September 5, 2002

The follies of youth - 1979

No great expectations accompanied the Indian team that landed in London for the 1979 tour. Faulty selection - symbolised by the omission of Syed Kirmani - meant that a rather ill-balanced side was sent on what was undoubtedly going to be a tough tour.

In the winter of 1978-79, India had lost in Pakistan and then struggled at home to beat a mediocre West Indian side, bereft of the Kerry Packer defectors. So they could not have been too confident on arriving at Heathrow. England, on the other hand, in the aftermath of the Packer crisis, were very much the leading cricketing nation, having just returned after thrashing Australia 5-1 to regain the Ashes.

The worst fears of the Indian cricket follower were confirmed by events early on the tour. India first lost all their matches in the second World Cup held prior to the four-Test series. The losses to the West Indies and New Zealand were perhaps unexpected, but the most shattering experience was going down to Sri Lanka, then not even a full Test nation.

When the Test series started, there was no change in the depressing script. England won the first Test at Birmingham by an innings and 83 runs with a day to spare. Much the same pattern of play was repeated in the second Test at Lord's. India were shot out for 96 and England replied with 419 for nine declared. At this stage a rout along the lines of 1959 and 1974 was freely being predicted, and this did not seem to be wide of the mark.

From here on, however there was a sudden transformation. Just before tea on the fourth day, India - 323 runs behind on the first innings - were 99 for two and facing another innings defeat. The road to recovery was then laid by Gundappa Viswanath and Dilip Vengsarkar, and their 210-run third wicket partnership remains one of the most famous rearguard actions in Indian cricket. Viswanath got 113, Vengsarkar scored 103 and, helped somewhat by the inclement weather, India, 318 for four at the final draw of stumps, earned an honourable draw.

There was a metamorphosis from that point as a rejuvenated Indian team matched England deed for deed. They held their own in the rain-affected third Test at Leeds, replying with 223 for six to England's 270. In the final Test at the Oval, India came within nine runs of pulling off what would have been the most successful run-chase in Test history. England seemed to have locked up the series when, after taking a 103-run first-innings lead, they declared at 334 for eight.

India were thus set to get 438 to win in 498 minutes. A record first-wicket partnership of 213 runs between Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan (80) set them firmly on the road towards the daunting target. Then Gavaskar and Vengsarkar maintained the momentum with a second-wicket stand of 153 runs. When the 20 mandatory overs began, India were 328 for one and firm favourites. Even the shrewd Mike Brearley was at his wit's end.

But Vengsarkar (52) departed at 366, and then a combination of circumstances saw England come back into the match. Kapil Dev, who had never really got going in the series, was rather unwisely promoted to number four and was out for a duck. Gavaskar was fourth out at 389 for a masterly 221, arguably his greatest-ever innings. A couple of dicey umpiring decisions then went against India, and England clawed their way back. At the end of a memorable and yet ultimately frustrating day, India were 429 for eight. It was a superb display that won them a lot of friends, if not the match.

The essential problem with the team lay in the composition. The batting, manned by Gavaskar, Chauhan, Viswanath, Vengsarkar, Anshuman Gaekwad, Mohinder Amarnath and Yashpal Sharma was fairly strong, but the bowling was generally weak. The selectors gave skipper Srinivas Venkataraghavan a young pace bowler, then just on his way up, in Kapil Dev and a rather wayward left-arm seam bowler in Karsan Ghavri.

Then there were three aging spin bowlers in Bishan Singh Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and the captain himself, with only Amarnath to provide support. It was hardly the sort of bowling to cause England trouble, and it was no surprise that the home side ran up totals of 633 for five declared, 419 for nine declared and 334 for eight declared. Geoff Boycott got two hundreds and David Gower an unbeaten double hundred, while Ian Botham hammered 137 from just 152 balls with the help of 16 fours and five sixes at Leeds.

England's bowlers however did not gain their wickets easily, for India were well-served by the batsmen. Gavaskar rounded off a remarkable 12-month period by scoring 542 runs from seven innings at an average of 77.43. Fittingly he was named among Wisden's cricketers of the year. Viswanath (341), Vengsarkar (249) and Chauhan (179) all lived up to their reputations. Among the bowlers, Kapil Dev stood head and shoulders above everyone else. Still in his first year of international cricket, the sturdily built 20-year-old took 16 wickets at 30.94 apiece to head the averages. The rest of the bowlers, predictably enough, made little impression. In fact, both Chandra and Bedi played their last Test matches during the series.

On the tour, Gavaskar, thanks to his epic knock at the Oval, crossed the 1,000-run mark finishing with 1,062 runs at an average of 55.89. Yashpal Sharma emerged as the most improved batsman, heading the figures with 884 runs at an average of 58.93. Viswanath and Vengsarkar crossed the 700-run mark, while Gaekwad, Chauhan and Amarnath each made over 500 runs.

The bowling figures as expected were less impressive, and Bedi (33), Venkat (34) and Kapil Dev (31) were the only bowlers to take more than 30 wickets. But except for Bedi, all of them proved to be rather expensive. All in all, it was a splendid showing by a team from which there were no high expectations, and the final tour results of 16 played, one won, three drawn and 12 lost is not a true reflection of the fighting cricket that they provided.