Welcome to the series where we present you a moment, a game in history that has shaped the way the sport has been played, in our weekly segment ‘Throwback Thursday.’ This week, we revisit one of Indian cricket’s most historic achievements, the great conquest of English summer 1971.
“In Bombay, the birthplace of Indian cricket, unprecedented scenes were witnessed. There was dancing in the streets. Revellers stopped and boarded buses to convey the news to commuters. In the homes, children garlanded wireless sets over which the cheery voice of Brian Johnston had proclaimed the glad tidings of India’s first Test victory in England, a victory which also gave them the rubber,” Wisden noted.
It was the reverberation of one glorious summer – a summer that transcended belief and made Indian cricket fans proud of their team in a way never felt before. From the exploits of a certain young Sunil Manohar Gavaskar across the isles of the Caribbean to the brilliance of Dilip Sardesai and the affluent leadership of Ajit Wadekar, it was a time to shine for Indian cricket. The 1971 tour of England and the subsequent victory was a stamp of finality towards a new dawn in world cricket.
It was about cricket, but it was about much more than just cricket which transpired in the length and breathes of the United Kingdom that summer, which we need to contextualise in order to put the win into perspective.
India and England had played 19 Tests heading into the series and never ever India threatened to win the game against the former colonial masters. The four draws were more down to the force of nature than India’s brilliance and it was quite clear from the divide of the past. In the previous two tours, India were whitewashed 5-0 and 3-0 but the emergence of India’s spin quartet was a never-seen-before phenomenon. They hunted in the pack and ensured India were no pushover on the world stage.
By no contrast, England were anything but a weaker side. They returned home after regaining the Ashes the previous winter and had beaten Pakistan in a Test match before taking on India. They were also much better placed to take on Bishan Bedi, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar that they had ever been and thanks to the familiarity of the county scene, where the Indians were a regular customer, a rise was prudent.
As Martin Williamson noted, India went into the first Test on the back of four thumping wins against county oppositions. It was a series that could easily have been one of the anticipated series of all-time if not for the lack of media hysteria and almost zero advertisements. But sometimes, classics are better if it is revealed in its purest form – Indian and English fans had hit the nail in the coffin that day. The result, however, couldn’t be farther from English fans’ loyalty and overconfidence.
In the first Test of the tour, powered by Ajit Wadekar, Gundappa Viswanath and towards the end, Eknath Solkar stoic display, India traded blow for blow to have England on the mat. Indian spinners picked nine wickets among themselves to gain a competitive edge, further to be bolstered by another eight-wicket burst. Indian pacers Syed Abid Ali and Solkar bowled only 38 overs between themselves in two innings combined, scalping only a couple of wickets. England, petrified by spin, knew that it was going to be a long summer. With India on 145 for 8 chasing 183, rain took the sides from the field and the game ended in a draw.
“We got a very poor pitch at Lord’s, and we got the worst of it – it was green and brown and doing all sorts of things when we batted on the first day, and towards the end it became slow. India were eight down around tea on the final day and just then there was a spot of rain,” Ray Illingworth, the England captain, had said later but everyone and their pet dog that day knew who were praying for rain minutes before the game changed sides.
India were daringly lucky at Old Trafford when India slid to 65 for 3 chasing an improbable 420 as rain saved their fortune and they had all to play for at The Oval in the third and final Test. After winning the toss for the third time in the series, in front of a crowd of around 10,000, England had John Jameson and John Edrich to thank for the invaluable contribution. They defied Bedi like a pro and even though Venkataraghavan and Solkar put on the acceleration, it was little ineffective.
Alan Knott and Richard Hutton never let the Indians have a minute breather before they were bowled out for 355 in the last over of the day. India had all the reasons to hope for another intervention which arrived on the second day, but on Saturday, sun shone brightly in Manchester as India scampered to 234 for 7, a recovery after they had slipped to 125 for 5. On the following day, scoring 284, India had been bundled out but a 0-0 card was most likely, at that point in time.
It is often said, most of the classics occur when you least notice. In the cauldron of Bedi and Venkataraghavan, Bhagwat Subramanya Chandrasekhar hit the steppe and how! 10,000 spectators were at the ground for the game and Chandra bowled 18.1 overs, 6 for 38 and England were all out for 101. It was also the day of Ganesh Chathurthi, a festival to celebrate the Lord Ganesh’s magic, and few Indian supporters arranged for an elephant, loaned from Chessington Zoo, to parade around the outfield during the lunch interval.
“On a pitch which gave him little if any assistance Charda had vindicated a vanishing breed of bowling in a fashion which can only be described as astonishing,” wrote Playfair Cricket Monthly.
At Lord’s, the Sunil Gavaskar-John Snow collision became an epic and now the duo came face to face as India prepared to chase down 173. India reached 76 for 2 at stumps after losing Gavaskar to Snow for a duck. The following date saw Basil D’Oliveira ramping down Wadekar with a straight throw. What happened afterwards was a scarcely believable show of resilience. It was till date a great tribute to Chandra’s bowling that Ray Illingworth and Derek Underwood were not even close to what Chandra was as Gundappa Viswanath and an injured Dilip Sardesai toiled hard.
“I was very confident of reaching the target. Illingworth’s psychology was that we were not good against their pace, and in the process he floundered. Then he relied too much on Underwood. I just told my batsmen to wait and watch and go for the runs,” Wadekar had to say later.
At 124/3, India had the game very much in their pocket but Underwood sent Sardesai and then Solkar packing to send shivers down the spine. Then joined Farokh Engineer, one of Indian cricket’s most charismatic superstars, as Viswanath added runs by a tickle. India were in touching distance of glory when Brian Luckhurst struck again.
Four runs to go as Syed Abid Ali joined Engineer. Perfectly packed by Indian fans, The Oval was in a frenzy. It was cricket’s very own moment of reckoning as India were on the verge of glory. He was all set as was the packed stadium to emerge as a free bird. What happened afterwards changed cricket in many ways.