Indian Cricket, as we see it today as a mark of financial and administrative power in the form of BCCI, or a bank of unbelievably talented group of individuals both in the team and the bench, came through its own journey of slow starts, huge losses and of course marvellous moments of glory. There were heroes, there were men who stood tall against even taller oppositions and found a permanent place in the annals of Indian Cricketing History. This essay will recount one such glorious moment when the apparently weaker Indian cricket team took on the mighty English team and won, not only the game but the hearts of the cricket fans all over the world. The historic match (from India’s perspective) was played almost 50 years back during the thrid week of August in the Kennington Oval, south of London (August 19- 24, 1971). That particular match had almost everything one could possibly wish for, great individual performances, tactical gamesmanship, little cameos, code-language-suggestions and even a superstitious ritual.
Indian team’s manager Heemu Adhikari recalled later how the fans somehow managed to bring Bella, an elephant was borrowed from Chessington Zoo and brought her to the Oval during one of the breaks of the match, something the Indian team of 1971 saw as a lucky omen. More so because that event, almost miraculously coincided with the Ganesh Chaturthi, an auspicious day to celebrate and worship the Hindu deity, Lord Ganesha. Whether that omen worked or not will always remain a matter of conjecture but the incident will remain inseparable with India’s huge victory. The victory was huge because it established many first milestones for Indian cricket team. This was the first time India won a Test match on English soil. It was the first time in, 28 Tests since June 1968 that England was defeated and it was also the first time that Indian cricket team came out victorious in two series in one year, having conquered the West Indies earlier.
But the start wasn’t that rosy for the Indian cricket team. In their first innings, England amassed a formidable total of 355 with bowlers like Ray Illingworth, Derek Underwood and John Snow to trouble the Indian batters. Indians didn’t start that well in their first innings. There were looking straight down the barrel with a paltry score of 125 with half their main batters back in the pavilion. Having lost the wickets of master batsmen like Sunil Gavaskar, Ashok Mankad, skipper Ajit Wadekar, Dilip Sardesai and Gundappa Viswanath they were hoping for some heroics from the lower order hard hitting batsmen, and that it came with flair. The flamboyant wicket-keeper batsman Farokh Engineer (scored 59) and Eknath Solkar (scored 44) rescued the visitors with a gutsy 97 run partnership for the sixth wicket. Riding on their grit and flair India eventually made 284. A lead of 69 runs in the second innings for the Englishmen were not a paltry one and their batters could easily had taken the match away. But perhaps a horse came in for some help. Much later the great Indian leg-spinner Bhagwat Chandrashekhar would recount the funny incident, “I was walking back to my run-up and Dilip Sardesai shouted “Hey Chandra, bowl him ‘Mill Reef’.” He also added that there was a horse called Mill Reef in England, which was winning all the big races and it had unbelievable speed. With those faster deliveries Chandrasekhar weaved his magic, taking 6 for 38 to spin out England for just 101, leaving India with 173 to get on the final day. That performance is still hailed as one of the best ever by an Indian spinner on foreign soil.
Chasing the small target, India perhaps couldn’t have a a worse start, losing six wickets quickly. But the ever-so-gritty captain Wadekar scored a defiant 45, ably supported by Dilip Sardesai’s 40, Gundappa Viswanath’s 33 and Farokh Engineer’s unbeaten 28 that took them home in 101 overs. Much later Engineer would recall proudly, “We put India on the cricketing map, 1971 was a great year for Indian cricket. Earlier that year, we beat the West Indies in their own den for the first time.” He continued, “What a series that was, especially that Oval test ! I remember we were in trouble in the first innings, before my partnership with Ekki (Solkar) changed the fortunes and saw us through. I told Ekki, let’s fight for every run. And he responded brilliantly.”
An example of tactical gamesmanship was also displayed by Farokh Engineer in the second innings of English batters. He managed to prevent the English wicketkeeper Allan Knott from touching the bails – a ritual which Knott religiously followed every time he walked in to bat. Somehow rattled by that distraction Knott, who scored a 90 in the first innings, was dismissed by Srinivas Venkataraghavan for just one in the second innings! Farokh recounted, “I later let him touch the bails. We were fierce rivals. He was my deputy wicket-keeper, since I was the main wicket-keeper for the World XI games. He was a very good friend, and we had tremendous respect for each other”.
During India’s chase to victory, G.R. Viswanath was dismissed with just 4 runs to get for victory. Farokh Engineer told Abid Ali that Bishan & Chandra weren’t exactly great with the bat, so they shouldn’t take any chances. The first ball that Abid faced, he charged down the track only for Knott to miss the stumping chance. That was the ride of luck which the Indians needed. Abid Ali though, did get a scolding from Engineer who shouted, “Kya kar raha hai ?( What are you doing ? ) We still have a lot of time left to win.” Calmed down by that reprimand, the next ball, Abid late-cut it through the point region and before the ball could reach the fence, the crowd came rushing in the ground and the umpires declared a boundary. Abid had faced four balls but because he hit the winning stroke, he was carried by Indian supporters who were overjoyed and spellbound after the match.
Standing behind the stumps, Engineer had the best seat in the house as he saw Chandrasekhar demolish England in a mesmerising spell of leg spin bowling. He recounted “Chandra was absolutely brilliant, as always. On that day, he was even better. In my opinion, he was the best spinner to play for India. The beauty about Chandra was that he never realised how good he was. He was a freak case, a polio victim. At most times, he himself didn’t know where the ball was going to land, but being a keeper, I could watch the ball, and perhaps knew more than him what the ball was going to do! He was truly a great bowler. He was a lovely unassuming guy. What added to Chandra’s effectiveness in that series and test was Solkar’s electric fielding. He is the best close- in- fielder India have ever had”.
Yes those wonderful heroes did put India on the map as the legacy was carried on by the future stalwarts.