India in England – the greatest hits

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Once, in an almost proper game in 1996, I bowled a ball to Sachin Tendulkar. It was at Arundel: the prettiest place, lush green within and the Sussex downs rolling out beyond. India needed six to win against the Duke of Norfolk’s XI, and as captain I called upon myself for the denouement. Fair enough, I thought, bowling to Tendulkar when it doesn’t happen every day. My team, my toy.

Before delivering an offbreak, I suggested that he might delight the crowd by hitting it flat into or over the sightscreen. He smiled. In I stepped and out he stepped, to thrash the thing gun-barrel straight and violently hard at the very centre of the screen. The noise when it clattered 15 feet up the white board some 70 metres away was every bit as stunning as that which came from the great man’s bat.

The first sighting of Sachin live was early in 1992, at the WACA in Perth. He made a hundred against the bullies – Merv Hughes, Craig McDermott et al. I had never seen the like, neither had the folk in the bleachers, who were at first gobsmacked and then starry-eyed. He looked 15 (he was not even 19) and diminutive; apologetic almost. His back-foot play was remarkable, given the fast and bouncy pitch was hardly a cinch for a boy from the maidans of Mumbai. The legend had preceded him but the power and thrill of that innings was barely believable.

A year and half earlier, in the Old Trafford Test of 1990, he made a hundred against hard-nosed English pros – Angus Fraser and the like. He was 17 then – ridiculous really. At Lord’s in the opening Test of that series he took a fantastic outfield catch – sprinting, stretching, reaching, grabbing and then rising to his full height, ball in a single hand, with the grin of a child who had successfully stolen an apple from a tree. Not that Sachin was the story of Lord’s, far from it.

The story was Graham Gooch, who made 456 runs in the match and led England to victory. I mention this because I was run out for 0 against Sussex – at Arundel by coincidence – and watched many of those runs on television while sulking in a large room at the back of the pavilion.

Yet it is not Gooch who fills the memory. He has to share it with Mohammad Azharuddin and Kapil Dev, two of the most gifted men to play the game. Azharuddin creamed a hundred all around the ground that Denis Compton had adorned with a similar flair in the years after the Second World War; Kapil ensured that India avoided the follow-on by smashing Eddie Hemmings for four consecutive sixes to pass the 200 deficit mark. Each was hit straight and high and disappeared into the building works at the Nursery End. As MCC had demolished a stand, so Kapil demolished a bowler.

After the Australians, India was quite the visit. My first memories were of The Oval in 1971, when the door was shut on England’s run of 26 unbeaten Test matches. Abid Ali cut to the boundary at 2.42pm on the fifth afternoon and India’s first victory in 22 attempts on English soil was complete, as was the winning of the three-match series. The names ring loud and clear – Sunny and Vishy; Mankad, Wadekar and Sardesai; Rooky, Ekky, the master close catcher, and the three spinners Bedi, Venkat and the amazing Chandrasekhar. Solkar’s catch at short leg to get rid of Alan Knott off Venkat is frozen in memory, tumbling away to his left and holding on one-handed, eyes fixed firmly on the ball, with Engineer jumping in joy behind him. There was a wizardry about these spin bowlers that was hardly less magical after Venkat had stepped into Erapalli Prasanna’s mighty boots.

Chandrasekhar’s long and whippy polio-affected bowling arm enabled him to hurry the ball through at near medium pace and create incredible revs, especially with his mesmerising googly. In that match he claimed 6 for 38 between lunch and tea on the fourth day, the consequence of which was to send this young lad into the back garden to see how it was done. With each attempt the ball flew over the neighbour’s fence, and before long a feeble imitation of Prasanna and Bedi ensued instead.

Three years later India were back, this time with Prasanna in the side. He made no difference. On pitches that were reluctant to let spin bowling into the game, the English seam attack proved all-conquering, so much so that Bob Willis, who was 12th man for the second Test, at Lord’s, came on with drinks when India were 30 for 7 to discover that the general chat was about letting the India batsmen score a few in the hope of entertaining the crowd. “In short,” said Bob, “some of us felt a bit sorry for them, because Geoff Arnold and Chris Old got it going sideways in increasingly helpful conditions. Only the English, patronising in manner, could feel such a thing! Thankfully, the bowlers were having none of it and finished off the tail for just 12 more runs.” The victory was by an innings and 285, England’s largest ever margin against India. But this was no more excruciating than being 0 for 4 at Headingley in 1952 against Fred Trueman, on his debut and on leave from the RAF. A pity indeed because Vijay Hazare and Vijay Manjrekar had shared a partnership of 222 in the first innings, an Indian record for the fourth wicket that held until 1997-98. That match was Len Hutton’s first as England captain, and better still, the first time the selectors broke with amateur tradition and appointed a professional. Hutton was not to let them down.

Wind forward to 1979 and Sunil Gavaskar at the Oval once more. When Mike Brearley declared England’s second innings, asking India to make 438 to win the match, no one could have imagined the possibility of it. Except Gavaskar. The result shows India nine short, eight wickets down and moral victory secured. But it shows nothing of Gavaskar’s flawless innings, of his concentration and sheer willpower. It was a performance that had this same young lad, now a rookie with Hampshire, glued to the television screen and urging him on. Upon his dismissal for 221 came a groan of despair in the living room at home for it was written in the tea leaves that India would fall short.

