Samir Chopra December 17, 2010

India's Great Misses: Exhibit One - the 1979 Oval Test

Of all the Test matches that India has let slip from its grasp in its cricketing history, three rankle me in particular

Of all the Test matches that India has let slip from its grasp in its cricketing history, three rankle me in particular. As India start a 13-month schedule of Test cricket, which could cement their standing as No. 1 and turn them into undisputed world champions, they might want to think about how three matches that should have been wins turned into draws. Hopefully, India won't make the mistakes they made in these three games if they want to be world champions, not just in terms of rankings but also in terms of perception.

Exhibit Numero Uno in this rogues' gallery is the Oval test of 1979, the fourth test of the series with England, arranged to take place after India's disastrous outing in the 1979 World Cup. India had lost the first test by an innings, saved the second after being bowled out for 96 on the first day, and weathered an Ian Botham-storm bravely in the rain-ruined third. Things didn't improve much in the fourth. India conceded a 102-run first innings lead, and on the fourth day, with plenty of time left in the match, found themselves chasing 438 to win.

Incredibly enough, thanks to the innings of lifetime from Sunil Gavaskar, which aided and abetted a 213-run opening stand with Chetan Chauhan, and a 153-run second wicket partnership with Dilip Vengsarkar, India were, at one stage, 366-1. India had begun the twenty mandatory overs at 328-1, needing five and a half runs over to win. Run chases at that pace were not common back then, and required the raising of a team's game.

India, however, stumbled badly, going from 366-1 to 429-8 before time ran out. Indeed, a loss looked possible at one stage. The promotion of Kapil Dev to No.4 failed (a promotion that Gavaskar disagreed with as he felt Gundappa Viswanath would have done better by just picking up singles and keeping things moving), while for England Ian Botham did his bit by picking up 3 for 17 and effecting a run-out, and India collectively lost the plot.

There are many ways to not be excessively critical of India: it was always going to take them a long time to switch from thinking about saving the game to winning it (India batted for 150 overs in their second innings); it was a miracle that they even came that close to winning despite their record in the series; and so on.

But it is worth remembering what India missed out on: the greatest run-chase of all time would have been achieved in England, in front of an English press. Would there be any doubt that Gavaskar's innings would have been reckoned the greatest of all time had India won? The anointment would have been swift and its displacement would have taken some doing. I mention the venue and the audience deliberately because there is no doubting who controlled the cricketing world's information order, the influence on which is as much part of a champion's responsibility as the actual performance on a field.

India had the stage set for them: the right venue, the right moment, had all come together. They failed to rise the occasion, whatever the reason. The Oval test of 1979 was deemed a "brave fightback", a "glorious draw" and all of the usual platitudes that India seemed to specialize in back then: brave losers and brave fighters. Not winners. In saying this, I'm not being excessively harsh; India did suffer from a loss of tactical and psychological nerve back in September 1979, one that ensured the greatest of cricketing glories slipped away from their grasp. It was the symptom of a fundamental problem, one which would manifest itself in Exhibit Numero Dos. But that's a story for the next post.

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

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  • testli5504537 on January 16, 2011, 22:26 GMT

    I truly believe it was Venkat's insipid capataincy that let India down in this test. He might have promoted Kapil to no 4 to step up the run rate (since Kapil lasted only 5 deliveries it would not make a big difference), but why did he send a dour batsman like Yashpal (in debut series) ahead of Vishy? Also why did he not make use of his other big hitter - Karsan Ghavri?

  • testli5504537 on January 15, 2011, 4:00 GMT

    Sushil Doshi was commentating in Hindi when he handed over the mike to Ashish Ray to continue in English. And that's when Gavaskar holed out to mid-on after an incredible 221. Sushil Doshi was constantly warning heart patients to turn off the radios. It was that breathtaking. A couple of sixes by Venkat at death got the hearts racing to our mouth. And as wickets kept tumbling our faces were ashen. Bharath Reddy (only series he ever played) was the keeper and he french cut a four in the penultimate over. Brearly had his field up as he needed only 2 wickets in the last over and India 11 runs. We finished 9 short of glory and that was that.

