There has always been something special about the India-Australia relationship as far as cricket is concerned.
Three months after wresting political independence from England in 1947, it was to Australia that India sent her first post-independence team for a Test series in late 1947. In that 5-Test series, the minnows would lose 4-0 to a team that would in a few months’ time sail to England and earn the sobriquet of The Invincibles. It would also be the series that would give rise to the infamous term ‘Mankading’, earning Vinoo Mankad a dubious entry into the history books.
It would be eight long years however before Australia would return the favour and send a touring party to India to play a 3-Test series in 1956. Australia would win that series 2-0.
So in 1959, when the Aussies again landed on Indian shores, this time to play just two Tests, there was no reason to believe that their unblemished record would look any different at the end of the series. Given that India came into the series having lost 10 of her previous 13 Tests and Australia arrived having won 12 of last 17 losing none (beating South Africa 3-0 in South Africa, West Indies 3-0 in West Indies, England 4-0, and becoming the first team to beat Pakistan in Pakistan the previous month), the result of the series appeared to be a foregone conclusion. An Aussie victory by an innings and 127 runs in the first Test at Delhi only added to the inevitability of it all.
And then the teams came to Kanpur.
GS Ramchand was leading an Indian side low on achievements and short on confidence. What Ramchand had going for him, however, was the wily Lala Amarnath in his corner as the chairman of selectors. Kanpur had a newly laid turf pitch to replace the traditional matting wicket that teams visiting Kanpur had experienced in the past. The turf had been treated with river water containing grains of sand. Amarnath figured that the only chance India had against the rampaging Aussies was to surprise them with the unexpected.
Ramchand recalled later the conversation between Amarnath and himself: “The choice was between Kripal Singh and Jasu Patel. Lalaji and I went to see the wicket. There was not a blade of grass on the strip. He asked me who do I want. I said Kripal would be an asset as he can bat too. However, since Kripal was also away from cricket, we decided on Jasu, as he was an orthodox spinner and we felt he could exploit the conditions better.”
Jasu Patel actually was actually far from being orthodox in the conventional sense. He had a whippy bowling action and used the seam to great effect, something that perhaps unfairly earned him mention decades later when the chucking controversy with Muttiah Muralitharan was at its peak. His strength was the ability to direct the ball at specific spots on the pitch, almost at will. Lala Amarnath’s decision would be either ill-conceived or inspired, based on how Patel performed on the Kanpur pitch. Thus far, he had played 4 Tests and taken 10 wickets in a career spanning five years. At the age of 35, with semi-grey hair bouncing on his head as he bowled, Patel had been pretty much semi-retired when he received the fateful call-up.
Ramchand won the toss, and with deepening certainty the longer he looked at the pitch that it would be a turner, he decided to bat first.
After a sedate start by Pankaj Roy and Nari Contractor that yielded 38-runs, it was all about the Aussie bowling. With Alan Davidson at the peak of his powers as an all-rounder and Richie Benaud at his best, taking 9-wickets between them on a track that was turning after the first hour, the Indian innings folded up for 152 after 70 overs.
When the Aussies came out to bat, as was to become the norm for the Indian teams of the period, Ramchand took himself and bowling partner Surendranath off after 10-overs, having given just enough time for the new ball to lose some of its shine. With a glance towards the pavilion where Amarnath was seated, he then threw the ball to Jasu Patel.
No miracle happened. Gavin Stevens eventually fell to Patel, miscuing a drive straight back to the bowler, but Neil Harvey came in and at lunch, Australia was in a strong position at 128 for 1 with Colin McDonald and Harvey going strong.
When Ramchand returned to the dressing room, however, he found an agitated Lala Amarnath pacing back and forth nearby, a pipe held firmly at the corner of his mouth. Not so subtly, Lala pointed out that Patel was bowling from the “wrong end” with the footmarks made by Davidson waiting to be exploited lying unused at the other.
After the break, the change was effected, and the transformation in Patel was almost miraculous.
The first ball spun and went through McDonald’s hitherto impregnable defence. Norm O’Neill joined Harvey and the two took the score to 149, although both struggled to read and play Patel. O’Neill miscued a ball to Bapu Nadkarni at mid-wicket who floored the catch. In hindsight, this could have been the wicket that put Jasu Patel’s name above Jim Laker’s in the annals of bowling, but as things would turn out, Neil Harvey would be bowled by Patel and Chandu Borde would get through the defence of O’Neill right after as O’Neill stepped out to hit Borde and was bowled, missing the flight completely.
McKay missed a straighter one from Patel and was lbw. Benaud, Jarman and Lindsay Kline followed in quick succession, and when Alan Davidson’s single-handed defiance came to an end with his middle stump knocked back and the last man Rorke was caught by Big off the next ball, Australia had gone from 149 for 2 to 219 all out.
Jasu Patel’s magical spell-binding spell had yielded 8 wickets for 24 runs and his final figures read 35.5-16-69-9.
Despite Patel’s heroics, when the Indian openers strode out to the wicket to begin their second innings, they were 67-runs behind.
The batting performance the second time around was however much improved. Nari Contractor (74), Borde (44), Ramnath Kenny (51) and Nadkarni (46) helped take care of the deficit and put on a sterling display to score 291. Alan Davidson once again bowled his heart out and finished with figures of 7 for 93, picking up a haul of 12 wickets for the match.
India had set Australia a target of 225 to win. It was not ideal, but Ramchand knew that getting 225 on this pitch was never going to be easy.
By the end of the fourth day, Jasu Patel had dismissed Stevens and Polly Umrigar also bowling his off-breaks had got the vital wicket of the dangerous Neil Harvey, once the youngest of The Invincibles, caught by Nadkarni at slip.
The next morning, before the first cup of chai had been sold in chilly Kanpur, Norm O’Neill was gone, caught by Nadkarni at leg-slip off a sharply turning off-break from Umrigar. McKay, Benaud, Jarman and Kline would not trouble the scorers. Umrigar would take four wickets and Patel would take five.
Chandru Borde was to later recall: “The Australians were staying with industrial magnate Singhania in his mansion. It had a swimming pool. Many Australian players were relaxing in the swimming pool on the final morning when they got the message that wickets were falling. They literally rushed to the ground in their towels.”
They were to find a veritable procession of Aussies floundering at the deep end of the proverbial pool at the centre of ground in Kanpur.
Meckiff remained not out on a dogged 14 and Colin McDonald carried his bat for 34. Australia was all out for 105 and India had her first victory in 10 attempts over the mighty Aussies.
Jasubhai Patel, an unheralded, semi-retired off-spinner from the textile town of Ahmedabad who had been called upon suddenly to play this Test, had magical figures of 14 for 124. Richie Benaud was to comment many years later: “Jasu Patel was not the greatest off spinner in the world. But that day, on that pitch, he was far too good for us.”
The Indian Government was to confer a Padma Shri on Jasu Patel alongside Vijay Hazare, making them the first recipients of the honour among Cricketers. The Indian Post Office was to them release a first day cover with his picture and achievements.
20-years after this magnificent bowling effort, at the age of 12. I was to find my first Cricketing hero from behind a copy of an Amar Chitra Katha that I still treasure, giving a one-page recap of a bowling spell by an otherwise unheralded Gujarati bowler not many outside India would recall.
It is a testimony to Jasu Patel’s unique spell however that it is still being discussed 58-years after the deed.