The year 1971 will always be considered as a watershed in the history of Indian cricket. It was during this year that the national side recorded victories in back-to-back series against two strong teams away from home. The win over the West Indies, which came first, was helped by the fact that the prowess of the Caribbean side was on the decline with all time greats such as Gary Sobers and Rohan Kanhai approaching the twilight of their careers. But the triumph against England, who had defeated the mighty Australia on their own turf just a couple of months ago, shocked the cricketing world. This was truly the moment when Indian cricket arrived on the international stage and started being taken note of by other sides with respect.
The man responsible for this win in England was an unassuming, reticent and “freakish” bowler who bowled leg breaks, flippers and googles at a quicker pace than regular spinners. Bhagwat Subramaniam Chandrasekhar (Chandra) was indeed a “one of a kind” bowler, the likes of which appear only rarely in international cricket. An attack of polio in childhood had left its mark on his right hand and for many years he could grip the ball only with some difficulty. Though he started out as a fast bowler, he soon found that he could impart considerable turn to the ball due to the unorthodox way he gripped it. He soon started getting excellent returns bowling leg spin for City Cricketers in Bangalore, which attracted the attention of the state selectors. He made his Ranji Trophy debut for Karnataka during the 1963-64 season and was selected to the national squad within a year.
The reason for this meteoric rise from club cricket to Test matches was the amazing wicket-taking ability that Chandra was blessed with. He could extract turn and bounce on any surface and run through sides like knife through butter. Batsmen had little clue as to what he was bowling and he had the uncanny ability to produce unplayable balls almost at will. He could be occasionally erratic in line and length but even here the pace at which he bowled ensured that he got away with loose deliveries more often than not. His famous reticence added to the aura around him. To the untrained eye he appeared a loner but with a cricket ball in hand he suddenly turned lethal.
Chandra made his debut against England at Mumbai in January, 1964, and showed his mettle straightaway picking up 4/67 in the first innings. That series between India and England in 1963-64 was one of the dullest played in the country with none of the five Tests producing a result. Both sides appeared keen to avoid a defeat and the pitches prepared were flat and placid, offering little help to the bowlers. Chandra finished the series with a tally of 10 wickets. When a full strength Australian side visited India in 1964-65, Chandra showed his match-winning abilities in no uncertain terms. After missing the first Test due to an injury, he picked up eight wickets in the second at Mumbai to set India on the path to a narrow two-wicket win. Chandra repeated this streak when the West Indies under Sobers visited India in 1966-67. In the first Test at Mumbai, which the visitors won by six wickets, thanks to the brilliance of Sobers, Chandra bagged 11 wickets, troubling every batsman except the West Indies skipper.
However, Chandra’s career hit an unexpected road block in late 1967. After a tour of England where he was the leading wicket-taker, Chandra suffered an injury during the second Test of the series against Australia at Melbourne. The team management abruptly decided to send him back to India and sought for the services of M L Jaisimha as his replacement. This decision upset him as he believed that he could have recovered from the injury and continued playing after a gap of one or two matches. Worse was to follow as he was not considered for selection during the 1969-70 season when India played eight Tests at home – three against New Zealand and five against Australia. He did not figure in the squad that was chosen to tour the West Indies in 1971 under Ajit Wadekar either.
However, to the surprise of all and sundry, national selectors under Vijay Merchant recalled Chandra for the tour of England in 1971. Merchant told the media that his selection was “a gamble”, a statement that riled Chandra no end. But Wadekar had more confidence in the abilities of Chandra and played him in all the Tests. And Chandra repaid this trust by coming up with an outstanding performance in the last Test at The Oval, which turned the match in favor of India.
