Editor’s note: This is the second part of the series looking back at India’s Test series wins in England. The first part, where we look at the 1971 series can be read here.
Winning a Test in England is tough. Winning a series, even tougher. But winning two Tests back-to-back, in a series, that too, early in the English summer? Step forward, Kapil’s devils of 1986.
India travelled to England very early – May 4th was when they played their first warm-up match of the tour. They arrived amid hope, tempered by a reality check - the heady memories of the 1983 World Cup triumph and then the 1985 World Championship of Cricket had just received a jolt in the form of a Javed Miandad last-ball six off Chetan Sharma in the final of the Austral-Asia Cup. On top of that, Test cricket was turning out to be an even bigger migraine. They had won only four out of the 52 Tests they had played since the start of the decade. Even more worryingly, under captain Kapil Dev, they hadn’t been able to win a single Test in 20 attempts so far, with one of these losses coming against minnows Sri Lanka in 1985.
India’s all-round strength in depth
It was a curious mix of characters that made that memorable trip. Back home, rumours about a rift between captain Kapil Dev and the already legendary Sunil Gavaskar were rampant, but in hindsight, there was a balance about the squad that gave them a winning edge. Apart from Dev who had already staked his claim to being among the best in the world, the squad boasted the all-round talents of Mohinder Amarnath, Ravi Shastri, Roger Binny, along with the likes of Manoj Prabhakar and Chetan Sharma who could do more than just holding up an end. A less gnarly Mohammad Azharuddin had just made his debut and was already becoming the talk of the cricket world.
And of course, there was the ethereal, dazzling Dilip Vengsarkar. After winning the two-match One-Day International series on run-rate (a quaint concept!), the “Colonel”, as he was nicknamed, lit up a dreary, tedious first Test at Lord’s that desperately needed a spark. Chetan Sharma’s 5/64 had helped to bowl out a plodding England out for 294 in more than 128 overs. The second day of the Test saw only 132 runs scored in 83 overs, with India also content to trudge on, finishing the day 83/1 in 51 overs.
Third time’s the charm
If it was Lord’s, it just had to be Vengsarkar. He had scored a century on each of his two previous Tests at the “Home of Cricket”, but none of those matches had resulted in an Indian victory. Vengsarkar was intent on changing that record – in a knock full of sumptuous cover drives and marauding stroke-making, he piled up an unbeaten 126, his third consecutive century at the “Home of Cricket” and a feat no other overseas batsmen has ever managed to equal. India finished on 341 with a vital first innings lead, but considering the funereal pace of the match, the draw seemed the likeliest prospect.
It’s not for nothing though that some players have the sort of quality which many commentators like to call “X-factor”. They make things happen. They pull rabbits out of the hat. Kapil Dev’s morning spell on day four was perhaps one such effort. A rip snorter which climbed away from Tim Robinson was pouched by Amarnath at slip. A massive inswinger rapped Graham Gooch plumb in front and then David Gower, the England captain, didn’t even seem to be playing a shot when he was out lbw as well. Above the slope, Dev had delivered figures of 3/19 and England had slumped to 35/3. Chetan Sharma, the lion-heart from the first innings, delivered the piece de resistance beating Mike Gatting all ends up and going through his defence. England were bowled out for 180 and India only needed 134 to win at Lords for the first time in their cricketing history.
Just like in 1971 when India had last won in England, there were some flutters. Krishnamachari Srikkanth and Gavaskar were out cheaply but to the credit to the rest of the team, England were never allowed a look-in. Vengsarkar settled nerves with a 33 to complement his century from the first innings and at 110/5, the captain himself came in and smashed four fours and a six to take India home to a historic first Test win at Lord’s.
Abject England, Vengsarkar’s best
England were in panic. Having already lost Ian Botham before the series due to a ban for smoking cannabis and coming off a 5-0 reverse at the hands of West Indies, the loss against India was just too much. David Gower was sacked as captain and Mike Gatting was his successor, though only for just two Tests. As Kapil Dev recounted later, while recalling that series, the sacking of England’s captain revealed how much India’s win had unsettled them. “We were on a rampage,” said the captain. “England were unsettled and we capitalized.”
India had to make some forced changes themselves. Chetan Sharma, whose medium pace had been so deadly in the first Test, was injured with a back spasm. Kapil Dev took the unconventional, but in hindsight, brilliant move of calling up Madan Lal out of the Lancashire League to replace him. Mohinder Amarnath was also injured and his No 3 spot was taken up by Ravi Shastri with Chandrakant Pandit slotting in as the specialist batsman.
Try and spin it in any which way possible, but truth be told, England were utterly abject against Vengsarkar who, if it was even possible, went even better. On a green pitch, which he later said “could not be differentiated from the ground”, he top-scored with a 61, with contributions from Madan Lal and Kiran More down the order as India made 272 in the first innings. In response, England had the misfortune of meeting a fired-up Roger Binny who seemed to find a touch of his 1983 magic again. Kapil Dev and Madan Lal softened them up with three early blows before Binny took over. In a tearaway spell of swing bowling, aided by dreary, damp overcast conditions, he took 5/40 and reduced England to 102 all out, still their second lowest Test score against India. Coincidentally, their lowest ever (101) also came in a similarly significant occasion, in 1971 at the Oval when they met a red-hot BS Chandrasekhar at his peak.
India were already on top with a 170-run lead but there was a flutter when they were reduced to 35/4. Yet again stepped forward the saviour, “Colonel” Vengsarkar. In another masterful innings where the second-highest score was only Kapil Dev’s 31, he hit yet another century, this time, a gritty unbeaten 102, which edged the one at Lord’s mainly because of the sheer difficulty of the conditions and the variable bounce in the surface. It was a resolute knock, but not without the typical Vengsarkar finesse which included some imperious square drives and elegant clips off his legs.
By the time, the Colonel was done, England had almost surrendered. Looking down the barrel at a chase of a massive 408, they succumbed this time to the unlikely spin of Maninder Singh who picked up 4/26 and were bowled out for 128. The celebrations were a little underwhelming for the massive significance of the event – a 2-0 series win for the first time in England and with it, a series win after 15 years.
India’s best ever result in England
In fact, such was India’s momentum that they looked like they could even pull off an unthinkable 3-0 whitewash, when the third Test started, reducing England to 0/2 on the first morning. But this time, Mike Gatting’s defiant unbeaten 183 and another disciplined Indian response meant both teams finished at 390 after their respective first digs. Chetan Sharma, back into the team again, gave India a sniff at the whitewash with career-best figures of 6/58 to bowl England out for 235, leaving India with 236 to get with almost the entire last day remaining. India were in the hunt for a whole but finally settled for the draw after finishing at 174/5.
Quite fittingly, Vengsarkar with 360 runs across three Tests was the “Man of the Series” but it was India’s bowlers who were truly the stars of this famous win. The best among them was undoubtedly Chetan Sharma who missed the second Test and yet still finished as the highest wicket-taker with 16 victims. Maninder Singh’s left-arm spin was the surprise package and in conditions where he was never expected to flourish in, he finished with 12 wickets in the series, the third-highest wicket taker along with Binny.
India has always had great players but the 1986 team had the perfect ingredients for success – a proper team which ticked all the boxes and an inspirational captain. There is a strong argument to be made that this was the best-ever Indian team to tour England. As Kapil put it, in the documentary Indian Cricket: Great Moments, “Experience and youth came together to make everything our way”.