Psychologists postulate that perceptions, accurate or otherwise, play an important role in shaping our thought process. The accuracy of this aphorism is borne out by the fact that most cricket followers of my generation consider the Kennington Oval to be a venue that favours India more than the hosts, despite the facts pointing towards the contrary. Statistics tells us that out of the 13 Tests that India have played at this venue prior to the ongoing fourth Test, we have won only once and lost as many as five matches, with the remaining seven ending without a result. The sole victory was the historic one achieved in 1971 with the defeats coming in Tests played during 1936, 1959, 2011, 2014 and 2018.
This perception could have its roots in the famous win of 1971, which never fails to warm the cockles of the hearts of those who were fortunate to savour it. Another strong factor is the Test of 1979, when India came close to creating history during their chase of 438 falling short only by nine runs with the match ending in a draw. Further, the side could hold the hosts to draw in the matches played from the 1980s here till 2007, after which the slide started resulting in three consecutive defeats at this venue.
The Test match played at The Oval in 1979 would be remembered by fans of the game for the brilliant innings of 221 scripted by Sunil Gavaskar, which brought India tantalisingly close to a near impossible win. To understand the significance of this knock and the Test in the history of Indian cricket, an understanding about the circumstances in which it took place is necessary. Hence, a brief run up of the events preceding this Test is required for a proper appreciation of the importance of this game.
Gavaskar had replaced Bishan Singh Bedi as captain of the national team in December, 1978, after the loss in Pakistan. He led India to a 1-0 win in the Test series against the West Indies at home that followed. So it was expected that he would lead the side for the 1979 World Cup and the Test series against England that followed. However, in a surprise move, he was replaced by S Venkataraghavan (Venkat) as the captain by the selectors, who also dropped wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani. It was rumoured that these decisions were triggered by the interactions that Gavaskar and Kirmani had with the representatives of Kerry Packer regarding joining the World Series Cricket (WSC) sponsored by the media mogul.
India started the tour on a bad note by losing all their matches in the World Cup, including the one against Sri Lanka, who were not even a Test playing nation at that time. Before the team left for England, fans in India had hoped that we might even qualify for the semifinals as the other sides in our pool were the West Indies and New Zealand besides the Lankans. The optimists thought that even though it was impossible to win against the mighty West Indians, it was within the realms of possibility to conquer the Kiwis, while a victory against the Lankans was taken for granted. However, the team shocked everyone by losing all their matches timidly.
Even worse was to follow when the Test series began as England steamrollered the visitors by an innings and 83 runs in the first match at Edgbaston. On an easy-paced batting track, the Indian bowlers could make no impression on the England batsmen who made merry till Mike Brearley declared the innings closed with total on 600/5. In response, the Indian batsmen could not get going and could muster only 297 and 253 in their two outings. And when the visitors folded up for 96 runs in the first innings of the next Test at Lord’s it appeared as if the horrors of the tour of 1974 were visiting them again.
However, India found their saviours in Gundappa Viswanath and Dilip Vengsarkar, who guided them to the safety of a draw after conceding a first innings lead of 325 runs. While Vengsarkar, whose career was at a crossroads following his failures in the previous three innings, redeemed himself with a knock of 103, Viswanath struck a brilliant 113. The next Test at Leeds was affected by rain due to which even the first innings could not be completed. Thus the teams reached The Oval for the last match with England leading the series 1-0.
Brearley won the toss and chose to bat first. Half-centuries by Graham Gooch (79) and Peter Willey (52) helped England post a total of 305 in the first innings. After this, their fast bowling trio of Bob Willis, Ian Botham and Mike Hendrick bowled superbly to restrict India to a first innings score of 202, with Viswanath (62) alone getting among the runs for the visitors. When England batted again, Geoff Boycott hit a typically slow-paced 125 and Brearley declared the innings at the stroke tea on fourth day, when their total was 334/8. This left the visitors with a target of 438 and more importantly, he gave his bowlers four full sessions to bowl the Indians out. Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan batted through the post tea session of the penultimate day and scored 76.
When the last day dawned, India needed to score 362 runs, a possibility so distant and improbable that the bookies were offering odds of 100 to 1 for a win by the visitors. But Gavaskar had other ideas. He had been in good nick throughout the series, striking four half- centuries in the first three Tests, but could not convert any of them into a big score. This was surprising as the man was famous for converting good starts into hundreds. On September 4, 1979, he decided to make amends by playing an innings that would remain etched in the memory all those fortunate to witness it or even follow through radio commentary.
Gavaskar and Chauhan put on 213 for the first wicket before the latter was dismissed for a doughty 80. Vengsarkar joined Gavaskar and the duo took the total to 304 when tea was taken. Those were the days when post tea session on the last day of a Test match comprised 30 minutes and 20 mandatory overs. India had moved to 328 when the mandatory overs began and one could see panic set in inside the England camp. Thus, the equation was down to 110 runs from 20 overs - a simple target today but not so easy during those times when limited overs cricket was not so popular.
Phil Edmonds finally secured the breakthrough that England had been looking for when he dismissed Vengsarkar with the total on 366. At this juncture skipper Venkat sprang a surprise by promoting Kapil Dev in the batting order, ahead of the in-form Viswanath, ostensibly to push up the scoring rate. Kapil had not done well with the bat during that series and his attempt to clear the boundary even before getting his eye in resulted in an easy catch at the fence. Yashpal Sharma joined Gavaskar and the pair took the score to 389, bringing the target down to 49 runs off eight overs.
At this juncture, in a desperate attempt, Brearley brought Ian Botham back into the attack and the latter demonstrated his greatness by swinging the fortunes in favour of his side. First, he had Gavaskar caught by Gower at mid on and then dismissed Yajuvendra Singh and Yashpal in quick succession. Viswanath, who had come in at the fall of Gavaskar’s wicket showed his intent by striking two boundaries, was adjudged caught by Brearley off Willey, while Venkat was run out. Thus, the wind was taken out of the chase and India found themselves at 423/8, when the last over started. Bharat Reddy and Karsan Ghavri played out that over adding 6 runs, taking the total to 429, when stumps were drawn.
Critics have rated Gavaskar’s innings as one of the best played in England in the post-war period. It was a flawless exhibition of batsmanship, spread over seven hours and 23 minutes, with scarcely a mistake. It embodied the best of batting in a Test match - intense concentration, perfect defence, superb judgement of line and length and immaculate strokeplay. None of the bowlers could make an impression on him and his dismissal was brought about more by tiredness than by anything else.
Gavaskar replaced Venkat as the captain when India took the field for the next Test against Australia at Chennai, which started within a week after the game at The Oval. The Australian Cricket Board had reached a compromise with Kerry Packer leading to the winding up of the WSC and thus circumstances that forced Gavaskar’s removal from captaincy did not exist any longer. Venkat took this change of fortunes in his stride and continued playing under Gavaskar without demur. But one cannot but help imagining the scenario if he had not made the mistake of promoting Kapil in the batting order during the run chase at The Oval. In all probability, if Viswanath had come in at No. 4, he would have settled down well quickly and carried the innings forward after dismissal of Gavaskar towards a win.
Had India won the Test would Venkat have been retained as skipper? This will remain one of the most intriguing and unanswered questions in the history of Indian cricket!
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)