The miracle at Kanpur - forty years on

Partab Ramchand

December 24, 1999

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On December 24, 1959, India completed a Test victory over Australia at Kanpur. To today's generation, which have been brought up on the exploits of Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar, who have seen the country register ten successive victories in Tests at home in the 80s and 90s, who have seen India score great triumphs at Port of Spain and the Oval, Lord's and Leeds, Melbourne and Sydney, who have seen India take the World Cup, the simple fact that the team scored a victory in a Test would seem commonplace. Believe me, it wasn't. It was page one news in Indian papers, was the lead story in radio news bulletins, made headlines all over the cricketing world and was hailed as ``the miracle at Kanpur.'' Even 40 years ago to the day, despite the halo surrounding the many notable victories notched up by Indian teams over the last two or three decades, the mystique over that Kanpur culmination has not diminished one bit. To old timers like me and to keen cricket followers of a later generation, the mere mention ``Kanpur, 1959'' will make eyes sparkle, even though a full four decades have elapsed since that memorable day.

Let's roll back the years quickly. On December 19, 1959, the Indian team had reached its nadir. Of the previous 14 Test matches, eleven had been lost, five of them by an innings, eight of them with more than a day to spare. And they were up against opponents, who were the leading cricketing nation in the world, and who had won ten of their previous 14 Tests. Ever since Richie Benaud had taken over the leadership, Australia were a transformed lot and with players like Harvey, O'Neill, McDonald, Favell, Davidson, Meckiff, Lindwall, Kline, Grout, Burge and Mackay in their ranks, they were a formidable side. Just three days before the Kanpur Test commenced, they had routed India by an innings and 127 runs in four days at New Delhi. India had just returned from a 5-0 thrashing in England and all seemed set for another clean sweep at the hands of the Australians.

The Indians, on paper, did not look to be a very weak side. With players like skipper Ramchand, Roy, Contractor, Umrigar, Borde, Nadkarni, Kenny, Baig, Desai, Tamhane and Surendranath around, it did seem like they had the ability to extend the Australians, if not exactly be a match for them. But then what changes could be effected within three days to overturn an overwhelming innings defeat?

This is where the chairman of the selection committee Lala Amarnath came up with his masterstroke. Knowing the Green Park wicket well and being well aware of the general vulnerability of the Australians to off spin bowling, he picked Jasu Patel to play at Kanpur. Cricket followers all over the world wondered at Amarnath's wisdom in choosing a 35-year-old bowler who had performed only modestly in the four Tests he had played since making his debut in Pakistan in 1955. Since then, he had played in one Test against New Zealand in 1955-56 and then two against Australia in October-November 1956. Relaxing in his Ahmedabad home, Patel himself was surprised at his selection and made the trip to Kanpur quite reluctantly, aware of the fact that opinion was growing in favour of playing AG Kripal Singh, a much younger off spinning all rounder.

Amarnath however knew exactly what he was doing and ultimately it was Patel who played. And yet it was quite some time before Patel started weaving his magic around the strong Australian batting line up. After India were bowled out for 152 on the first day, Australia at lunch on the following day were 128 for one. Patel had taken the wicket to fall but generally seemed innocuous. However Ramchand had been bowling him from the wrong end as Amarnath pointed to the Indian captain at the break. Amarnath wanted him to bowl at the footmarks of Davidson and Meckiff. After the interval, Ramchand brought him on from the pavilion end and the transformation both in the bowler and the trend of the Australian innings was astonishing. Well before close of play, the visitors were all out for 219 with Patel picking up nine for 69, which remained the best figures by an Indian bowler in a Test till Anil Kumble took his all ten against Pakistan in February this year. He was accuracy personified, made the ball turn viciously and mixed his straighter one or the drifter judiciously. The Australians, even such experienced players of spin like Harvey and McDonald, had absolutely no clue as to which way the ball would turn.

The Indians came up with a much better display in the second innings and a total of 291 left the Australians 225 to get. But by now the initiative had slipped from their grasp and they never really had a chance. In the second innings, Patel was less devastating but this was made up by Umrigar's incisive spell. The veteran all rounder, who bowled both off breaks and medium pacers, made the ball turn alarmingly and settled the match with two similiar deliveries which dismissed Harvey and O'Neill - a sharply turning off break which pitched at an inconvenient length. Both were caught by Nadkarni, the left handed Harvey at slip and the right handed O'Neill at leg slip. Umrigar finished with four for 27 while Patel had five for 55. Australia, well before lunch on the final day were bowled out for 105 leaving the jubilant Indians unexpected victors by 119 runs - their first success in ten Tests against Australia.

The Kanpur victory was only the sixth notched up by India in 64 Tests till then. It was easily the most notable win in Indian cricket history and remained so till our double triumphs at Port of Spain and the Oval in 1971. Given the background leading up to the victory, the formidable opposition over which it was achieved and the glorious manner it was registered, there is little doubt that the `miracle at Kanpur' will forever rank as one of the greatest triumphs, no matter how many more triumphs are scored in future.

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