Column | Indian cricket and the ides of June

Sunil Gavaskar
Sunil Gavaskar scored an unbeaten 36 off 174 balls in the inaugural match of the World Cup. File photo: AFP

“Beware of the ides of March”, said the soothsayer to Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s famous play where the great Roman leader is cast as the hero. The warning conveyed the message that something unforeseen was bound to happen on the 15 March, which corresponded to the 74th day of the Roman calendar. And fate had ordained that Caesar would be assassinated by Brutus on this day, thus making the prophesy come true. Ever since, these words have become immortal in English language and is used to express the possibility of an unpleasant occurrence, such as a betrayal, in the near future.

In a similar manner, there occur phases or periods when one braces up for unhappy news. This is on account of many instances in the past when one has received information of an unpleasant nature during a particular period. Rationalists will try to convince us that mishaps can happen at any given point of time and they do not wait for a predetermined date and time for taking place. But, experiences have taught human minds to be wary of certain months when one should be mentally prepared for taking in information of a disagreeable nature.

When one goes through the history of Indian cricket, it is seen that the first fortnight of June has invariably brought us bad tidings on a few occasions. The hammering at the hands of Australia in the final of the World Test Championship is the latest in this list.

One can recall at least three distinct incidents when this period brought infamy to the national cricket side and consequent feeling of humiliation to the millions of fans of the game in this country. Since international cricket is played only in England during this period, all these matches were played in that country.

The first of these took place at Headingly, Leeds, in 1952 when the top order of our batting was knocked off by the pace of Fred Trueman in a most shocking manner. The Indian scorecard that read 0/4 after 14 balls in the second innings of this match stands as mute testimony to the havoc caused by Trueman on our batsmen. India had embarked on the tour of England in 1952 with lots of hopes and dreams. The national side had recorded its first ever victory in Test cricket in Madras (present day Chennai) only a few months before against England. There was an air of optimism and observers felt that India might be able to wipe off the unpleasant memories of the previous tours of England when they were not able to win any Test and had to depend on weather to force draws.

But England had different ideas. For the first Test at Leeds, they blooded in Trueman, a young tearaway fast bowler who could not only hurl the red cherry at speeds that Indians had never seen before but also curse in the coarsest possible language. He teamed up with Alec Bedser and had the Indians in trouble in the first innings before the visitors were rescued by a 222-run stand between skipper Vijay Hazare and Vijay Manjrekar. But despite this, England managed a small first innings lead of 41 runs. 

When India batted again, Trueman removed Pankaj Roy in the very first over while Bedser got rid of Datta Gaekwad. In his second over, Trueman struck again clean bowling Madhav Mantri and Manjrekar off successive balls to reduce the visitors to 0/4. Hazare, who was nursing a hamstring strain, hurriedly wore his pads and rushed to the middle to take strike against the hat-rick ball. Trueman attempted a yorker, which Hazare read correctly and drove through the vacant mid on region to the boundary to bring the first runs on the scoreboard. Hazare and Dattu Phadkar struck half-centuries to bring an element of respectability to the Indian  total. But a second innings score of 165 meant that England were set a target of 125, which they achieved losing only 3 wickets. Even worse than the defeat was the ignominy brought out by the fact that Indian batsmen appeared so mortally scared of Trueman that some of them actually avoided facing him!

The next instance was in 1967, when Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi led the side to England. There were hopes and aspirations aplenty when the team left the shores of India, but unfortunately, the side was hit by injuries in the run up to the Tests. This time also the first Test was held at Leeds and England batted first after winning the toss. Though they lost an early wicket, their innings stabilised with good knocks from Geoff Boycott and Ken Barrington. But misfortune struck India as Bishan Singh Bedi, the left-arm spinner, and Russi Surti, the all-rounder who opened the bowling, suffered injuries in the first session itself. This left the visitors with just three bowlers - Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and debutant Subrata Guha -  in their ranks, which was woefully inadequate on an easy-paced track. Pataudi tried out nine bowlers during this innings, with all  players except wicket keeper Farokh Engineer and Chandu Borde, who had given up bowling due to a shoulder injury, turning their arms over to stop the English batting juggernaut.

 M A K Pataudi
M A K Pataudi had a tough time leading India in England in 1967. File photo

However, Boycott batted in his typical dogged manner and made no attempt to accelerate the rate of scoring. This brought considerable criticism and led to he being dropped from the side for the next Test, despite scoring an unbeaten 246. Basil D’Oliviera struck a quick-fire 109 while Barrington chipped in with 93 before skipper Brian Close declared the innings closed at 550/4. 

But the real humiliation to India started after this. On a pitch where England batsmen made merry, the Indian willow-wielders found the going tough and wickets fell at regular intervals. It was only because of a fighting half-century by Pataudi that India could cross the three-figure mark in the first innings. This poor performance brought howls of protest from the followers of the game across the globe. There were even demands that spectators should pay less when India played Tests in England!  However, India gave an improved performance in the second innings when they made 510, thus making England bat again in the last innings to win the match.

The last bad tiding came in June, 1975, when the inaugural World Cup took place. Known as the Prudential World Cup, this was held in England and the first game was played between the hosts and India at Lord’s. England batted first and amassed 334/4 in their allotted 60 overs. In reply, India could muster only 132, thus losing the game by a huge margin of 202 runs. The most shocking aspect of India’s reply was the unbeaten knock of 36 runs made by Sunil Gavaskar, which came off 174 balls! Gavaskar’s batting had its impact on the entire Indian batting and bogged down other batsmen also, with the result that the total was abysmally low.

 Kapil Dev
Former Indian captain Kapil Dev. File photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

India did not go into the 1975 World Cup with any big expectations but no one had been prepared for the flop-show that took place at Lord’s. This made India and Gavaskar the laughing stock of world cricket and even the big win against East Africa in the next match did not help to improve matters. There was an enquiry into this game and Gavaskar’s batting after the championship ended but its findings were not made public by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. This would rank as the worst ever batting performance in the history of limited overs cricket and has remained a sore point with Gavaskar ever since. 

Before concluding, it merits mention that there have been occasional positive developments also during the first fortnight of the month of June. India defeated England in the first Test of the series in 1986 at Lord’s, with the victory coming on June 10. This win was fashioned by skipper Kapil Dev, whose incisive spell demolished England in the second innings, and Dilip Vengsarkar, whose century held the Indian batting together.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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