An epic knock at the Oval……
Through much of the 1960s and 1970s, the battle for Indian pride on the cricket fields around the world, was fought largely by its spin doctors. The successes, rare as they were, could be quickly traced to those crucial wickets that broke the back of the feared opposition batsmen. The first ever overseas series victory in 1966-67 in New Zealand was the coming of age of Erapalli Prasanna. The sole Test victory in 1971 at Port of Spain that brought home the first series win in West Indies was engineered by the two wickets of Clive Lloyd and Garry Sobers from the enigmatic Salim Durani. But for Chandra’s 6 for 38 at the Oval in 1971, the triumphant return to India of Wadekar’s all-conquering team would have been impossible.
Hidden by these significant but all so infrequent triumphs, were two decades of indifferent batting performances when the pleas of the Spin Quartet to provide them 250 runs to bowl at, fell on deaf ears. Indeed interspersed with some largely inconsistent batting were innings of sheer unadulterated brilliance, but these were few and far between.
In this period, Gundappa Vishwanath, Tiger Pataudi, Ajit Wadekar, Mohinder Amarnath and a few others played innings’ that could be described as sheer genius. Farokh Engineer and Salim Durani cut loose at times with stunning ferocity on unsuspecting bowlers. But these occasions were disappointingly infrequent.
Early in the 1970s however, the nation found one man who prized his wicket like no Indian had done before, scored runs with technical ability, preciseness and most importantly a consistency rarely seen from an Indian batsman. With 774 runs against the mighty West Indies in his debut series, Sunil Manohar Gavaskar had already signalled he was someone special, and over the next decade and a half, he would become the foundation on which modern Indian batting would build its future.
The English Summer Of 1979
India toured England in 1979 immediately after the second Prudential World Cup, which had for the second time been won by the West Indies. It had been a largely forgettable tournament for the Indians, who lost all three matches including to minnows Sri Lanka, at the time not yet a Test playing country.
After the tournament, the summer, as late English summers are won’t do, had become warmer and drier. But the sun had failed to shine on the Indians who only managed to win one of their 16 first-class tour matches. After a heavy defeat in the first of the four Tests, they had drawn the next two. The fourth and final Test was to be held at The Oval, the scene of India’s 1971 triumph.
While that may have been of some comfort to the battered team, the reality of 1979 was that it had so far been a much closer parallel to the disaster of 1974 (also known by Indian fans as the Summer of ‘42 thanks to India’s batting collapse leading to that infamous total). And then the teams came to The Oval for the fourth and final Test.
The battle for the Oval
Sunil Gavaskar had gone three Tests without scoring a century. Fans in India were suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms. It was true that he had scored 61 and 68 in the innings defeat at Edgbaston, 42 (out of 96) and 59 at Lord’s (Vengsarkar and Viswanath had scored hundreds to save the rain-interrupted Test), 78 at Headingley and 13 in the first innings at The Oval. But the century continued to elude him, and without it, India of the 1970’s had little chance of squaring the series.
By the time the fourth innings came around at The Oval, there was little to suggest that anything would change.
In fact, until then it had been a relatively sedate match. England had taken a 103-run lead, and after they had a minor collapse in the second innings, a typically dour century from Geoff Boycott and some lusty hits from debutant David Bairstow had allowed Mike Brearley to declare on the fourth afternoon and set India 438 runs to get in 500 minutes.
Few believed an Indian side that had only passed 300 seven times in 15 tour matches had a chance of chasing down what was a record target. The jury was out on whether they could bat out a draw against an attack comprising Bob Willis, Ian Botham, Mike Hendrick, Peter Willey and Phil Edmonds, formidable on any pitch, particularly an English one.
It was a huge relief t the fans in the stadium and on radios back home in India when Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan walked off together at stumps on the fourth day with India’s score at 76. When they walked back in the next morning, India needed 362 on the final day in six hours – virtually run a minute. The sparse crowd at The Oval settled down for a day when the only expected entertainment was from England’s battery of fast bowlers, aided by the spin of Edmunds.
Things would, however, turn out a bit differently. Writing in ESPN Cricinfo years later Martin Williamson would say, “I headed there [to the Oval] with the arrogant teenage expectation of an easy England win, so much so that I arranged to meet friends in central London at 5pm. So enthralling was the finale of the match that I forgot all about the rendezvous until much later in the evening.”
After three hours at the crease, Gavaskar and Chauhan had put on 137 runs and the match appeared to be heading towards the inevitable third result. It was then that Willis broke through, ending Chauhan’s stay at the crease. Chauhan had scored 80. India needed 225 to win in three hours, with nine wickets in hand. The opening stand of 213 had been ten more than the previous Indian record of 203 against England – set by Vijay Merchant and Mushtaq Ali at Old Trafford in 1936.
