Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Great Test Match that started it all

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From massive one-sided routs meted out by a fearsome pace attack in conjunction with a batting line up oozing outrageous talent, the equation has changed dramatically. Since 1987, India have not lost a series at home against the Windies and  for almost two decades have held the upper hand in the Indo-WestIndian encounters in India. It all started with one great Test Match in 1987 which demonstrated that the hosts were no longer meek pushovers.


It was one of the most remarkable Test matches played on Indian soil.

To start with, it indeed looked as if the pitch had been imported from somewhere in Yorkshire, and some clever businessman had thrown in the Northern English atmosphere for free.

At the end of day one the rival captains, Vivian Richards and Dilip Vengsarkar, thoughtfully shook their heads – collectively crammed with nearly 30 years of cumulative international cricket experience. They agreed that they had never seen the ball swing this much in the Indian subcontinent.
It turned out to be the most important Test match from the point of view of the history of the West Indian cricket team's visits to India.

Before this, with the exception of a depleted World Series Cricket-hit Alvin Kallicharran's side, which lost 0-1 in 1979, the West Indians generally started a series in India by steamrolling their way forward, flattening the hosts to the ground, stamping their absolute superiority in no uncertain terms and then carrying it on to win by a fair and formidable margin.

Even in 1974-75, when India had pulled off two wins and had lost the series by the narrow margin of 2-3, the visitors had started with annihilating rampage and gone two Tests up before the hosts had managed to regroup their senses and retaliate. The final Test was a cakewalk.

The previous tour of 1983 was an embarrassingly one-sided massacre, the Caribbean side winning the first, third and fifth Tests, India managing to draw the other three by virtue of the brilliance of Sunil Gavaskar and Vengsarkar.

That November in Feroz Shah Kotla, although severely dented at the top by the retirement of Gavaskar, India suddenly discovered an incredible capacity for fighting back. It was the first step to a continuous transformation in the cricketing balance as far as Tests in India were concerned.

At the end of the series they had managed to hold the greatest of sides 1-1. While the series-squaring win was achieved on an underprepared Chennai track with a bespectacled debutant Narendra Hirwani capturing all but four of the Windies wickets to fall, the script was nevertheless written in the first Test, the most remarkable Test matches ever witnessed on Indian soil.

The one each scoreline was repeated in 1994 – the last few days while the Windies still clung on to the pinnacle of the cricketing landscape. The result was largely due to one day of uninspiring cricket on the part of the hosts who had otherwise dominated the entire series.

After that, with the pace bowling talent gobbled up by the lures of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the batting majesty petering down and converging into one Brian Lara and then disappearing altogether, the recent encounters on Indian soil between the two teams have been one-sided affairs loaded heavily in favour of the Indians.

So, let us go back to the day when the makeover started, and the supremacy of the world’s champion side was questioned by erstwhile pushovers.

Day One in Feroz Shah Kotla, 1987

It was just after the Reliance World Cup. The batsmen, on a continuous and crazy diet of subcontinental One-Day Internationals (ODIs), were still struggling to fit in to the demands of patience and perseverance made by the rigours of Test cricket.

When the Indians went into bat, even the most fanatic of the home team supporters expected scarcely more than a complete rout.

Gavaskar was no more there to stand up to the blinding fury of Pat Patterson, Courtney Walsh, Winston Davis and Winston Benjamin at the top of the order. The floppy hat and skull cap did not make its usual reassuring way to the wicket at the beginning of the innings. The two helmet clad men walking out to open the innings hardly inspired much confidence. Krishnamachari Srikkanth snicked the second ball to the ‘keeper, Arun Lal lasted longer, but hardly with confidence.

Mohinder Amarnath and Mohammed Azharuddin had made themselves unavailable for selection, and hence Raman Lamba walked in at No 3, Ravi Shastri at No 5 and  debutant Sanjay Manjrekar at No 6. Not really the right combination to take on the firepower of the fearsome four speedsters.

