India had not won a Test abroad till 1968 and had had no success in their previous six Test tours of England. However, under their new captain Ajit Wadekar, India had defeated West Indies in an away series that very year in early 1971. The victory in that series was built around the incredible batting sensation debutant Sunil Gavaskar, and old experienced hand Dilip Sardesai who scored 774 and 642 runs respectively to beat Gary Sobers’ XI.
Having conquered the Caribbean giants, Ajit Wadekar’s India were now headed to England in the Summer of ’71. England were arguably the best cricket team in the world at that point of time. Earlier in the summer, they had managed to defeat a mercurial Pakistan 1-0 and were coming into the series with India with 24 Tests without defeat on the trot. They were to extend it to a record 26 Test matches before losing the third Test finally to India. And therein hangs a tale, told and retold many times over the years, but now starting to be somewhat lost in the folds of time. What better time than now to recount what happened 5o years ago than today as India played New Zealand to be world champions in Tests.
India played three Test matches that summer in England, and surprisingly won the series 1-0, with two Tests drawn. This was India's first ever series win in England. The First Test at Lord's and the Second Test at Old Trafford were drawn. India then pulled off a historic win in the Third Test at The Oval by 4 wickets after being 71 runs behind on first innings. They bowled England out for only 101 in the second innings with magician Bhagwat Chandrasekhar claiming 6-38.
England were a strong side. Actually, that is a bit of an understatement. Led by the shrewd Ray Illingworth, they boasted a fine balance, including in their ranks batsmen of the calibre of Brian Luckhurst, Geoff Boycott, John Edrich, John Jameson, Keith Fletcher, Basil D'Oliveira and Dennis Amiss. The bowling, manned by John Snow, John Price, Peter Lever, Richard Hutton, Illingworth, D'Oliveira, Norman Gifford and Derek Underwood, had the right blend of speed and subtlety. And of course there was Alan Knott, who behind the stumps or in front of them was a force to reckon with.
Wadekar lost the toss in all three Tests and the Indian batsmen had to play in conditions favourable to bowlers, complete with interruptions for rain and bad light, in both the first and second Tests. Past Indian teams had succumbed meekly under such circumstances, but there was a steely resolve about Wadekar’s side. India may have actually been a trifle fortunate in that rain washed out the final day of the second Test with England in a commanding position. Needing 420 to win, India were 65 for 3 at stumps on the fourth day. Rain also curtailed the first Test at Lord's with India needing 38 runs for victory with two wickets in hand. That match could have gone either way.
In the first Test, India bowled England out for 304 in the first innings. In reply they scored 313 gaining a first innings lead of 9 runs, only the second time India had led England in a Test overseas. The Indian spin trio of Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Bishen Singh Bedi and Chandrasekhar had a combined 9-wicket haul in the first innings and got into action again to bowl England out for 191 in their second innings. Needing only 183 to win, India however slipped to 145-8 at tea on the final day and were thankful for the rain which prevented any further play.
Gavaskar and Eknath Solkar with scores of 57 and 50 respectively were the only ones to offer some resistance in India’s reply of 212 to England’s score of 386 in the first innings of the second Test.
England’s ferocious pace attack led by John Price and John Lever took India to 65-3 in pursuit of a target of 420. Ajit Wadekar, sitting in the pavilion, gratefully accepted the rain as a God-send - it washed out the last day.
India’s triumvirate of spinners gave away runs in excess of three runs-per-over as England racked up 355 on the first day of the third Test. The second day was washed out due to rain. India responded with 284, thanks to fifties from Dilip Sardesai and Faroukh Engineer, along with some useful contributions from the tail.
From thereon it was Chandra’s show. He first ran out John Jameson, England’s second highest run-scorer from the first innings. Next he got John Edrich in a divine delivery that is part of cricket folklore.
England’s left-handed No. 3 stepped forward, put down his bat in a perfect forward defence, only to find the ball had glided through his defences and hit middle and off! Solkar’s superhuman catching skills at bat-pad were on display next ball as he snaffled up a sharp catch to dismiss Keith Fletcher and England were 24/3 at lunch on the fourth day, but still leading by 95. Then Basil D’Oliveira and Derek Underwood played rash shots and fell to catches in the deep. Captain Ray Illingworth and then John Snow hit a full toss and a half volley straight back to Chandrasekhar. Both gone. Solkar dived forward to take another stunner to remove Alan Knott off the leg-spinner’s bowling. When Chandrasekhar trapped the No. 11 Price in front, England were 101 all out and B S Chandrashekhar had taken 6/38!
But the game was not yet won. Needing just 173 for a famous win, India started with Gavaskar getting a duck. Ashok Mankad scored a 74-ball 11. Wadekar was run out first thing next morning. Sardesai, Gundappa Viswanath and Engineer played knocks that took India closer. Viswanath was out with four runs to win and finally Abid Ali hit the square cut which gave India their first ever Test series win in England!
The day of India’s win actually coincided with Ganesh Chaturthi that day. A group of Indian supporters had arranged for a three-year-old elephant named Bella from a nearby zoo to romp around the field. In really Lord Ganesh had perhaps come down to bless India … 50 years on India is currently in battle for the WTC crown! Long long way from that epic 1-0 win in England in 1971.
(This is the concluding piece of a two part series on a flashback to 1971.)
Dr. Sandeep Goyal, Managing Director of Rediffusion, has been a keen follower of the game for well over 50 years.