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. 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