Few inclusions in any Indian touring party have met with such strident criticism as Dilip Sardesai’s when he was picked for the 1971 tour of the West Indies. He was in nobody’s book in January that year when the team was announced. He was the forgotten man of Indian cricket. The Vijay Merchant headed selection committee had made it clear that their outlook would be one for the future and it was largely a new look side that was picked for the tour of the Caribbean. There were several new faces whose inclusions were welcomed among them Sunil Gavaskar, Keki Jayantilal, P Krishnamurthy, D Govindraj and Rusi Jeejebhoy. Others included were young or established stars like the new skipper Ajit Wadekar, vice captain S Venkatraghavan, Bishen Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Ashok Mankad, Eknath Solkar, Abid Ali and Gundappa Viswanath. Even the recall of ML Jaisimha and Salim Durrani was welcomed for they had performed admirably in the 1970-71 domestic season.

The mood was one of optimism when the team was picked but Sardesai’s name stood out like a sore thumb. What had he done to merit selection was the question uppermost in everyone’s mind. Moreover his record had seen more ups than downs. In his 31st year he was certainly no spring chicken. He had made his Test debut against England at Kanpur in 1961-62 and since then had played 21 matches during an in and out career. He had both opened the innings and gone in the middle order but his two big innings – an unbeaten 200 against New Zealand at Bombay in 1965 and a breezy 106 against the same opponents in the next game at New Delhi – had been compiled at the top of the order. His batting was a fusion of art and grammar but there were times when he looked susceptible against the moving ball particularly abroad. Most important his record of late had been palpably one of failure as scores of 1, 11, 1 and 5 (in Australia in 1967-68) and 20 and 3 (against Australia at Bombay two years later) would clearly illustrate. And in a team of generally young and fit men, his fitness was also openly questioned. He was also a pretty mediocre fielder and altogether his inclusion was vehemently criticized.

But one man insisted on Sardesai’s inclusion and that was the new captain. As his Bombay teammate for a decade Wadekar was convinced that his class and experience would be invaluable to the Indian team – Sardesai had toured the West Indies nine years previously – and he convinced Merchant who then gave the all important nod. However with all the criticism against his selection Sardesai must have been filled with self doubts on the plane taking the team to the Caribbean. Also he was aware that he was going as one of the reserve batsmen for with Wadekar, Jaisimha, Abid Ali, Durrani, Viswanath and Solkar to man the middle order where was the place for Sardesai it was argued. As for the top order there were three claimants in Gavaskar, Mankad and Jayantilal with Abid capable of doubling up as an opening batsman. Indeed Sardesai’s place in the side seemed redundant.

However sometimes all it takes is one lucky break and good fortune did favour Sardesai. An injury kept Viswanath out of the team to play Jamaica in the opening match of the tour. Sardesai was included and scored 97. With Viswanath still out of action Sardesai just about made the team for the first Test.

And yet by the end of the series Merchant was hailing him as the Renaissance man, the batsman who spearheaded the revival of Indian cricket. No Indian had got a double hundred against West Indies. Sardesai went on to become the first by getting 212 in the first Test at Kingston. Coming in when India, put in to bat, were 13 for two, Sardesai was confidence personified. Even as wickets fell at the other end Sardesai was firm till he found an able ally in Solkar with whom he added 137 runs for the sixth wicket after five wickets had gone for 75. Then he found an unexpected partner in Prasanna with whom he put on 122 runs for the ninth wicket. Sardesai was last out at 387 after having batted just over eight hours and hitting a six and 17 fours.

West Indies managed to draw the game after following on for the first time against India in 24 Tests. Sardesai’s knock revitalized a team that was being dismissed in some circles as a ''club side’’ into one that would eventually win a Test for the first time against West Indies – and with it the series. The chief script writer of this improbable scenario was the man whose selection had been roundly criticized. Another century (112) in the next Test at Trinidad was instrumental in India defeating West Indies for a historic triumph. And a third hundred in the fourth Test at Bridgetown saw India save the match from a hopeless situation. Replying to West Indies’ first innings total of 501 for five declared, India were 70 for six when Sardesai was joined by Solkar. Again the doughty partners played the rescue act to perfection with a 186-run partnership that went a long way in helping India avoid the follow on. Sardesai was last out for 150 after having added 62 runs for the tenth wicket with Bedi.

Sardesai rounded off the series with scores of 75 and 21 in the final Test at Port of Spain and finished with 642 runs at an average of 80.25. More importantly he inspired a 21-year-old Bombay university student by the name of Sunil Gavaskar to perform astonishing deeds. Gavaskar amassed 774 runs from four matches with four hundreds including a century and double century in the final Test at Port of Spain but there was no doubting who had kick started the victorious campaign. Gavaskar himself acknowledged that he had been encouraged and inspired by Sardesai’s batting.

Following his glorious exploits in the West Indies Sardesai came up with timely contributions in the final Test against England at the Oval later that year to help shape another historic triumph. Inexplicably though he played only one more Test and that was the end of his career. It was certainly a premature end for Sardesai still had much good cricket in him. In the ultimate analysis his overall figures of 2001 runs at an average of a shade below 40 from 30 Tests with five hundreds are not a true reflection of the man who changed the destiny of Indian cricket.