The ongoing second Test between Australia and India at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) would not only decide the fate of the four-match series but also show whether Indian cricket has the resilience to bounce back from the ignominy of being bundled out for their lowest score ever in Test cricket. It's a real test of the calibre of the side as its is without regular captain Virat Kohli, who is also one of the top batsmen in contemporary cricket. The Indians have done well on the first two days and the Boxing Day Test will be followed closely by fans of the game in India who would want to forget the horrors of Adelaide and welcome the New Year on a winning note.
This brings to mind two occasions in the past when matches at Melbourne helped to salvage India’s pride. The first among this took place in 1978 and the other one in 1981, when India registered victories in the Tests played at the MCG. The other occasion when India registered a win in a Test at the MCG was in 2018, when the side overwhelmed the hosts by a margin of 137 runs. Thus, on the 13 visits to the iconic MCG to play Test matches, India have won thrice and Australia eight times, with the remaining two matches ending in draw.
India’s tour of Australia in 1977-78 took place in the shadow of the storm created by the launch of a parallel World Series Cricket (WSC) by Kerry Packer, a media mogul who ran Channel Nine sports. The WSC lured away the top cricketers of Australia and the West Indies, along with some players from England and Pakistan by signing them for taking part in their matches. India were completely unaffected as Packer did not consider approaching any of the Indian cricketers when the WSC started in 1977.
Since the emergence of WSC was a direct challenge to the Australian Cricket Board, they decided not to consider any of the players who entered into contracts with the rival body for selection to the national side. As the entire Test squad, with the notable exception of Jeff Thomson, had joined the WSC bandwagon, Aussie selectors were forced to select a raw, new look side. Australia also decided to recall Bob Simpson, who had retired from the game almost a decade ago to lead the team. Simpson readily accepted up the challenge and took over the reins of the side, which had as many as six debutants in its playing eleven in the the first Test at Brisbane.
If the Indians, under Bishan Singh Bedi, had thought that the Aussies would be easy meat for them, they were in for a rude shock as the hosts showed tremendous grit and determination to win the first two Tests. Simpson led the way by scoring 89 in second innings of the first Test and 176 in the first knock of the second. Peter Toohey, who had been unheard of till the first Test, showed commendable comfort and ease while tackling the famed Indian spin quartet comprising Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (Chandra), Erapalli Prasanna and S Venkataraghavan. In the second Test, the Aussies made light of a target of 342 by chasing it comfortably on the final day, with Tony Mann, a leg-spinner who came in as nightwatchman at the end of day four, hitting a century.
At this juncture, India appeared to be in danger of not only losing the series to a bunch of greenhorns but being blanked. It was obvious that the bowlers had to pull their act together as the batsmen had fared reasonably well against the Aussie bowlers. And as it had happened on many occasions in the 1970s, the team looked up to Chandra to deliver the goods. Chandra had a personal score to settle as well since he had been sent back during the earlier tour of Australia in 1967-68 after suffering an injury. Chandra believed that he could have recovered quickly from the injury but did not get the support of team management who wanted to fly in M L Jaisimha as his replacement. The first two Tests had not seen him in great form as he struggled to find the right length on the wickets that offered extra pace and bounce and the Aussie batsmen tackled him with ease by employing shots square off the wicket.
It was at MCG that Chandra finally discovered the right length to bowl on Australian wickets. The results were evident soon as none of the Aussie batsmen had any clue about how to play him. Even Simpson and Toohey, who had negotiated the Indian spinners comfortably, suddenly found themselves all at sea when Chandra struck form. They had no answers to his googlies and flippers, which hurried off the wicket at a quicker pace, forcing them to hurry their shots. Runs dried up as the batsmen were denied the space and bounce to play the cut and pull shots and this was compounded by their inability to read him correctly from the hand. Chandra ran though the side in both innings returning with identical figures of 6/52, thus ending up with a match tally of 12/104 as India romped home winners by a margin of 222 runs.
If this victory helped India regain confidence and rediscover their winning ways, the one at the same venue three years later was even more exciting. The high profile side led by Sunil Gavaskar that toured Australia in 1980-81 had aroused hopes of followers of the game at home as it was a well balanced one with a good blend of youth and experience. But the team floundered when the Test series began losing the first match by an innings and four runs and barely managing to draw the second. After Australia dominated the proceedings during the first three days, Indians suddenly turned the tables on their hosts and snatched a surprise 59-run win in the last Test at Melbourne. Scorecard would show that this win was made possible by a splendid century by Gundappa Viswanath and a brilliant spell of bowling by Kapil Dev, who took the field after taking pain killing injections for a torn calf muscle. However, this Test remains etched in the minds of all those who followed this game for an incident involving skipper Gavaskar, who almost forfeited the match by staging a near walkout.
Gavaskar was at that time one of the best batsmen in the world and his enviable record of making big scores in pitches outside the India had won him high praise. But he struck a bad patch during this tour and was dismissed cheaply in the first two Tests and first innings of the last one. When India batted in the second innings facing a deficit of 182 runs, it was imperative that Gavaskar found his touch if they were to save this game. The Indian captain overcame his initial blues and gradually settled down in the company of his partner Chetan Chauhan and the pair was unseparated with 108 runs when stumps were drawn at close of day three.
The Australians bowled with venom when play resumed on next day and the Indian openers had taken the score to 165 when umpire Rex Whitehood upheld an appeal by Dennis Lillee for leg before wicket against Gavaskar. The Indian captain showed his unhappiness over the decision, at which point Lillee decided to indulge in a bit of gamesmanship by going to Gavaskar and pointing out where the ball struck him. Gavaskar trudged back slowly to the pavilion and when he crossed Chauhan, he suddenly ordered the latter to follow him. Chauhan was shocked and showed his reluctance but could do little as his skipper literally dragged him alongside. Australian players gathered around the pitch suddenly sensing the possibility of victory as India appeared to be on the verge of conceding the match.
Wing Cdr S A Durani, the manager of the Indian side, realised the gravity of the events unfolding in the middle and acted fast. He ran down the pavilion steps signalling to Chauhan to stop in his tracks and directed Dilip Vengsarkar, the next batsman, to proceed to the middle. Despite his anger, Gavaskar realised the folly of his action and did not resist when Chauhan stayed back and Vengsarkar walked in to bat. The game continued and India managed to reach a total score of 324 runs in the second innings, leaving Australia with a target of 143, which proved to be beyond the capacity of the home side.
These two instances in the past when India could come into their own and reverse a record of losses at MCG should act as a source of motivation for the current side during the Test under progress. The developments in the field in the early part of this match has seen India demonstrate the character and spunk that will be giving sleepless night to the Aussies. Cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties and the winner is the one who would keep fighting till the very end, without losing heart and letting it go. Let us hope that the team management led by head coach Ravi Shastri and acting-captain Ajinkya Rahane is able to instill this spirit in the squad for the remaining matches of the series.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)