And to cap it all, the pitch suddenly turned out to be full of pace, bounce and moisture. The ball zipped, zoomed and jagged.

Even Vengsarkar, the newly-appointed skipper and then ranked No 1 batsman in the world by the computer, failed to save the day as the fast bowlers battered the Indians to rout them for 75 paltry runs. The innings had lasted less than 31 overs, with only Arun Lal, Vengsarkar and wicket-keeper Kiran More managing double figures.

Those inimitable men sitting in the Press Box had already started out composing the tragic obituary of Indian cricket in the post-Gavaskar Era, elegies re-invoking the pathos associated with the establishment of the Ashes. While their typewriters tapped gleefully away, deploring the demise of Indian batsmanship with suitable sensationalising rhetoric, the most famed opening pair of the day, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, walked out looking to rub insult into injury.

And then Kapil Dev trapped Greenidge in front of the wicket with his second ball. The disbelieving crowd had hardly settled down after this shock when Richie Richardson struck a boundary and then headed back next ball, out identically to the great Indian all-rounder.

The redoubtable Vivian Richards walked in with his habitual swagger, started off with two boundaries that echoed across the capital, and then snicked one from Chetan Sharma to the ‘keeper. Thirteen for three.

With Gus Logie and Jeff Dujon unable to cope with the swing obtained by the Indian medium-pacers, and Roger Harper rather needlessly running himself out attempting a single to short third man, West Indies slipped to 29 for six. When a watchful Winston Davis hit one back to Chetan Sharma, it became 49 for seven.

Haynes stayed long enough to take the score to 118 for eight by the end of the first day, with some stubborn support from Winston Benjamin, but with 18 wickets tumbling, 16 of them to pace-men, the Indian cricket crowd had been audience to a spectacle never witnessed before on the shores of the subcontinent. The stands were full of disbelieving eyes. Wickets had toppled at this rate in India, but always on dustbowls to venerable tweakers – never with such regularity to pace bowlers, to the vagaries of the swinging and wobbling ball.

The second day saw Chetan Sharma make quick work of the two remaining West Indian wickets, and India trailed by a manageable 52.

However, if the Indian camp was looking for good start to erase the deficit, it was not to be. The men at the top of the order were just not used to bowling of this pace and quality. Srikkanth inexplicably opened the face of his bat to run one down to third man through the crowded slips and was gobbled up by Harper. The very next ball saw Lamba, still in the process of completing his backlift, saw Patrick Patterson's express delivery uprooting his off and middle stumps.

Vengsarkar walked out to stave off a hat-trick, and some tongues while firmly in cheek, nevertheless wagged mischievously about the possibilities of an innings defeat.

And what an innings the captain played that day! He stood like an immovable rock as around him storm raged on choppy waters, the Indian innings bobbed along and little figments of forming hope sunk and drowned.

Arun Lal hooked with aplomb for a while, but repeated the shot far too often, ending up in the hands of the deep square-leg.

Ravi Shastri, clearly out of sorts against this quality of pace and swing, snicked one to Jeff Dujon. Manjrekar got a nasty lifter from Benjamin, was hit on the left eye, and took no further part in the game.

Throughout all this turmoil, Vengsarkar applied himself dourly, tiring down the pacemen, evading and negotiating the fast, furious bouncers and waiting for the odd overpitched ball to bring out his superlative drives through the covers and straight down the ground.

When Harper came on to bowl his spinners, he quietly picked up singles and twos without attempting heroics, ensuring he was kept on longer than required. With the batsmen of both sides showing increasing inclination to flash outside the off stump, he batted on, gritty, gutsy and sometimes grand, with signs of going on forever in the conditions as his men came and went around him.

Kapil played his role with a valuable cameo of 44 off 41 balls including a remarkable scythed six through midwicket. After he was trapped in front by Benjamin, Vengsarkar found an able ally in the diminutive More. The second day ended with India on a respectable 210 for five (effectively six down with Manjrekar in the hospital).  The Test hung on a knife’s edge.

