India and Australia had played their first Test match against each other in 1947, 15-years after India’s debut in Tests and three months after she became a free nation. But in 1979, thirty-two years later, India was still waiting for her maiden series win against the men from down under.
The Last WSC era Australian team arrives in India
When an inexperienced Australian side, depleted by the ‘Packer effect’ toured India under Kim Hughes, the stars finally seemed aligned for the breaking of this jinx. The fact that the side had sailed to India after losing the Ashes 5-1 and drawn against Pakistan 1-1 the previous summer had not escaped the notice of the discerning cricket lovers in India. But could they even imagine the unthinkable? Could this be the moment they had been waiting for through the dark years of six series losses out of seven? O would this dream remain unfulfilled?
The fans in India were aware that the best players in the world were in Australia playing what was then described as a “cricketing circus” which no one was watching (at least at the start) while a bunch of unknown men with long hair and extraordinary moustaches were purporting to represent Australia against a strong Indian side.
What the fans were not aware of was that this bunch of players was not only inexperienced and relatively unknown, but also unhappy and unwilling visitors on Indian shores. They didn’t like the touring conditions and they didn’t like how the ACB was treating them as far as money was concerned. Border was to remark after the tour about the conditions they faced: “12 weeks of complete cricket culture shock”. This was after “subsisting on diets composed largely of tinned fruit, boiled water and the odd tin of imported Swan Lager.” as Daniel Brettig was to describe in an article titled ‘Australian cricket’s two Indias’ in ESPN Cricinfo earlier this year. The financial issues would be solved a few months later when WSC was disbanded, Packer got his television rights from the ACB, and the players got their money. The tour conditions they would have to live through.
But these facts would only emerge later.
Kim Hughes, the appointed captain for the tour in place of Graham Yallop who had led the team the previous summer, was cautiously optimistic (at least publicly) before leaving Australian shores: “It will be a great experience for us to play in India — an Australian team hasn’t been there for 10 years. It will be a real challenge as India is certain to be very hard to beat on its home grounds… We will have plenty of eye-catching performances in both batting and bowling and I’m sure paceman Rodney Hogg is going to be a success on Indian wickets along with spinners Jim Higgs, Peter Sleep and Bruce Yardley. I feel that players of the class of all-rounder Allan Border, batsmen Rick Darling and Graham Yallop and hopefully myself, will produce efforts that will win us matches and also please the crowds.”
A sedate start to the tour
When the teams met in the late summer heat of Madras on September 11 that year, the Australians were ironically more used to the conditions having been in the country for about 2 weeks than the Indians who had come over straight from a series in England. Mainly on the back of superb centuries from Allan Border and Kim Hughes, Australia piled up 390 with debutant left-arm spinner Dilip Doshi picking up 6 for 103.
In response, India scored 425 with virtually the whole team contributing with the bat, with Kapil Dev’s 83, Dilip Vengsarkar’s 65 and fifties from Syed Kirmani and Sunil Gavaskar deserving special mention. Australian spinner Jim Higgs scalped 7 batsmen for 143. The match however petered out into a tame draw with the Aussies at 212 for the loss of 7 wickets at the end. The second Test at Bangalore was to run on similar lines with Australia scoring 333, India responding with 457 for 5 declared and the visitors finishing on 77 for 3 at stumps on the last day.
India tastes first blood at Kanpur
The teams came to Kanpur’s Green Park and a pitch that had traditionally provided some early assistance to pacers. It was also a landmark moment in Indian cricket history as an era that started with a Tiger Pataudi induced domination by Indian spinners ended at Kanpur, when the last of the quartet of Indian tweakers, Venkataraghavan, was dropped from the side.
With a string of 400 plus scores in the bag, India won the toss, elected to bat first, and was bowled out for 271 despite a 114 run opening stand between Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan. Hogg and Dymock, opening the bowling, picked up 9 wickets between them with seven Indian batsmen failing to score more than 5. Australia responded with 304 taking a small lead of 33. India scored 311 in their second innings leaving the Aussies 279 runs to win what would be a morale-boosting victory if they could pull it off.
It wasn’t to be, however. First Kapil Dev and Karsan Ghavri ran through the Australian top order leaving them reeling at 49 for 4 and then Shivlal Yadav who had made his debut in the previous Test at Bangalore alongside Venkataraghavan, ran through the rest of the batting, and Australia were 125 all out. India had their lead in the series.
The next two Tests at Delhi and Kolkata were also drawn despite a declaration from Kim Hughes at Eden leaving India 247 to win with approximately 65 overs left on the final day. India declined to chase that after early loss of wickets.
Down one nil, with this side, was a series result that the Australians could live with at the end of the long tour. But there was still the match at Bombay to be negotiated. This then was the situation the two teams were faced with when they arrived at the Wankhede to face off for a final time in the sixth Test of the series.
The Final Test and series decider
India won the toss again and elected to bat first. In front of his home crowd cheering every shot, Gavaskar was in his elements. He and Chauhan put on another marathon opening stand before Chauhan was dismissed for 73 with India’s score at 192. As often happened with India, a mini middle order collapse followed until a stunning 127 run partnership between Syed Kirmani (scoring a scintillating century) and Karsan Ghavri choosing the moment and his home ground to play his best Test innings hammering 86 with three huge sixes. Gavaskar declared the innings closed at 458 for 8, leaving the Aussies an hour or so to negotiate on the second day.
Despite their long stay in the subcontinent that summer, at the Wankhede that November, the Australians found themselves unable to handle the wily Dilip Doshi and the guile of Shivlal Yadav. The two spinners between them picked up 9 wickets and Australia was dismissed for 160. Not surprisingly, with the tourists 298 runs behind, Gavaskar did not hesitate to impose the follow on.
By the time Rick Darling was felled by a Kapil Dev bouncer and lay worryingly motionless on the pitch, the Australians had lost the plot both physically and mentally. As they had done gamely through the six-Test series, Kim Hughes and Allan Border waged a lonely battle. Border came in at the fall of Hilditch’s wicket with the Australian score at 11 and was the last but one man to get out having batted for four hours to score 61 while Hughes made a brave 80 off 144 balls in a total score of 198. It was too little too late as Kapil Dev and Dilip Doshi ran through the batting picking up nine wickets and no other batsman reached double figures.
India had finally won a series against Australia 45- years after Colonel CK Nayadu led the first set of 11 Indian players out for a Test match in England, and 32-years after they first faced the men from down under.
The Significance of the Series Win
Until 1979-80, India and Australia had played seven Test series of which Australia had won six and one had been drawn. After 1979-80, the two teams have played eighteen series of which India has won eight and Australia have won six.
The 1979-80 series victory may have come against an Aussie team that was missing some superstars, but like all breakthroughs, this was a very significant one. The wounded tiger had scented blood. Thereafter, the hunted would turn hunter and the jungle would become a level playing field and ‘India versus Australia’ would become a rivalry that would challenge the pre-eminent position of the Ashes in the years to come.