England had batted first in this Test and scored 355. After second day’s play was washed out, the Indian batting faltered and the side was dismissed for 284 on the morning of the fourth day. Commentators and experts, who were expecting England to go for quick runs to facilitate an early declaration after setting a tough target, were in for a shock when Chandra was brought on to bowl just before lunch on the fourth day. He struck straightaway dismissing John Jameson and John Edrich off consecutive balls to push the hosts on the back foot. This was the spark that Chandra required to bring out his match-winning abilities. None of the England batsmen had any clue as to how to tackle him and they meekly surrendered before his leg breaks, flippers and googlies to get dismissed for a paltry 101. India reached the target of 173 with four wickets to spare, thus winning a Test and series in England for the first time ever. Chandra finished with figures of 6/38.
Chandra was at his destructive best when England toured India in 1972-73, picking up 35 wickets in a five-Test series, a record that stands till date. After losing the first Test, India appeared on the brink of going down in the second one at Kolkata as well, when England, chasing a target of 192 runs, reached 105/4 at close of play on the fourth day. However, Chandra picked up three quick wickets - that of Tong Greig, Mike Denness and Alan Knott - when play started on the last day and India managed to win this game by a narrow margin of 28 runs. He repeated this magic when the West Indies toured India in 1974-75. India went down tamely in the first two Tests, but recovered in the third Test, thanks to a century by Gundappa Viswanath. But the West Indies still held the upper hand when, chasing a target of 310, they finished the fourth day at 146/3.
Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who was back as the captain of the national side, threw the ball to Chandra when play began on the last day. Chandra had not bowled well in the first innings, picking up a solitary wicket and appeared off colourl on the fourth day also. He started poorly bowling some loose stuff and Clive Lloyd, then leading West Indies, helped himself to three boundaries in the first over. The crowd of 80,000 at Eden Gardens showed their unhappiness when this happened. And when Pataudi continued with Chandra the crowd roared their disapproval. However, Chandra held his nerve and bowled a perfect leg break which “slithered like a cobra” between the bat and pad of Lloyd and knocked back his stumps. He followed up with the wickets of Alvin Kallicharan and Bernard Julian, after which the West Indies crumbled like a pack of cards to leave India winners by 85 runs.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Chandra was the match-winner for India through almost the whole of the 1970s. His teammates in the spin quartet – Bishan Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan - were outstanding bowlers but none of them had the ability to destroy batting line-up in the manner Chandra did. He showed this skill when India toured Australia in 1977-78, bagging 12 /104 in the third Test at Melbourne. He was among the wickets in all series that India played till the fateful tour of Pakistan in 1978.
Incidentally Chandra did not have a poor tour of Pakistan like his fellow spinners as he picked up four wickets in the first Test and three in the last. He was among the wickets in the first two Tests of the series against the West Indies that followed but was inexplicably dropped from the side for the third match. Narasimha Rao, his replacement, was an unmitigated disaster. Chandra was brought back for the last two Tests, but it was evident that this incident had scarred him. He was included in the squad to tour England in 1979 and played in the first Test despite not being fully fit. It turned out to be the last Test of his career.
Chandra announced his retirement from first-class cricket at the end of the 1979-80 season. He realised that with the emergence of Kapil Dev, India had discovered a fast bowler who could also win matches. In this scenario, there appeared little point in continuing to play first-class cricket for his state. Further, he also felt that he should not stand in the way of new talented youngsters waiting in the wings by trying to stretch his career.
There would be no cricketer in the history of the game who did not have such little pretensions about his batting as Chandra. He always batted at No. 11 position, whether it was for the club or the country. Every ball survived by him would bring forth a round of applause from the crowd who loved him dearly for his skills with the ball. The haul of 242 wickets in 58 Tests and the tally of 167 runs tell their own tale!
Post retirement life was not a bed of roses for him. An injury suffered in a two-wheeler accident requires him to use support for his movements. A quiet person even at the best of times, this injury has made him even more of a recluse. He spends his days at his residence in Bengaluru listening to his favorite Mukesh songs.
Chandra celebrated his 78th birthday during the week that went by. Bleated birthday greetings, Chandra.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)