July 20, 2007

Memories of Ole Blighty

By H Natarajan

A cricket tour of England was regarded as something very special in the days bygone. And playing and succeeding at Lord’s was the dream of every international cricketer. That was as far as the romance and history of the game is concerned.

For a student of the game, England was the ultimate test. Cricket is widely accepted as a game that is biased towards the batsmen, but the heavy atmosphere and green wickets titled the scales heavily in favour of the bowlers – seamers, in particular - England. That is why batting feats in England remain etched in memory.

In the days when wickets were left uncovered and exposed to rains, batting became a nightmare. The ball moved a mile in the air and off the wicket and some of the best batsmen the world over have been made to look ordinary. And batting on a wicket that was in the process of drying, a bowler of the caliber of Derek Underwood was more dangerous than the seamers. The batsman had as much chances of surviving as someone inside a small pit with a venomous cobra! No wonder that Underwood’s nickname was “Deadly”.

It was in era of uncovered wickets that Vijay Merchant carved out one of the biggest batting success stories by a non-Englishman. On the tour of 1936, he scored 1746 runs (average 51.32). It was on this tour that he and Mushtaq Ali put up a stand of 203 for the first wicket in the Test at Manchester. One of his great batting exploits on this tour was his carrying his bat in both innings while scoring 135 and 77 against Lancashire. When he toured England again, ten years later, for what was one of the wettest summers, Merchant amassed 2385 runs at an average of 74 with five centuries and two double hundreds.

Merchant had won the hearts of the Englishmen. The legendary Charles Fry said during the tour of 1936: “Let us paint him (Merchant) white and take him with us to Australia as an opener.”

Then came the tour of 1952 tour. This visit is remembered for some of the worst moments in Indian cricket. In the first Test at Leeds, India were zero for four in an innings that finally saw five Indian batsmen dismissed for ducks. Then, in the third Test at Old Trafford, India were then shot out twice in a day for scores under 100 and for 98.

But one performance that shone brightly in the Indian ruins was that of Vinoo Mankad. He was playing in the Lancashire League when India sent him a SOS. Why he was playing in the Lancashire League when India were touring England is another story, best left for another day. Mankad joined the team for the second Test at Lord’s. By the time he left the hallowed venue, he had ensured that the Test would go down in history as Mankad’s Test. The great all rounder top scored in the first innings with 72, then bowled 73 overs to take five for 196 in the England first innings. He came in as opener for the second time in the Test to score 184 – no other Indian batsman even getting to a half century. It was a fantastic performance considering that the English bowling was powered by Trueman, Alec Bedser and Jim Laker. After just one over each from the new ball bowlers, Mankad then bowled unchanged for a spell of 24-12-35-0. It was an astonishing performance as much for the achievement as for the physical endurance for five days.

India, too, had it moments of glory with the ball. In fact, India made a big impact in her very first Test way back in 1932 at Lord’s in 1932. Percy Holmes and Herbert Sutcliffe, the English openers, came into the test with a halo around them - just ten days earlier they had strung together a first wicket partnership of 555 for Yorkshire. But the man of the moment was Mohammad Nissar, arguably the fastest bowler ever produced by India. He bowled both the openers and then Frank Wooley was run out as England collapsed to 19 for three against the rookies. Nissar finished the innings with a five wicket haul.

The most memorable performances among all Indian bowlers came in 1971 when BS Chandrasekhar, in an inspired spell, ripped through the English second innings at Oval to finish with six for 38. Chandra’s efforts helped India win the Test and the series. One of the unforgettable headlines the following days I still vividly recall: “India End England’s Home Rule.”

Three years later, India again toured England – again under Ajit Wadekar. But it was a tour that evokes painful memories from happenings on and off the field. There was bitterness within the team among the seniors and it came as no surprise when India were shot out for 42 in the second innings of the Lord’s Test – almost half of which came from Eknath Solkar defiant 18 not out. The next highest was five. India lost the three-Test series 0-3. Captain Wadekar faced the wrath of the nation and he saw it fit to end his international career on that unhappy note.

It was on the 1979 tour Sunil Gavaskar scored what has to be one of the finest fourth innings efforts in Test history. His 221 is the highest fourth innings by a visiting batsman and the third highest home or away, after George Headley’s 223 against England in 1930 and Nathan Astle’s 222 against England in 2002. Gavaskar’s effort would have and should have helped India attain the tough ask of 438 runs for victory, but some dubious umpiring denied India a thoroughly deserving win. India fell short by nine runs.

No talk of India’s tours to England can be complete without mention of the heroic acts of Dilip Vengsarkar who scored three successive hundreds at Lord’s. In 1979, batting at No 3, he scored 103. India were battling to save the Test after conceding a first innings lead of 323. In 1982, Vengsarkar scored another second innings hundred, and yet again in a crisis situation. Following on 305 behind, he waged a near solo battle against the English attack to score 157. Kapil Dev (89 off 77 balls) was the only other Indian batsman to score an innings of substance. Vengsarkar scored his third hundred in successive Test appearance at Lord’s on the tour of 1986. His 126 – by far the highest score of the innings – helped India win the Test.

Sachin Tendulkar, another member of the current Indian team, showed his first glimpse of his genius on the tour of 1990. Just 17 and at an age when many of his friends were getting their highs from schools cricket, Tendulkar was rescuing his nation in a Test match. India, set to score 408 for victory, were 127 with Navjot Sidhu, Ravi Shastri, Sanjay Manjrekar, Dilip Vengsarkar and Mohammad Azharuddin all gone. Batting at No 6, Tendulkar scored an unbeaten 119 – the first of his many Test hundreds - to deny England victory.

It was on this tour that Azhar scored back to back Test hundreds – among the finest of his international career. And it was also on this tour, in the first Test at Lord’s, that Kapil Dev hoisted Eddie Hemmings for four successive sixes. India needed 16 to avoid the follow-on with last man Narendra Hirwani at the crease. Kapil played out the first two deliveries of Hemmings’ over. Not wanting to expose the unpretentious batting of Hirwani, Kapil decided to settle matters in his inimitable style. He hoisted the next four balls for four sixes to get the 24 runs that were needed to avoiding the follow-on. Kapil’s heroics came in for swift endorsement when Hirwani was trapped lbw by Angus Fraser with the first ball of the next over.

Another cameo one cannot easily forget is Sandeep Patil’s six fours in an over off Bob Willis in the 1982 at Manchester – a feat hitherto seen only twice before in Test history.

If there is one player from the Indian team in England who has a plethora of pleasant memories about England , it has to be Sourav Ganguly. He got into the Indian team after a long exile and in the face of fierce criticisms about his selection. But with scores of 131 on his debut in the second Test at Lord’s and 136 in the third Test at Nottingham, he shut all his critics up. This was the tour that saw the launch of another batting hero: Rahul Dravid, who made his debut alongside Ganguly. Dravid, however, had to cop disappointments in both the tests, falling when well in sight of his hundreds. He scored 95 at Lord’s and 84 at Nottingham.

England, of course, also brings memories of some of the greatest moments in ODI history – Kapil’s sensational 175 not out, an innings that fuelled India unexpected progress and victory in the 1983 World Cup. And, more recently, the fairy-tale in the NatWest final when India rallied from 146 for five to surmount England 325 through the heroics of Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif. The captain of that Indian side? Sourav Ganguly.

The present Indian team has four seasoned campaigners in Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Kumble. Let us hope that these men leave their marks on what possibly could be their final tour of Ole Blighty and help India to add another glorious chapter in its history. And there is no better time than now when Indian cricket is celebrating its 75th anniversary.