I met him last year, at a joyous celebration of the life of the cricket writer KN Prabhu. That's when I got the chance to tell him something I've always felt about him. It may not have meant much to him, this comment from an anonymous fan, and I'm sure he had heard it too many times before to pay much attention. But it is indeed what I felt: In the West Indies in 1971, in that first-ever overseas cricket series victory for India, it was Gavaskar who was feted for his astonishing performance on debut (774 runs at 154.80). Yet it was Dilip Sardesai who was the backbone of the team.
His 212 in the first Test (in which Gavaskar did not play) lifted India from a first-innings mess of 75/5. India's eventual 387 was built around two partnerships Sardesai put together -- 137 with Solkar (61) for the 6th wicket, and 122 with Prasanna (25) for the 9th. After those three, the next highest Indian score was Salim Durani's 13. It started out a mess, but it was this innings that set the tone for the series. The West Indies followed on; and while they comfortably saved the match, it seemed they were playing catch-up for the rest of the series. Sardesai showed that India would not just not be pushed over, they were going to fight hard to win.
And famously, India won the next Test. Sardesai starred there too. His first-innings 112 was the only century of the match, scored as an offspinner called Jack Noreiga enjoyed his lone moment in the sun, taking 9 Indian wickets for 95. Sardesai set up the 138-run first-innings lead that allowed the spinners (Venkat 5/95) to go to work. India won by an emphatic 7 wickets, and never looked close to surrendering that series lead the rest of the way.
Sardesai finished the series with 642 runs at 80.25, a fabulous performance that should be easily recalled in any recounting of Indian cricketing achievements. Except that by series-end, a certain Gavaskar had been even more prolific. Yet at the time, Sardesai had truly captured the Indian imagination. One small sign of that: In those years, when I made new friends and told them my name, they would invariably chuckle and ask: "Dilip Sardesai?"
Gone at 66, Dilip Sardesai. Go well, sir.