Sunny, like his brother-in-law Viswanath, was brought up “listening to Polly Umrigar scoring centuries on All-India radio.” For a long while, they were two of only three men to make a double-hundred for India against England. The other, ten years older than both, was a dashing fellow and cricketer in the Compton/Keith Miller mould – Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi. “Tiger” as they called him was coached by Frank Woolley, played for Sussex at 16, lost an eye in a car crash at 20, and a year later became the youngest Test captain in history. In a country of eagle eyes this one-eyed man was king for 13 years. Vishy, incidentally, made 222 against England in Madras, a single run pipping the other chap in the family to the bragging rights.

Daft, improbable turning points cobbled together a glorious day at Lord’s in the midsummer of 1983 as the rank outsiders humbled the clear favourites. West Indies had both the previous World Cups under their belt and India were, well, just a little light on might.

Sunny went with thousands still queuing to get in; Srikkanth was briefly fun, brandishing his sword as would a musketeer; Yashpal Sharma fell on the stroke of lunch and Kapil fell to, wait for it, Larry Gomes! Oh dear, just 183 on the tally.

Gordon Greenidge shouldered arms to a straight one but that was okay, whispered the thousands, because it brings to the stage… Viv Richards! Large applause. Richards dismissed the medium-pacers as if he were in a festival match at a ground surrounded by white tents and popping champagne, but hubris is a telling thing and a top edge had Kapil running back to the grandstand and clinging on over his shoulder: a fine catch and a galloping celebration from those around him. Even those of no faith began to think of miracles and duly one came, as spirits were transported to the wild parties back home. Mohinder Amarnath was Man of the Match for his cunning, though Madan Lal got Viv and two more. In summary, few Indian days had been more worthy of a National Bank Holiday. I would like to say I was there but alas…

Back to Lord’s again, 1996, and my first adventure in television commentary with the Indian team. This was memorable for the 568 balls faced by Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid on their first appearance at the scene of the legend of 1983. It wasn’t England’s most incisive attack but it was a Test match and it showcased the fledgling gifts of two of the game’s most substantial and popular performers. Ganguly made 131 with 20 boundaries – most of them either side of point. His bat flourished from the off, unlike Dravid’s, which flowered the longer he was at the crease and the sunshine warmed his back. It is easy to remember both men being up for the fight but in such very different ways. To this day, they remain hugely important figures in Indian cricket – Ganguly as president of the board; Dravid as director of operations at the National Cricket Academy and, until very recently, coach of the India A and Under 19 teams. Lucky lads.

There’s lots more. Anil Kumble bringing hope and occasional glory to Northamptonshire, where Bedi had toiled willingly many years before. Ravi Shastri in Welsh colours and squealing “No!” as Greenidge charged one of his flightier left-arm spinners for Glamorgan and thundered it over the stand at the Mumbles and probably onto the beach. Kevan James – solid county pro – becoming the first and only first-class cricketer to take four in four balls with his left-arm swingers, against the 1996 Indians at the old Northlands Road Hampshire ground and then making 103 with the bat. His five-wicket bag included Tendulkar and Dravid, by the way. Oh, Kevan’s days!

Gavaskar blocking a hundred on the same small field and then slogging another 66 to finish a masterclass and make a strong point to the media, who had been on his back. Dhoni for the first time. Then Dhoni again and again. Dhoni persevering with Jasprit Bumrah in one of his early ODIs and getting reward for the faith. How magnificently good that looks now! And Virender Sehwag, of course, the most exciting of cricketers to talk about on air.

Now to Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and company, who are no less of an attraction than those who have gone before. This is a very good Indian side, perhaps the best, and the variety of cricketers in their number offers a fine chance to do something special in English conditions.

There can be no doubt about Kohli’s place in the pantheon and it is high. He is yet to conquer England, however, and has an express wish to do so. His ongoing head to head with James Anderson is a treat in itself. England would like a little spice in the pitches for the seamers, as there was spice for the spinners in India earlier this year. We shall see. India’s seam attack is no sinecure for English batting, particularly in its present state.

Talk of these two countries makes one think of the originator in the relationship, one of only three men to cross the divide. Ranjitsinhji helped stir the wind that spread the seeds of cricket over a wider territory. Having learnt the game at Rajkumar College, he went to Cambridge University and eventually, with prejudice aside, won a blue. His keen eye, suppleness of body and natural touch inspired prose and imitation. The fact that he was an Eastern prince added to the romance. With the agreement of the Australian captain, Harry Trott, he was chosen for England in the Manchester Test of 1896 and played a great innings – 154 not out – which often had led me to wonder if Trott regretted his kindness. After all, they say that no good turn goes unpunished. In 1904, Ranji returned home to concentrate on affairs of state and made only irregular appearances on the cricket field.

Another Indian prince, Duleepsinhji, too made his name in cricket in England, and the first Nawab of Pataudi played for both countries, thus fostering a long and still unbroken bond between two nations whose gift to the game has transcended whatever else might have come between them. We can but hope that the coming series reflects the spirit and performances of those who lit up the past.



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