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December 21, 2010

Samir Chopra

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

Samir Chopra
Allan Border bats, England v Australia, Lord's, 4 June 1981
Allan Border fought superbly but India could have still won it  © Getty Images
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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

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Posted by murugan on (January 14, 2011, 16:17 GMT)

i'm so glad i was 3 when this test happened. But I do have very distinct memories of the gloom surrounding my home. Gavaskar has done a lot of good things for indian cricket, but everytime he complains of slow strike rate in the commentary box, this test match's scoreboard must be shown to him. 8 from 54 balls chasing a smallish total for a historic victory is unpardonable for someone hailed as a pioneer of india's revolution in test cricket. Seriously, what was he thinking ? Was he given a chance to explain his actions ? I remember Mongia was once banned for a ODI for not pursuing a gettable target.

Posted by Gerry the Merry on (January 14, 2011, 15:58 GMT)

It is difficult to argue that Gavaskar was a team man, but given that he made 221 after losing the captaincy to Venkataraghavan despite leading India to a win in a home series against WI, it is equally difficult to argue that he wasn't. Still an incredibly great batsman under pressure.

Posted by HARSHWARDHAN S PANDE on (January 4, 2011, 13:51 GMT)

Sameer Chopra have great writing ability.I like story very much.

Posted by WOG on (December 30, 2010, 16:47 GMT)

Since his 236 n.o. batting at Number 4 in the December 2003 West Indies Test in Madras - when he ironically walked in at 0 for 2 - Gavaskar wanted to drop down the order. He was a disaster as opener in the England home series of 1984-85, which India lost 2-1 under his captaincy. He toured Sri Lanka under Kapil in 1985, and batted at Number 5 in the three Tests. For the Australia series that followed, Kapil as skipper insisted that Sunny open the innings. Gavaskar was not happy, but had no choice. In the Adelaide Test, he opened but retired hurt when in the 30s, and returned only at 247 for 5 to complete 166 n.o. Melbourne followed immediately thereafter - with Gavaskar in a batting position he had decided was not for him. It would appear his final day run crawl had something to do with this. But why blame him alone? Surely, Kapil could have sent Binny or Shastri to open - both have done so in Tests - and promoted himself to Number 3?

Posted by Number_5 on (December 26, 2010, 21:42 GMT)

As a young (Aussie) cricket fan i recall this test for many of the similar reasons as the author and for the debut of one S.R.Waugh. We all knew the rain was coming and were perplexed by the Indian batting especially given some of Srikkanth swashbuckling innings that summer (of discontent for Aussies). I asked some friends to compare the Australian team for the first test of this 85/86 series against the current mob, who had the better team? Pretty much all commented that the 85/86 team was better, have a look for yourself. Now here is the punch line...that team was regarded as the worst Aus team of all time. What does that say for the current mob? Dont worry Indian fans, we host you here next summer and I cant wait to see the likes of Sachin, Dravid, VVS and co. I think your wait may be over, only the gods can stop an Indian victory next summer.

Posted by Agnihothra on (December 23, 2010, 11:18 GMT)

Hey Samir I remember this one really well.Like you I was also hooked upto radio commentary(but only after my dad went to work). Kapil Dev also criticized the umpires who it seems were guilty of not giving Reid out even after he was caught straight off bat(received wisdom through the next day's THE HINDU news paper).

Posted by chandu on (December 23, 2010, 4:09 GMT)

that tme i was at 6yrs,i cant believe that why these so called cricket legends done some costly mistakes.while going through the score card in that match now its look like a shame for us.If we get the same chance again this team could do better....

Posted by lalit on (December 22, 2010, 18:44 GMT)

nostalgic but sad.u touched d raw nerve,we shd really be happy that our dressing room is free of that kind of politics today .and really this is d way life goes on wen we remember 2007 lords match

Posted by Raman on (December 22, 2010, 13:03 GMT)

The great rain robbery. I was very very annoyed then. But then India were lucky to escape with draw against England at Lords in 2007 due to rain. Such is life.

Posted by Arvind on (December 22, 2010, 12:35 GMT)

In the words of Shane Warne, "you have to be prepared to lose a Test to win it." Sadly, our team is never going to learn it. Longmemory brought back memories of the final Test in England, when Rahul Dravid found 319 runs lead not sufficient to bowl out England after they were bowled out easily in the first innings. It was at least heartening to note that Zaheer Khan publicly disagreed with Dravid's decision to "rest the bowlers" saying that the bowlers were indeed eager to have another go at the England batsmen. Of course, that matter was quickly hushed up.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samir Chopra
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He runs the blogs at samirchopra.com and Eye on Cricket. His book on the changing face of modern cricket, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket has been published by HarperCollins. Before The Cordon, he blogged on The Pitch and Different Strokes on ESPNcricinfo. @EyeonthePitch

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