After the rest day – a luxury of the bygone era players can no longer afford in these times of crammed cricket calendars – the captain and the stumper added another 67 runs as the wicket became increasingly easier to bat on. Vengsarkar, in the process, reached his 16th and perhaps one of the most deserving centuries of his career, and looked good for several more. The West Indians were starting to look increasingly worried when he holed out to midwicket, trying to go for the pull off Walsh. All through the innings he had wisely resisted the pull shot, and now it had brought his demise. However, his 102 had been a true captain's innings – perhaps a precursor of events to follow.

More and debutant Arshad Ayub put their heads down and got another little partnership going.  From half the side variously out and indisposed with a measly 105 on the board, the final score of 327 was a major achievement.

Set a target more than the highest-ever scored to win in India, West Indies began their 276 run chase cautiously. Greenidge and Haynes saw off the opening overs of Kapil and Chetan Sharma, and slowly made their way to a fifty-run partnership. With the swing in the air and off the pitch now having disappeared as curiously as it had materialised, Vengsarkar had to bank upon the spinners Ayub, Maninder Singh and Shastri to get purchase out of the track.

Ayub bowled impeccably, playing his first, yet displaying maturity of at least two dozen tests. Just as the openers threatened to take the match away from India, he had Greenidge leg before with the score at 62. Seven runs later Haynes played back to him and trod on his wicket. When Richardson and nightwatchman Davis walked back at the end of the third day with the score on 80 for two, a fight to the finish was on the cards.

That evening, in a press conference, Haynes declared that it was by far the most interesting Test match he had played in. He had played Test cricket around the world for a decade, so it really did mean something.

The following morning, Davis was brilliantly taken at silly point by substitute Chandrakant Pandit off Ayub, and an acrobatic catch ended Richardson's vigil at the wicket. At 111 for four, the crowd cheered excitedly. Could the mighty West Indians be really beaten? India seemed to be ahead in the exchanges.

At this juncture, an in-swinger from Kapil struck Logie on the pads – what looked to be plumb in front of the stumps. Alas – those days before the advent of neutral umpires worked both ways. While patriotism reared its not quite welcome head on some cricket pitches, the relentless pursuit of neutrality, aided by genuine incompetence, often robbed a home side of some legitimate wickets.

As things turned out, umpire Dara N Dotiwalla remained unmoved and Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards decided that time had come for drastic measures.

Encouraged by the pace and bounce, Kapil and Chetan Sharma kept bouncing, and the great man hooked and pulled with élan. A deep square-leg and a long-leg were placed, but boundaries flowed in front of square as he pulled early, and sometimes the ball sped to the fence between the two stationed patrolmen as he took them on.

As lucky Logie hung on at the other end, in the next hour and a half the master batsman took the game by the collar and jerked it away from the Indians. By the time Ayub had trapped Logie leg before, it was too late. Maninder had bowled poorly and had been cut to ribbons. The pacemen had been neutralised by the assault. “The King” raced to his hundred, finishing with 109 off 111 balls with 13 boundaries. A scintillating innings under enormous pressure, the invincibility of his great team under threat from underdogs.

In the end, the result was not so close. The West Indians cruised home by five wickets and the gallant Indian fightback sparked and even sparkled, but failed to sustain the flame.

Nonetheless, for the first time in a considerable while the most formidable team in the world had to fight every inch to win a closely-fought Test match in India. Till the last morning, they had to wage a full-fledged war that hung in balance and skirmishes had to be held for the minutest advantage.

With a depleted side, with an atrociously vulnerable batting line up, with Vengsarkar the only name to reckon with as far as standing up to pace was concerned, India had resisted and stood up to the might of the West Indian  team.

Fom that Test match onwards, the Windies have never been able to steamroll the Indians as before. Things became even, and then the balance shifted across the beam to tilt heavily in favour of a great Indian side.

It all started with that great Test match of 1987.

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