The dismissal of Chauhan marked a change of gears in the batting Ferrari called Gavaskar. In the company of his young Mumbai teammate Dilip Vengsarkar, Gavaskar launched an attack on the English bowlers, at one stage hitting the 6’4” tall Bob Willis straight over his head. By tea, India were 304 for 1 and the crowd had grown sizeably. The unthinkable had started to become a possibility.
Beer addled English brains were being jolted by a dual assault – the fierceness of the Indian willow on the field and the cacophony of recently found Indian voices in the stands. The little man with an outsized heart and seemingly enormous sweet spot on his bat, was taking the fight to Brearley’s complacent men.
After tea, the astute captain that he was, with his two main bowlers Willis and Botham impotent against this assault, and tiring, Mike Brearley did what many before him had done, and slowed the game down to a crawl. The crowd jeered. Brearley remained unmoved. In the half hour between tea and the start of the mandatory overs, England bowled just six overs…with their spinners, Peter Willey and Phil Edmonds.
At the start of the mandatory overs, India was on 328 for 1, needing 110 with nine wickets in hand. The chase was on. The lid on the English coffin appeared to be descending faster when the dependable Ian Botham dropped a skier from Vengsarkar, and Gavaskar marched to his double century. With 12 overs to go, India was 366 for 1, needing 76 for a win.
Then as it often does in cricket, two things happened in quick succession that would change everything. Completely against the run of play, Vengsarkar drove Edmunds straight into Botham’s hands in a soft dismissal completely unlike him. And then, in his anxiety to win the game, captain S. Venkataraghavan, otherwise an astute and attacking captain, made a fatal mistake, changing the batting order.
Due next was the man, who often in Gavaskar’s company, and sometimes all by himself, had taken India to some remarkable victories – Gundappa Vishwanath. Viswanath and Gavaskar had both scored hundreds when India had chased down 403, the second-highest target in Test history, in the Caribbean three years earlier.
Yajuvindra Singh, a middle-order batsman, recounts what happened in the dressing room: “There were five of us padded up and none of us knew which of us was next in.”
Instead of Vishy, young Kapil Dev, in his first full season in Test cricket, walked in. Five balls later, he was walking back for a duck. Venkat’s gamble on youth had failed. And still, there was no sign of Vishy. Instead, Yashpal Sharma strode in.
By this time, Mike Brearley had realised that the psychological tide was his to turn. He later wrote in The Art of Captaincy: ”it was not merely second-guessing that made me think the change in their order had been a mistake”.
Ian Botham came back into the attack. 49 was now needed from 8 overs, but this was the kind of situation that Botham thrived on. All day he had been ineffective, but with the stakes at their highest, he upped his game and ripped through the Indian batting.
In Botham’s first over, Gavaskar, concentration wavering just for a moment, clipped a half-volley low to David Gower at mid-on. His 221 had lasted eight hours and ten minutes and had come off 443 deliveries. It had been an innings for the ages, but it had stopped short of the finishing line. The question was whether the other batsmen possessed the character to breach that tape. The Wisden report of the match provided a clue to what happened next: “His cool control of the developing crisis was missed by India as much as his runs,” it said.
Vishwanath finally came in at the score of 389 for 5 and kept the chase alive with 15 from 11 balls, before driving Willey to Brearley in the covers, who held on to a low catch. Then Botham removed Yajuvindra and Yashpal in successive overs. Botham’s final four overs had brought him rich pickings of 3 for 17. In an attempt to take back responsibility upon his shoulders, Venkataraghavan then promoted himself above Ghavri. Venkat was no slouch as a batsman, but he was unfortunate to be run out by some excellent fielding by Botham, who now seemed omnipresent on the field, wherever the Indian batsmen cast their eyes.
Wicketkeeper Bharath Reddy and Ghavri were together for the last over of the match. India needed 15 to win with two wickets in hand. With one ball to go and 9 runs to get, at India’s score of 429 for 8, the captains agreed to a draw, Brearley with relief and Venkat in anguish. In the end, the result had perhaps been the fairest one given how the match had swung back and forth.
The Significance of Gavaskar’s Innings at The Oval
With the draw at The Oval, India lost the 1979 series 0-1. Venkat lost his captaincy and was replaced by Gavaskar.
While he had not succeeded in taking India home in what would have been the greatest chase in the history of Test cricket, Gavaskar’s 221 and his complete belief in himself and his side to overhaul 438 against Brearley’s mighty Englishmen would be a lesson future Indian sides would not easily forget when they had their backs against the wall.
Twenty-two years later, this change in attitude would manifest itself in perhaps the greatest Test innings ever played. Showing the kind of resolve and dedication Gavaskar would be proud of, opening the innings at Eden Gardens in Kolkata after following on against Australia, VVS Laxman with an innings of 281 not out, in the company of an equally determined Rahul Dravid, would bat India into the most unlikely come-from-behind victory in the history of Test cricket.
Sitting in the commentary box, Sunil Manohar Gavaskar would raise his fists in triumph, a pleasure he had been denied that September evening of 1979.