Samir Chopra August 20, 2009

The Oval Test (but not the one you have in mind)

Everyone is talking about The Oval, so I might as well get into the act

Everyone is talking about The Oval, so I might as well get into the act. But not by talking about the fifth Ashes test, but about a match that took place 38 years ago. The 1971 Oval Test remains the only Test match whose scores are committed to my memory. England 355 all out. India 284 all out. England 101 all out. India 174 for 6. India wins by six wickets as Abid Ali hits the winning runs. India's first Test win in England.

It's a little strange, really. I didn't see this match live (or even hear any radio commentary). The only parts of it that I've seen on television highlight reels are those clips that feature BS Chandrasekhar's 6 for 38 (one of those few Indian bowling figures that I also know by heart). It just happens to be one of those matches that is hard to forget, whose memories, by virtue of being so frequently imprinted by the written word, are now locked away securely, impervious to the ravages of time.

But I've seen a little bit more this weekend. And a tiny video clip reminds me of how much the cricketing world has changed. And what makes this clip puzzling is that it is not clear to me whether the change is for the better or worse.

Pay attention, then, if you will, to the closing moments of this Test in this linked YouTube video, pay attention from 3:15 onwards. India need two runs to win. It's 170 for 4. Farokh Engineer and Ali are at the crease. After hearing out Engineer's advice that he stay calm and knock off the single required, Ali square cuts for four. As the crowd invades the pitch, the players scramble for the pavilion, but only after the obligatory scramble for stumps.

Here is where things get interesting. Ali is rushing off, but without a stump, and so, tries to take a stump from Alan Knott, presuming that stumps are victor's booty. Knott, however, is having none of it, and a little tugging match ensues (there are some verbals but obviously, we can't hear those). Finally, Ali, who was not expecting this resistance, turns and sprints for the bowler's end, where the stumps are still standing. Knott turns and gives the stump to the umpire coming up behind him. After this, the video shifts to scenes of the milling crowd carrying Engineer on their shoulders, and then cuts to a black and white photograph of the Indian team. I do not know what happened to Ali and whether he managed to get himself a little souvenir.

I've played and replayed this little clip and still don't know what to make of it. I know a similar scene would not occur today. For one thing, a losing team simply does not bother with the stumps. Secondly, it is hard to imagine a losing team's player actually resisting a winning team's player's attempts to obtain a trophy even if the stump happened to be in his possession. It is even more unlikely that the player, having successfully resisted the invading marauder, would then turn around and hand the stump over to the umpire.

So, what was Knott up to? Was he disapproving of the process of trophy-grabbing? Was he simply collecting stumps to make sure they didn't go to the crowd? Would Knott have resisted an Australian player's attempts to obtain a trophy? Were crowd invasions a new enough thing in England at the time that the "right thing" for Knott to do was to make sure they stayed with the umpires after the game was over?

These questions might seem trivial, but answers to them would be useful I think, in figuring out English players' perceptions of various opposition teams, the proprieties of souvenir hunting, the changes in crowd behavior as a function of the success of teams other than Australia in England, and lastly, the changing standards of player behavior on the field (on what was considered proper and what wasn't).

Knott's actions appeared to be petty and ungenerous to me, but perhaps he knew of no other way to react, and perhaps my perception of his actions as such, reveal a great deal of how much the cricket world has changed since that memorable day in 1971.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here