India’s greatest hour in Test cricket: Revisiting historic August 1971 win over England at the Oval

In ‘Nostalgia Drive’, Anindya Dutta celebrates a significant victory in Indian cricket which occurred in that corresponding month in history.

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Most ancient cultures believe that the full moon brings forth the most vibrant and brightest energies of all, whenever the earth is between the moon and sun. India is no exception. It is a phenomenon embedded in her very psyche. And for a few blessed days in August 1971, at the Kensington Oval in England, Indian cricket bathed in its dazzling luminousness as it had never done before.

Appropriately enough, the man who the moon had chosen as the deliverer of her magnificence was named Bhagwat (‘the devotee’) Chandrasekhar (‘Lord Shiva who wears the Moon as a Crown’). The English fans did not know it then, but as the full moon that precedes the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi burst forth in all its glory, the dominance of the hosts over Indian teams in the Isles was set to be eclipsed.

On 19 August 1971, when English captain Ray Illingworth walked back with his Indian counterpart Ajit Wadekar to the changing room at The Oval having won the toss, he had good reason to be optimistic. While the wicket looked slower than he would have liked given his team’s superior pace attack, the fact that India would bat last on a wearing track was a definite plus. Moreover, England had not lost a Test match in 26 appearances since June 1968. Illingworth himself had an unbeaten record as captain after 19 matches at the helm, and this included the two previous Tests of the current series at Lord’s and Old Trafford.

Illingworth was determined that at the Oval, regardless of the weather playing truant, the Indians would not get away like they had at Old Trafford. The rain gods had heard the Indian team’s prayers and saved them from certain defeat in Manchester in the second match of the series. But now, in the final Test, the natural balance had to be restored. Once England had done their job, the visitors would shake hands with the victors and depart with their tails between their legs, as they had done every series since 1932. That was the plan.

England got off to a good start, scoring 355 at a blistering pace in the first innings before being dismissed at the end of Day 1. Eknath Solkar, moving the ball around with his deceptive left-arm medium pace and then pitching in with his useful spin, was the most successful bowler, and the trio of spinners, Bedi, Chandra and Venkat picked up two each. Thanks to some gritty batting from Wadekar and veteran Dilip Sardesai, aided by a strong rear guard action from Farokh Engineer and Solkar, India fought their way to 284. Despite the valiant efforts of the lower order Indian batsmen, England had a 71-run lead.

Forty years later Illingworth would admit in an ESPN Cricinfo interview: “Our lead was decent—it should have been sufficient to win the match. There was nothing particularly wrong with the wicket but we had ourselves to blame.” He was only partially right. It had nothing to do with the pitch but there was little his batsmen could have done either. From hereon, it would only be about the magic arm of Bhagwat Chandrasekhar.

Making a comeback into the Indian team after a four-year hiatus, triggered off first by an injury and then a horrific two-wheeler accident, Chandra had been warned by the selectors’ chairman Vijay  Merchant that his inclusion ‘was a risk’. The bowler had in fact almost been left out of the XI after going wicketless at Old Trafford. He had only found a place because manager Colonel Hemu Adhikari had insisted that Wadekar pick him, if he wanted to have any chance of winning the Test.

When England came out to bat for the second time, after six overs of perfunctory medium pace, Chandra and Venkat were given the ball. Serious cricket was now underway, the preliminaries dispensed with.

With the speed his natural whippy hand action generated, Chandra was always going to be a handful on the fourth-day pitch. Once the ball left the hand of the mercurial genius, there was nothing of the lunar softness in its arrival. And on that particular day, he settled down to his unplayable line and length straight away. Illingworth would say later: “That sort of pitch suited Chandra because he bowled very fast. If he got two or three inches of turn at that pace, that was enough to make him dangerous.”

The freak run-out of non-striker John Jameson, the highest scorer of the England first innings, by a ball deflected off Chandra’s hands, was the first mortal blow for England. If the hosts were cursing their luck at that, things were about to get a whole lot worse.

John Edrich strode in. Generally, Chandra did not plan his dismissals, preferring to bowl in the right areas and letting his speed, spin and variations create the chances. But this time he did. “I wanted to bowl a googly but my plan had to be changed,” he tells me when we talk about the match. “At that time Dilip Sardesai and I used to track the races and there was this fast horse called Mill Reef (it had just won the Epsom Derby that summer, coming from behind with a sensational burst of speed). So as I was about to run in and bowl, Dilip from slips shouted ‘Chandra ek Mill Reef dalo (bowl a Mill Reef)’. I understood, and instead of a googly, bowled a faster one, and before Edrich brought his bat down, his stumps went cartwheeling.”

Meanwhile, off-spinner Venkat at the other had been doing the job he was a past master at—suffocating the batsmen. Bringing the ball down from a height on a flat trajectory and pitching it where it could not be hit without substantial risk, Venkat was emanating frustration waves that enveloped the English batsmen in a tsunami of helplessness. The pressure was building. As if this was not enough to get by with, there was the close-in fielding.

