side. A reluctant opener through much of the ’60s, Sardesai’s career seemed to be over after he was dropped from the team in 1969. Vijay Merchant, then chairman of selectors, said he wanted to experiment with younger players. Ironically, after the West Indies series, Merchant would hail Sardesai as “the renaissance man of Indian cricket!” “I just wanted to prove to the Merchants of the world that I could still bat!” my father would later confess.

Restored to his original middle-order spot, it was almost as if destiny had conspired to ensure that Sardesai was not denied his moment of cricketing glory. Ahead of the first Test, Gundappa Vishwanath was injured, creating a vacant spot in the middle order. Sardesai got runs in the opening first-class match and never looked back. At a memorial function when he passed away, another member on that historic tour, Ashok Mankad, would remark, “I don’t think I have ever seen anyone play better in a series than Dilip Sardesai in the West Indies in 1971. He just never looked like getting out!”

His roommate on that tour was all-rounder Salim Durani, who, like my father, was entering the last stretch of his career. The duo got along famously and insisted on sharing a room. “I told Dilip before the first Test, let me make tea for you every morning and you will definit ely score a hundred!” recalls the charismatic Durani. If tea was the morning beverage, the evenings and rest days were usually reserved for something much stronger. “Every time your father scored runs, someone from the local Indian community would invite us to their house or send a crate of beer to the hotel room, so the alcohol would freely flow!” laughs Durani.

In fact, a photo album from the tour has very few pictures of the actual matches played in the Caribbean. Most of the black-and-white images are from the many song-and-dance parties that the players would happily attend: there is one of my father and Eknath Solkar, with whom he shared many memorable partnerships, dressed in flowery shirts under a coconut tree, both in a celebratory mood. The fun-loving camaraderie that was built by spending months together – it was a four-month-long tour – shines through their cheery faces. The team won the series, but also won plenty of hearts by playing their cricket with style and determination, impactful enough for Calypso songs to be composed in their honour.

I would later ask my father, who first made a mark in the West Indies as a 22-year-old in 1962, what was it about the Caribbean that he so relished. “With the sea, palm trees and beaches, it reminded me of my childhood days in Goa. I always felt at home!” he said wistfully. As the only Goa-born cricketer to play for India till date, it is perhaps entirely appropriate that Sardesai stamped his legacy on Indian cricket in the joyful islands of sun and sand. And yes, with a little bit of rum and coke for company, too!

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