Samir Chopra December 21, 2010

India's Great Misses: Exhibit Two - The 1985 Boxing Day Test

India have never beaten Australia in Australia

India have never beaten Australia in Australia. They've won Tests but have never managed to win a series. This history is made possible by two spectacular instances of snatching draws from the jaws of victory. Nothing showcases this better than the Boxing Day Test of the 1985-86 series, the fifth day of which shall forever live in infamy. The post-traumatic stress induced by this Test match still gives me the midnight chills.

A brief introduction to Exhibit Numero Dos in my rogues gallery of Great Indian Misses. It was the second Test of the three-Test series, to be followed by the endlessly prolonged shenanigans of the triangular world cricket series (featuring New Zealand as well). The first Test in Adelaide, which featured a carrying-the-bat epic by Sunil Gavaskar, had ended in a draw. When the second Test began, India immediately seized the advantage by reducing Australia to 210-8 on the first day. When the second day's play ended, India looked set for a sizeable lead, thanks to their 187-3, a patient response to Australia's eventual 262 all out. The next day, things got better, even if a little slowly, as India moved to 431-9 (my memory fails me as I do not remember whether rain cost any playing time on the first four days). The Indian middle order of Amarnath, Vengsarkar, Azhar, and Shastri all crawled a bit, but still by close of the third day, a 169-run lead was on the board.

The next day, India were bowled out for 445, giving them a lead of 183. By close of play, they had reduced Australia to 228-8. Allan Border was on 98 not out, playing a familiar role. Incredibly, Australia were only 45 runs ahead with two wickets in hand as the fifth day's play began.

Like any faithful Test fan, I awoke early in the morning to catch the radio commentary. Test wins in Australia were rare; I wanted to be listening in when this happened. The commentators on the radio briefly mentioned impending rain in the afternoon, but I paid little heed to it. The post-lunch session seemed far away. India would have this wrapped up by then.

A few minutes later, Australia were nine down for 231 as Bruce Reid fell to Shivlal Yadav. I snuggled a little tighter into my blanket on that cold Delhi morning, and turned up the radio just a bit. It was still dark outside. My uncle, similarly snug in his own blanket in that cold room, grinned at me. We were faithful fans; we had worked hard for this; victory would be sweet.

I did say Reid was dismissed, didn't I? Not Border? Right. Because from there on, Border and Dave Gilbert proceeded to add 77 runs for the 10th wicket. Not only did Border expertly farm the strike (while letting Gilbert play himself in gradually), he often did so by scoring three runs off the last ball. A single or a three both let you retain strike off the last ball; the latter has the added advantage of moving the scoreboard along just a little quicker. These runs were gold, and every single one of them contributed to the steady lengthening of icicles down my spine.

And that was because the radio commentators were constantly reminding us of the forecast of rain for the afternoon. As Australia's lead grew, as they pushed off the moment of reckoning, they crept closer to the safety of the rain (it promised to be the kind of torrential summer downpour that Melbourne is capable of putting on).

Finally, Border was dismissed for 163; Gilbert remained not out on 13 off 65 deliveries. India needed 126 to win. They had ample time. If it didn't rain. But they knew the rain was coming. They would get perhaps 20, perhaps 30 overs. But we were the world champions of one-day cricket. And, we had won the 1985 VCA Cup in Australia in fine style as well. Our openers included Kris Srikkanth, the hero, along with Ravi Shastri, who was also featured in that batting line-up, of that win. Surely we could put on a chase, with one eye on the clock and the clouds and pull this off. A win in Australia deserved nothing less than an elevation of the adrenaline levels of the batsmen, even if the bowlers had suddenly gone toothless in the morning.

But incredibly, in the most bizarre exhibition of Test-match batting that it has been my misfortune to listen to, India dawdled. Like narcoleptics, the Indian top order decided it was time for a nap. Gavaskar scored 8 off 54; Amarnath 3 off 27; Vengsarkar 1 off 12; in comparison, Srikkanth went berserk scoring 38 off 61. And all the while, the commentators steadily informed us of the impending rain. I stared at my radio set in disbelief. Was this really happening? What was the Indian team doing? Were they mad? In utter disgust, my uncle stormed out to go get a haircut. I slumped down, panicking, wondering if there was some deeper strategy being pursued by the batsmen in the middle that I hadn't divined. But none seemed apparent.

Finally, the rain came. India, chasing 126 to win, were 59-2 off 25 overs. The rest of the day's play was washed out. The game was over. Close, but no cigar.

India could have taken a 1-0 lead, and given the state of the Sydney pitch in those days and the lack of bite in the Aussie bowling (revealed by the run-fest in the next game, which again, India came close to winning) India could have had their first series win in Australia.

Twenty-four years on, I haven't forgotten this Test. Nothing summed up pusillanimous cricket like this did. If there are times my criticism of the lack of enterprise of Indian cricketing teams (and their captains) is harsh, I suspect it's because I think the memory of this fiasco lurks in my subconscious. Its memory will take some erasing.

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