Column | Summer of 42 - when Indian cricket touched its nadir

Sudhir Naik
Sudhir Naik was accused of shoplifting during the tour of England in 1974. File photo: AFP/Sam Panthkay

As a keen follower of cricket from the early 1970s, one can remember the many highs and lows that Indian cricket touched during the last 50-plus years. The most redeeming aspect of this journey is that the highs have become more frequent in recent years, especially after the turn of the century, despite the ever increasing expectations from the national squad. The lows have fortunately become increasingly infrequent, though they tend to appear when least expected. More importantly, India has come to be accepted as the powerhouse of world cricket, with its financial muscle lending considerable power in the board rooms of the International Cricket Council (ICC) while the national sides, both men and women, perform with aplomb in all major championships.

When one looks back, there have been many moments of shame. The first World Cup in 1975 when we could muster only 134 runs in the allotted 60 overs, the second one where we failed to win even a single game, the 2007 edition that saw us getting knocked out during the league phase itself, the whitewash in the Test series in 1999-2000 in Australia, the dismissal for 36 at Adelaide in 2020 etc. But by far the worst one was the drubbing suffered in England in 1974, where we not only blanked 0-3 in the three-Test series but also had to suffer the ignominy for being dismissed for 42 in the second innings of the second Test. The squad also faced humiliation off the field on multiple occasions, with allegation of shoplifting against a team member and being ordered to leave a reception hosted by the High Commissioner. There were also reports of severe dissension among the players and one of them had to face disciplinary action at the end of the tour. Thus, the Summer of 42, as this series came to be known, remains one of the darkest episodes in the history of Indian cricket.

The Indian squad had landed in London in April, 1974, with plenty of goodwill. “Ajit Wadekar and his team of champions are back” welcomed a newspaper headline, when the side landed at Heathrow airport. Expectations from the team was high as they had won three back to back series - two abroad in 1971 against the West Indies and England - and one at home against England in 1972-73. The spin quartet comprising Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (Chandra), Bishan Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan (Venkat) had established themselves as one of the best in the business. They were backed a group of sharp catchers in fielding positions close to the bat led by Eknath Solkar at forward short leg, Abid Ali at short fine leg, Venkat at gully, Wadekar at first slip and Farokh Engineer behind the stumps. On the batting front, the side could boast of the presence of Sunil Gavaskar at the top of the order and Gundappa Viswanath in the middle order besides seasoned willow-wielders such as Wadekar, Engineer, Solkar and the new entrants Brijesh Patel and Sudhir Naik. 

The team began the tour on a decent note, performing with reasonable success in the first-class matches prior to the opening Test. The first test at Old Trafford, Manchester, was affected by rain and India were unfortunate to be at the receiving end of the bad weather for the most part. Despite a brilliant century by Gavaskar and a fighting rock of 71 by Abid Ali, the visitors finished 82 runs behind England in the first innings. Mike Denness, the England skipper, declared his side’s second innings before start of play on last day, leaving India a target of 296. Though India began well and crossed 100 by lunch, losing only two wickets, they collapsed after that to leave England winners by 113 runs. This was a match that India could have saved had the batsmen applied themselves better as only six of the 20 mandatory overs of the last day remained when the last Indian wicket fell. Except Gavaskar and Viswanath, who made half-centuries, none of the other batsmen put a big price on their wicket. 

Wadekar & Chandra
It was a stark contrast for Indian skipper Ajit Wadekar, right, and B S Chandrasekhar from the highs of 1971. File photo: IANS

England were thus on a high when the second Test started at Lord’s on June 20. India’s fortunes took a bad hit when Chandra hurt his foot while bowling his 10th over and could not bowl again in the match. So the brunt of the bowling fell on the shoulders of Bedi and Prasanna as Abid Ali and Madan Lal were not able to make any impression on the England batsmen. Dennis Amiss, Mike Denness and Tony Grieg scored centuries while John Edrich fell only four short of the three figure mark as England ran up a mammoth total of 629. Bedi, who invited criticism for flighting the ball even when the England batsmen were attacking relentlessly, picked up 6/226, while Prasanna returned figures of 2/166.

