A sense of timing is among the most important of all requirements for champions in every sporting event. The ability to raise one’s performance levels for the big event, the capacity to put that extra ounce of effort when competing with the best and the being able to squeeze out the additional drop of adrenalin that assures a place ahead of the rest are unique traits seen only in winners. In cricket, the word “timing” is also associated with the contact between the bat and the ball. Those willow wielders blessed with a better timing send the red cherry to the fence with scarcely any physical effort while the less talented ones are required to use considerable force to achieve this objective.
The brilliant victory scripted by the Indian team in the recently concluded second Test at Lord’s was a perfectly timed one as it came on the eve of the golden jubilee of the first great triumph of Indian cricket. It was on August 24, 1971, that Ajit Wadekar-led India defeated England by four wickets at The Oval to record their first ever Test win on British soil. As the first two matches ended in a draw, India also won the three-Test series 1-0. England, under Ray Illingworth, had returned from Australia after winning a hard-fought Ashes series and were considered the strongest team in international cricket at that juncture. Prior to the series, India had defeated the West Indies and these back to back wins over the best sides in the world placed us among the top teams of the world.
For India this series was an unique one in that the same eleven played in all the three Tests. Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Sardesai had held the batting together during the series against the West Indies and they continued their good form in England as well. Ajit Wadekar and Gundappa Viswanath was among the runs during the matches against counties and continued in the same vein in Tests as well. Farokh Engineer was back behind the stumps after missing the tour to the Caribbean islands. Eknath Solkar was the lower order batsman who could bowl with new ball while Abid Ali was the medium-pacer who could bat a bit. Bishan Singh Bedi, B S Chandrasekhar (Chandra) and S Venkataraghavan (Venkat) comprised the spin attack, leaving no place for Erappali Prasanna, till recently India’s spearhead. Ashok Mankad was the only player who did not look the part but he played as Gavaskar’s partner at the top of the order in all the matches as the captain did not have any other options.
India took a slender lead in the first innings of the first Test at Lord’s and even attempted to chase a target of 183 in the second, secure in the knowledge that an impending thunderstorm left neither side with any real chance of winning the game. England held the upper hand in the second game, played at Old Trafford, Manchester, where the visitors were saved from a near certain defeat only by rain, which ensured that not a ball was bowled on the last day. Though honours were even when the sides moved back to London, no one would have imagined that India would get the better of England in their own den, as the hosts looked every inch a champion side. Their batting ran deep with such seasoned campaigners as Brian Luckhurst, John Jameson, John Edrich, Basil D’Olivera and Keith Fletcher who were followed by all-rounders Illingworth and Richard Hutton. In Alan Knott, they not only had the best wicketkeeper in the world but also a perky customer with the bat. Their attack was a balanced one with the pace and fury of John Snow being matched by the cut and swing of John Price and Hutton, while Derek Underwood and Illingworth looked after the spin bowling department.
Illingworth won the toss and chose to bat first. England were given a rousing start by Jameson, who made light of the early dismissal of Lukchurst, to score 82 before he was dismissed. England innings stuttered after Jameson’s dismissal and soon they slipped to 175/6 , when Hutton joined Knott at the crease. The pair kept the score board ticking with unorthodox strokes and and took the score to 278 before Knott was dismissed, caught and bowled by Solkar, for a brilliant knock of 90. However, Hutton continued undaunted and took England to a respectable total of 355, before becoming the last wicket to fall with his individual score at 81, just prior to close of play. Solkar was the most successful bowler for India, picking up 3/28 runs off 15 overs, while each of the three spin bowlers had two wickets apiece to show for the efforts.
It rained after so heavily after close of play on the first day that ground was unfit for resumption of the match on the next day. When the Test resumed on the third day, England fast bowlers struck quickly to dismiss Gavaskar and Mankad cheaply. Though Wadekar and Sardesai steadied the innings, Illingworth dismissed both of them and Viswanath in quick succession to wrest the initiative back for the hosts. However, India found their saviours in Solkar and Engineer who took the total past 200, before they too were dismissed. Some lusty hits by Abid Ali and Venkat helped the visitors to reach a final score of 284, thus finishing 71 runs behind in the first innings.
When England began their second innings, discussions among experts were centred around how quickly the hosts would be able to declare their innings after posting a target that was beyond the reach of the visitors. Both Luckhurst and Jameson started out looking like men in a hurry, seeking to score quick runs and they kept the score moving at a fast pace till a shot by the former ricocheted off the hands of the bowler to strike the stumps at the bowler’s end, with the latter outside the crease. Edrich was struck on his pads in front of the wicket by a flipper from Chandra and Fletcher joined him in the pavilion immediately thereafter offering a tame catch to Solkar off the same bowler.
At 24/3, England were staring at a crisis and Luckhurst and D’Olivera batted sensibly eschewing all risks. Venkat and Chandra bowled a tight line giving little away and pressure mounted on the batsmen. D’Olivera fell to Venkat when he was caught in the deep attempting to hit his way out of trouble. Knott, the danger man, fell soon afterwards when Solkar took an incredible catch at forward short leg, diving full length forward to pick the ball inches off the ground. Illingworth struggled against Chandra before offering a tame return catch and the bowler sent back Luckhurst and Snow in quick succession to reduce England to 72/8. Hutton and Underwood indulged in some lusty hitting prompting Wadekar to bring Bedi into the attack. Bedi foxed Underwood into mishitting a catch to Mankad in the deep and Chandra returned to clean bowl Price to end the England innings for just 101.
Thus, in a little over a session, the Indian bowlers dismissed the mighty England batting line-up for a measly total, setting their side on the road to victory. Though Chandra was the wrecker-in-chief picking up 6/38, the role played by Venkat should not be forgotten. He kept one end tight, denying the batsmen any easy runs, besides picking up two crucial wickets. The Indian fielding was razor sharp and the catch taken by Solkar to dismiss Knott would rank among the best for all times. Wadekar marshalled his resources shrewdly, bringing on Bedi just for breaking the Hutton-Underwood partnership and replacing him with Chandra as soon as that task was completed.
Illingworth, the master tactician, ensured that India had to fight to reach the target of 173. India were well served by skipper Wadekar, Sardesai and Viswanath, all of who kept their cool and batted with determination and purpose to take the side to the doorstep of victory. Finally, it was left to Abid Ali to hit the winning shot, a square cut off the bowling of Luckhurst, to clinch the win.
The significance of this event could be realised from the fact that it took India almost 40 years, after making their bow in test cricket, to register a win in England. The previous three tours of England - in 1952, 1959 and 1967 - had ended up as disasters with the side losing all Tests. Wadekar and his men showed that India possessed the necessary ability and grit to tame the star-studded England on their home turf. This win, along with the victory in the West Indies that preceded it, led to rejuvenation of cricket in India and helped to spread the popularity of the game outside the big cities. This, in turn, led to emergence of cricketers such as Kapil Dev and Yashpal Sharma, who were key players in the World Cup triumph of 1983.
Those followers of the game fortunate to witness this victory or to be part of this occasion even by listening to the radio commentary, will retain the memories thereof throughout their lives. India have won a few more Test wins and series in England since 1971 but the one recorded at The Oval in 1971 will always remain special. Kohli and his side deserve a big bouquet of thanks for sweetening up the golden jubilee of this win with their emphatic win in the second Test.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)