Crouching at short-leg was Eknath Solkar, who attracted bat-pad catches as a flytrap attracts unwary winged creatures. Decades after he retired, Solkar’s close-in fielding would still be referred to in awed tones. He remains the only fielder to average more than a catch an innings (for players with more than 12 innings in their career) finishing with 53 catches from his 50 innings. And in those 50 innings, he would have more dismissals per outing than the respective wicketkeepers involved, who collectively bagged 38 victims. There had rarely been a fielder with more Bradmanesque figures than Solkar with his average of two catches per victorious Test innings, all achieved without protective gear.

At backward short-leg chatting away was Syed Abid Ali, competent batsman, reluctant opening bowler and dazzling fielder. Any snick on the leg-side was the exclusive property of Abid Ali. A vicious pull that would have any fielder ducking would be converted into an improbable catch, often off the body. Without any protective gear whatsoever, he was utterly and impossibly fearless. His Hyderabad captain ML Jaisimha had once quipped: “I play with 12 players. There is Abid at forward and backward short leg!” Nothing came Abid’s way in this match but the threat was enough to worry the batsman.

Ajit Wadekar was at first slip. Anything Engineer could not reach, Wadekar could. Anything that came quickly at the wicket keeper off the edge, too low to catch, too far to reach, Wadekar would scoop up in his hands. And then there was Venkataraghavan himself. When he was not bowling, he was standing at gully, knees slightly bent, large hands spread out waiting for the edge, concentration writ large on his face. Individually they were brilliant, together they were overwhelming agents of panic for the batsman, even before Chandra had begun his pace bowler’s run-up.

Venkat took a blinder to dismiss Brian Luckhurst. Chandra describes the dismissal: “It was a fastish leg-break on a good length, Luckhurst tried to cut the ball, got an edge and Venkataraghavan took a blinder of a catch. He snatched it left-handed when the ball was almost past him at great speed.” Keith Fletcher, a nervous starter at the best of times, walked into a vicious Chandra googly first up. The ball turned in as he stretched forward and off the bat and pad, dropped in front of him. But before the ball fell prey to the laws of gravity, Solkar dived onto the centre of the pitch and plucked the ball from the air an inch above the ground. Venkat took care of Basil D’Oliviera, Illingworth lobbed a catch back to Chandra off a fast full toss and John Snow followed in identical fashion. Bishan Bedi, introduced for just one over, dismissed the dogged Derek Underwood. When Chandra came back to pick up the final wicket of John Price, England had collapsed for 101. Chandrasekhar’s incredible bowling figures read a soon to be immortal 6 for 38.

Both the Indian openers, Sunil Gavaskar and Ashok Mankad, fell early in the chase and India went in to stumps with a mountain still to climb. The morrow, the team knew, would define the future of Indian cricket. Never in the past four decades had an Indian team been so close to that elusive first win in the land of its past colonial masters. The responsibility weighed heavy on the shoulders of 11 young men.

The next day dawned bright and sunny. It was also the auspicious occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi, and as a mark of respect to Lord Ganesh, an elephant from the London Zoo, decked in temple finery, had been brought to the ground before play started. But as far as the raucous Indian fans were concerned, the gods had already shown their hand through Chandra; now it was up to the batsmen to deliver the goods.

When Wadekar was run out, India was still 97 away from victory. Sardesai came together with young Gundappa Vishwanath and soon the match appeared to be drifting away from England. Derek Underwood, nicknamed ‘Deadly’ for his unplayability on pitches that gave any sort of help, then got Sardesai and Solkar in quick succession. By the time Luckhurst got rid of Vishwanath, edging to Alan Knott behind the stumps, it was too little too late. Vishwanath and Farokh Engineer had taken India to 170, just three runs from the target.

A few months before, Abid Ali had kicked off a winning habit for the team by taking a wicket off the first ball of the match at Trinidad, and accompanying Gavaskar, had scored the final runs in a victory that marked India its first series win in West Indies. Six months later he walked in to complete what would be Indian cricket’s greatest year.

Engineer says he asked Abid Ali not to take any chances and just go for a single. Abid counters with a laugh, “Farokh asked me to take a single so that he could hit the winning runs.” Be that as it may, facing up to the third ball from Luckhurst, Abid Ali played a beautiful square cut that raced away to the point boundary. The stadium erupted even before the ball reached the fence.

India had won. Cricket’s final frontier — beating England in England, had been conquered. The psychological scars of 300 years of colonialism and 40 years of disappointments had been washed away by the indomitable spirit of 11 young men, a determination to overturn history and the magic of a genius who wrought miracles over 22 yards with a polio-afflicted bowling arm.

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Anindya Dutta is a cricket columnist and author of four bestselling books. His latest, Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling won India’s Cricket Book of the Year award for 2019 and is long-listed for the MCC Book of the Year.

— Featured image via Twitter/@CricketopiaCom




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