“India was a colony of England and to beat your masters at their own game was a bit of a feather in the cap” – Farokh Engineer, 1971
Certain players define tours. Think of India in West Indies, 1971 and almost automatically the image of Sunil Gavaskar in that iconic floppy hat comes to mind. Think of Australia 2003 and there’s Rahul Dravid, that relentless, stoic expression, only deigning to show some emotion after hitting the boundary which gave India their famous win at Adelaide.
In the same vein, India’s tour of England in 1971 will only and always conjure up memories of a certain magician by the name of Bhagwat Subramanya Chandrasekhar.
Oh, what a tour it was. India was riding high on an already significant feat – a series win against the mighty West Indies, their first ever overseas win in the Caribbean and even more significantly, the first time they had won an overseas series apart from New Zealand in 1968.
But England…England had to be a bridge too far. They had just won the Ashes on Australian soil. India’s record in the country was abysmal, to be polite. They had lost 15 out of the last 19 Tests they played in the country, with the last draw coming almost two decades back, in 1952. They had convincingly lost the last eight Tests they had played against England in England – four of these losses were innings defeats.
Cautious optimism, then unbridled hope
Yet there was a cautious optimism in the air. In his autobiography Sunny Days, the legendary Sunil Gavaskar recounts that before the team left for the tour, the BCCI secretary promised them a red-carpet welcome to the Brabourne Stadium if they could repeat their West Indies tour heroics.
But early tidings did not look optimistic. These were the days when touring teams played a relentless array of warm-ups. In their first tour match, India were bowled out for 168 in their first innings by Middlesex but managed to recover to win the match by 2 wickets. No such luck followed in their second tour match against Essex – they were 3/4 down in the first innings and went down by six wickets. That turned out to be the only match the team led by Ajit Wadekar would lose on the tour but no one would have dared to even dream of such a scenario then.
Snow shoves, Gavaskar falls
The first Test in Lord’s is remembered for that infamous image of the tall, strapping John Snow charging into the puny Sunil Gavaskar just before lunch on the fifth morning. To be fair, there wasn’t any deliberate malice involved – India were precariously placed and Engineer, in an effort to grab a leg bye after the ball deflected off his thigh pad, called Gavaskar over. As the videos show and as per Gavaskar’s own recollection, with the ball nowhere near them, bowler Snow gave him an almighty shove which sent him sprawling. He lost his bat and somehow crawled to the crease.
In a gentler time with cricket still having a reputation as a gentlemen’s game played in pristine whites, the images looked unpleasant, compounded by the fact that Snow had tossed the bat back to the batsman.
In his own autobiography Cricket Rebel, Snow recalled that as soon as he made contact, he heard the shocked silence in the Marylebone Cricket Club committee room and knew he was in trouble. As the players entered the dressing room, Alec Bedser, the chairman of selectors for the English team, asked Snow if he would apologise. The fast bowler replied that he would but was immediately confronted by a furious Billy Griffith, the secretary of the Test & County Cricket Board at that time, who told him, “That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve seen on a cricket field”. Snow did apologise to Gavaskar, but the damage was done – he was dropped for the next two Tests and only came back to play the third Test as an injury replacement.
Rain saves the blues
Coming back to the match itself, India were probably saved by rain in a match they had the upper hand for the most part. Having bowled England out for 304 in the first innings, they scored 313 gaining a first innings lead of 9 runs, only the second time India had led England in a Test overseas. Their spin trio of Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Bishen Singh Bedi and Chandrasekhar had a combined 9-wicket haul in the first innings and got into action again to bowl England out for 191 in their second innings. Needing only 183 to win, India slipped to 145/8 at tea on the final day and were thankful for the rain which prevented any further play.
The rain came to save India again from disaster in the second Test at Old Trafford where they were well and truly outplayed by England. Only Gavaskar and Eknath Solkar with scores of 57 and 50 respectively offered some resistance in India’s reply of 212 to England’s score of 386. Incidentally, the Indian cricket legend places that 57, scored in seaming, drizzling conditions on a green-top against England’s ferocious pace attack of John Price and John Lever among his finest innings, “a turning point in his career”. At 65/3 in pursuit of a target of 420, Wadekar’s men were staring down the barrel and gratefully accepted the rain which washed out the last day.
England 101 all out, Chandra 6/38
The third Test looked like it was going in a similar direction, perhaps even worse. India’s triumvirate of spinners gave away runs in excess of three runs-per-over as England racked up 355 on the first day. The second day was washed out due to rain but the English media had already started predicting a victory for the home team. This spurred India, according to Gavaskar, and they responded with 284, thanks to fifties from Dilip Sardesai and Engineer, along with some useful contributions from the tail.
And it was then that Chandra decided to etch his name on the tour forever.
He first set the tone by running out John Jameson, England’s second highest run-scorer from the first innings. But if you want to get a full idea of the magic and wizardry he spun that day, slow down footage of his dismissal of John Edrich and watch it over and over again. England’s left-handed No. 3 stepped forward, put down his bat in a perfect forward defence, only to find the ball nip through his defences and hit middle and off. Solkar’s superhuman catching skills at bat-pad were on display next ball as he snaffled up a sharp catch to dismiss Keith Fletcher and England were 24/3 at lunch on the fourth day, still leading by 95.
The magician from Mysore had pulled a rabbit out of the hat. The conditions no longer seemed typically English and green – for that brief period of time, Old Trafford become a subcontinental paradise with the ball darting around everywhere and fielders breathing down the batsmen’s neck. It was the day of Ganesh Chaturthi and as if to rub it in, a group of Indian supporters had arranged for a three-year-old elephant named Bella from a nearby zoo to roam around the outfield during the lunch interval. The sight of an elephant roaming around the hallowed turf of the Oval was surreal and England’s dazed surrender became even more bizarre as play resumed after lunch.
England were simply stunned. They tried to attack but it failed – Basil D’Oliveira and Derek Underwood played rash shots and fell to catches in the deep. Captain Ray Illingworth and then Snow hit a full toss and a half volley straight back to Chandrasekhar. Solkar dived forward to take another stunner to remove Alan Knott off the leg-spinner’s bowling. When Chandrasekhar trapped the No 11 Price in front, England were 101 all out and he had taken 6/38.
India break the jinx
“He almost hypnotized their batsman,” recounted Wadekar, later in the documentary Indian Cricket: Great Moments. “I kept continuing Chandra and he kept responding so well.”
Needing just 173 for a famous win, India started with Gavaskar getting a duck. Ashok Mankad bunted out the pacers in a 74-ball 11 but it was Wadekar and Sardesai who settled India’s nerves by taking them to 76/2 at the close of the fourth day. Next day, however, the captain was run out to introduce some nerves. A depressed Wadekar went back to the dressing room and went off to sleep. Sardesai, Gundappa Viswanath and Engineer played vital hands to take India closer. Viswanath was out with four runs to win but Abid Ali hit the square cut which gave India their first ever Test series win in England!
The celebrations that followed were wild. Engineer and Abid Ali were swept up in the air by the delighted Indian crowd that had rushed onto the field. Incredibly enough, Wadekar was fast asleep – he was woken by Ken Barrington, the England manager and told that they had won. His first reaction was a deadpan “I always knew we would win!”
In many ways, 1971 marked a turning point for Indian cricket. Till then, supporters found solace in lion-hearted individual performances or a fight to the opposition. But, series wins in West Indies and England injected a self-belief into Indian cricket. It was an acknowledgement that they too were talented, that they too could also go toe to toe against the big guns...and win.