India began their reply well with Gavaskar and Engineer putting on 131 runs for the first wicket before the former was run out. None of the batsmen who followed could do well, except Viswanath, who again struck an elegant 50, as the side was bundled out for 302 runs before the close of play on third day. When play commenced of day four, there was a big cloud cover which helped Geoff Arnold and Chris Old, the England new-ball bowlers, to swing the ball prodigiously. Indian batsmen came a cropper against the moving ball and wickets fell in a heap, with only Solkar putting up any resistance. Before one could realise what was happening, the Indian innings folded up for 42 runs, in a mere 17 overs, with Old taking 5/21 runs and Arnold bagging 4/19. 

Even worse was to follow in the third Test that took place at Birmingham. In a match where rain on day one reduced the game to a four-day affair, India were dismissed for 165 in the first innings, with Engineer top- scoring with 64. In reply, England amassed 459 losing just two wickets when skipper Denness declared the innings closed. Though India did slightly better in their second outing, reaching 216, with the debutant Naik hitting a stylish 77, the end result was not different as the side lost by an innings and 78 runs in under two-and a-half days. 

While the defeat at Lord’s could be attributed to a brilliant spell of bowling that caught the Indian batsmen off guard, there was no excuse for the spineless performance in the last Test. It was evident that the side was only going through the motions and most of the players, with the possible exception of Naik and couple of others, did not have their minds on the game. Wadekar had lost his grip over the side so completely that he appeared a pale shadow of the leader who so successfully navigated the fortunes of the side in 1971.

In between the second and third Test, the unfortunate episode of allegation of shoplifting surfaced against Naik. He had gone shopping to one of the big supermarkets and bought socks for himself and his teammates. When these were presented for billing, one pair was missed out by accident  and this was picked up by the sensor at the exit. The security informed the police who arrived and charged Naik with attempt at stealing and shoplifting. Though his explanation that this was missed out by oversight as he had paid for all the remaining items was a plausible one, this was not accepted by the authorities. Unfortunately, the Indian team management led by manager Hemu Adhikari advised Naik to plead guilty hoping that issue could be closed without any publicity. Despite his better sense, Naik pleaded guilty and this was recorded in the court. Unfortunately this news was leaked to a reporter of a tabloid who published it, leading to all round embarrassment for the side and to the entire nation. Poor Naik could never live down this shame and was haunted by this episode for the rest of his cricketing career. He passed away last year.

The last unsavoury incident in this sordid saga took place at the reception hosted for the team by the High Commissioner. of India to the United Kingdom. Due to some extremely bad planning, the team management fixed up two functions for the same evening. The first was organised by State Bank of India, who employed six members of the squad, and second was the one hosted by the High Commissioner. Whosoever had chalked this out had not factored in the bad traffic in central London in the evening on a working day. The end result was that the team reached the venue of High Commissioner’s reception an hour late. This angered His Excellency, who asked them to leave when Wadekar reported to him on arrival. Though better sense soon prevailed and the team was invited back inside, the damage was done as the snub was delivered in full view of the invited gathering, resulting in this news spreading like wildfire across the globe. This was an instance that did not cover either the squad or the High Commissioner, who is expected to be a model of sobriety and statecraft, with glory.

Wadekar’s cup of woe was full when news reached that his house was stoned and there were protests in many parts of India about the bad performance of the team. This issue was even raised in Indian Parliament, where concerns over the poor show by the side was discussed by the agitated members. The side returned to India in small groups under the cover of secrecy and anonymity, a far cry from the pomp that had accompanied their departure to England.

This series spelt the end of Wadekar’s cricketing career. It was clear that Board of Control for Cricket in India did not wish to retain him either as captain or as a member of the national side. This was made known in no uncertain terms when he was dropped from the West Zone side for Duleep Trophy. A hugely chastened Wadekar announced his retirement from all grades of cricket at this juncture. Bedi was penalised for some remarks he made to the media and dropped from the side for the first Test of the series that followed, where India took the field under Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. Still India could not reverse the bad luck of 1974 as the team lost the first two Tests of the series that were played in that year. A comeback could be managed only in the third Test, which was won not in 1974, but on the first day of January, 1975!

Monday (June 24) marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous Test at Lord’s when Indian cricket touched its nadir on the field. One hopes that such bad times will not visit us ever in future and fans of the present generation will be spared the agony and sense of humiliation felt by us in those dark days.

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

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