When I visited England for the first time, my friend who hosted me asked me the details of cricket grounds I wished to visit. “I am sure you will want to go to Lord’s; is there any other ground in your bucket list?” he enquired. “Yes, you will have to take me to Headingly, Leeds, also”, I replied.
The poor guy, who did not have any interest in cricket, chaperoned me to the cricket stadium at Headingley and waited patiently while I walked around its perimeter soaking in the ambience of the place which was witness to some the worst humiliations in India’s cricket history as well as to couple of glorious wins.
If there is any ground in the world that symbolises India’s fortunes in international cricket, it is the one at Headingley. We lost miserably in the two Tests played here during the 1950s, which was in many ways the dark decade of Indian cricket. During the Pataudi era, India played one match at this venue, in 1967, when we put up a good fight but ended up losing, as was the norm during those days. In 1979, India managed to secure a draw in a rain affected Test, indicative of the fact that we were no longer pushovers in the game. In 1986, by which time we had won the World Cup, India finally registered a win here. A more emphatic victory followed in 2002, when Sourav Ganguly-led Indian side made light of a green top that was prepared to favour the seam bowlers of the home side, to win the game by a handsome margin of an innings and 46 runs.
India’s first outing at this ground would remain the most disastrous ever. India batted first and put up a decent score of 293 in the first innings, helped by a century (133) by Vijay Manjrekar, who put on 222 runs for the third wicket with his skipper Vijay Hazare, whose contribution was 89. England replied with 334, which gave them a small first innings lead of 41 runs. However, when India batted second, they ran into a fiery fast bowler making his debut in Test cricket named Fred Trueman, who let rip his lightning like thunderbolts on the Indian batsmen. Trueman dismissed opening batsman Pankaj Roy in his first over and Alex Bedser took the wicket of Datta Gaekwad in the next, to leave the visitors at 0/2. Truman charged in and clean bowled Madhav Mantri and Manjrekar off successive balls to reduce India to the ignominious position of 0/4. Skipper Hazare, who was taking rest due to a pulled hamstring muscle, walked in at this stage and on drove the next ball to the fence, thus preventing the hat-trick and also putting the first runs on the scoreboard.
For the record, Hazare (56) and Dattu Phadkar (64) took India to a respectable total of 165 and England reached the target of 126, losing only three wickets. Though the final score card showed a defeat by seven wickets, the humiliation brought about on account of losing four top wickets without even a run on board was to haunt India for a long time to come. India lost the next two Tests of the 1952 tour by a large margin and even worse was the fact that our batsmen, with some notable exceptions, showed a distinct disinclination to face Trueman. This, in turn, sent across a message to the rest of the cricketing world that Indians were chicken-hearted and afraid of fast bowling.
India’s next appearance at Headingley seven years later did little to change this reputation of our batsmen being uncomfortable against pace bowling. India lost the Test by an innings and 73 runs, with the game getting over on the third day. Trueman was there this time also and though he picked up only five wickets, his mere presence on the field appeared to unnerve Indian batsmen.
The Headingley Test of 1967 also appeared to be following the course of the two previous ones, after the first two days, when India found herself at 86/6 in the first innings, in reply to England’s score of 550/4. Trueman, who had moved over to the press box by then, called the visitors a “ragtag bobtail outfit masquerading itself as a Test side” and advocated that spectators should be charged less in matches involving India. Pataudi, who was unbeaten on 28 at this juncture, had other ideas and guided the tailenders and took the total to 164 before he became the last batsman to be dismissed. Forced to follow on, Indian batsmen came into their own in the second outing. Farokh Engineer (87) and Ajit Wadekar (91) were involved in a 168 run stand for the second wicket after which Pataudi took over again. He anchored the Indian innings with a knock of 148 and, with the help of Hanumant Singh (73) and lower order batsmen took India to a total of 510. England won the match by six wickets, but India managed to avoid a disgraceful defeat.
After the drawn test of 1979, India took on England at Headingley in 1986 in the second match of a three-Test series. Bolstered by the confidence of having won the first Test at Lord’s, India were on top throughout this game, coming out as easy winners by a thumping margin of 279 runs. England did not have the services of Ian Botham, who was dropped on disciplinary grounds, and, moreover, came to Leeds with a new captain as Mike Getting replaced David Gower. All this bogged down the hosts who went down without any fight in this match. The highlights for India were the batting of Dilip Vengsarkar (62 and 102) in trying conditions and the bowling of Roger Binny (5/40) in first innings and Maninder Singh (4/26) in the second.
The victory at Leeds in 2002 is treasured by followers of the game in India as it signalled the emergence of national side as a top class unit capable of winning matches even in hostile conditions abroad. India bravely chose to bat first on a wicket which looked likely to help seamers in the early part of first day. But Rahul Dravid (148) and Sanjay Bangar (85) dug their heels in and ensured a good foundation to the Indian innings through some splendid batting, after the early fall of Virender Sehwag. Sachin Tendulkar (193) and Sourav Ganguly (126) took over from them and put on 249 runs for the fourth wicket. India’s first innings score of 628 proved daunting for the England batsmen, who could muster only 273 and 309. The Indian bowlers, led by Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, bowled skilfully and never eased the pressure on the batsmen.
With the benefit of hindsight, one can state that conditions that prevailed at Headingly on August 25, 2021, were similar to those faced by Indian batsmen on August 22, 2002. Dravid and Bangar had put their heads down and tackled the seam and swing bowling of Mathew Hoggard, Andy Caddick, Alex Tudor and Andrew Flintoff, displaying grit and gumption and without indulging in any flair or flourish. Unfortunately, Virat Kohli’s men were found lacking in these qualities when they faced James Anderson, Ollie Robinson, Sam Curran and Craig Overton in the opening day of the third Test. If the top order had applied themselves with the same intensity and determination of Dravid and Bangar, they could have survived the first two sessions. And runs would have flowed later when the conditions eased up, as was seen when England started batting. It was not the wrong call made after winning the toss, but lack of application to the task at hand that did India in on the first day.
Each cricket ground in the world has its own character, which is part of the magic makes this sport unique and nonpareil in the eyes of its followers. For an old fashioned cricket aficionado, Headingly, located in Yorkshire, the bastion of cricket orthodoxy, symbolises the tradition and legacy of the game in England more than other venues. One can safely state that this is the most English of all grounds in Old Blighty, when compared to the hyped up Lord’s, the cosmopolitan Oval, the workman like Old Trafford and the stylish Edgbaston. Hence, besting the hosts on this ground is never an easy task at this venue as India has found out the hard way now.
It appears that Virat Kohli-led side was unaware of the rich heritage of this ground and the history of battles fought here in the past. It is fair game to assume that had they received any inputs in this regard, they might have displayed greater purpose and persistence while tackling the England bowlers and avoided the massive defeat.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)