  • testli5504537 on January 14, 2011, 11:33 GMT

    I think we are missing the point on Gavaskar's greatest prowess on batting . Since he left , no opener has scored so many runs in test cricket and mind you if an opener stays in the Innings it gives so much confidence to the later order batsman . It is incorrect to accuse the Indian team of not winning as no other team so far has essayed such a chase . This test probably paved way for the confident Indian team later on who went on to win the World Cup in '83 .

  • testli5504537 on January 13, 2011, 22:29 GMT

    I still remember this game. I was listening to the commentary standing outside my neighbor's house. In lot of ways this was the test that got me hooked to the cricket. I remember India had visited Pakistan before this and that was the first televised series. However, India got a drubbing by losing 2-0 and this test was the first one for me where India came close to winning against some stiff odds. I agree that India didn't have the winning ways then and lost the plot.

  • testli5504537 on January 13, 2011, 7:51 GMT

    Gavaskar has carried the stigma of "not winning matches for his country often enough" - his 100 and 200 in his debut series with the match ending with India needing only a couple of wickets, similarly 156 in WI in 1976, and 2 centuries in Calcutta with WI having only one wicket left. But this one tops it all. Little more that he could have done. If such an innings were to be played today, the batsman would be compared to Bradman...Rightly does Imran say that Gavaskar's ability to soak pressure was incredible and was matched only by Ian Chappell. Imagine masterminding this chase - the mother of all run chases in history.

  • testli5504537 on December 28, 2010, 22:21 GMT

    yes it was one of those nearly games. what has not been highlighted is that england bowled only 5 overs in the half hour after tea before the mandatory overs started with bob willis taking his own time to walk back and breareley making many field changes. where did the author get the info that smg advised against kapils promotion? i have never read or heard about it so dont make false allegations. it was kapils first year in international cricket and maybe a year or so later he would have won the game for india by playing himself in first and then going for the big hits. still a pity that india didnt win.

  • testli5504537 on December 21, 2010, 18:46 GMT

    Who says media is more balanced...

    Can someone dare to comment on Mr Tendullkar..whose sole objective is to steer clear of any responsibility and nevershow any passion or ownership for country.

    Isnt this the reason for his longivity? ie he is able to focus on hisgame as he hardly bothers what team needs.

    Critique invited!!!!!!!!

  • testli5504537 on December 21, 2010, 16:04 GMT

    The article is not accurate regarding the differences between Venkat and Gavaskar. In fact, SMG in his book sympathizes with Venkat and says that had Kapil Dev taken India to a win then Venkat would have been hailed as a genius. Later as captain, Kapil Dev failed again in the world cup semi final in Mumbai. More relevant is the appalling decisions by the umpires at the Oval that robbed India of a deserving win. After being blitzed in the first test, the Indian team fought back quite well in the rest of the series. The media criticism of Venkat was uncalled for. After all, the test was drawn not lost. Compare this with the Brisbane test in 68 where India lost the test by 39 runs due to a late order collapse when victory was well in sight. But then the captain in that series was Pataudi, the darling of the media, and nobody dared to question his decisions. In that sense, the media is more balanced and objective in recent years.

  • testli5504537 on December 20, 2010, 7:00 GMT

    I remember this Test match quite vividly as on the last day of this match I was watching the Movie" Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki" in Paradise Cinema, and keeping one eye on the screen and one ear glued to the transistor for the running commentary. And it was really very much heartbreaking when the time had run out with India needing just Nine more runs for what would have been an incredible victory & world record 4th Inning chase. Yes, some of the umpiring decisions were quite galling. But it was a fantatstic run chase.

  • testli5504537 on December 19, 2010, 17:35 GMT

    I remember that game, watching on TV with my Dad in London. Umpiring was an issue as was the promotion of Kapil ahead of Vishy. Trevor Bailey on Test Match Special could not believe that. Vishy easily penetrated the field - until he was given out and that was the end of the chase.

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