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Neil Foster was one of the unlikely heroes when England last won a Test series in India in 1984-85
February 27, 2006
England last won a Test series in India in 1984-85, a tour that started under a cloud with the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister, and ended with an unfancied side upsetting an Indian team beset by dissent. Neil Foster was one of the unlikely heroes, playing a pivotal role in the decisive victory at Chennai [Madras as it was then]. Here. He talks to Cricinfo about the ups and downs of a tour that was one of the highlights of David Gower's spell as England captain.
"I thought at the time the India tour was going to be the turning point of my career, having had success out there, but it didn't really work out like that. It took several years for me to establish myself in the team after that, and so looking back, it was very much the highlight.
As a tour it was both fascinating and problematical. I'd never been to a place like it. Admittedly, I'd been to Pakistan the winter before, but that seemed like just a brief stopover. This was a full five-Test tour, and I really got to see a lot of the country.
Cricket-wise it was an interesting time to be out there. India were the world one-day champions and tended to be quite aggressive in the way they played their cricket, which helped us get results, as opposed to the long-drawn-out draws that historically tended to happen.
And off the field, of course, a lot was happening as well. It was quite surreal to arrive in the country and hear that Indira Gandhi had just been assassinated that morning. Obviously we didn't know what had happened to start with, but then, as the penny dropped, it became apparent that it would have a big effect on the early part of the tour.
Initially we were shunted off to Sri Lanka, which was again a new experience. It was much hotter over there, so for acclimatisation purposes, it was a good thing. But then, when the British Deputy High Commissioner, Percy Norris, was gunned down in Bombay, India seemed quite a dangerous place to be. For a while, we didn't know why he had been assassinated, and whether it was a specifically anti-British thing. So for a while, we felt vulnerable.
For a while there was some discussion between the players and the management as to whether the tour should be called off, but to be honest, it was the management's liaison with the British High Commission and the Foreign Office that made the final call to carry on. At various times, certain groups of players might have felt uncomfortable, but in truth, that was as much to do with homesickness as fear.
We went on to lose the first Test, but that had less to do with low morale and more to do with the umpiring! Swaroop Kishan did not have a good match, and we very definitely came second-best in his decision-making. He only did that one Test and he didn't get a chance to do another one, and yes we did complain because it was not acceptable. From the second Test onwards, it was more of a level playing field.
Before the arrival of neutral umpires, you felt as though your hands were tied behind your back. No matter how well you played, you couldn't get a win. Their legspinner, Laxman Sivaramakrishan, did bowl well, and because he was new on the scene we hadn't seen much of him before, but to their credit, in the later games, our batsmen played him much better and his influence really waned. We weren't a side full of star names, so some of the guys had to step up to the plate and did really well.
My chance came at Madras in the fourth Test. Up until then, I hadn't been considered strong enough for the first XI, but Paul Allott had already gone home injured so that made me first reserve, and Richard Ellison bowled a heap of overs in the Calcutta Test and went in the back. So the choice became either me or Jon Agnew.
I hate to say it but they very nearly plumbed for Agnew, even though he had only been on the tour a couple of weeks. Had that happened, I would have been distraught, but fortunately it didn't, and history says what it says. I did bowl well, the ball did swing which helped, but it was a pretty good wicket as shown by two of our guys getting double-centuries. I'm immensely proud of my achievement, and that is the highlight of my career, without a doubt.
I think given my tender years [22 at the time], it was the best I've ever bowled. In other games, I might have bowled better technically - I took eight wickets in an innings against Pakistan at Headingley, for instance - but given the whole mixture of things; my age, the country we were in, the strength of their batting, it's got to be the highlight. And perhaps most importantly, we went on to win the series, and my 11 wickets had a big bearing on that. To take wickets in a game you don't win is pretty inconsequential.
The match was set up for us because we bowled them out quickly and cheaply in the first innings. That gave us a lot of time to accrue the runs, and Mike Gatting and Graeme Fowler did brilliantly. As a touring side, when you have two guys batting for as long as they did without losing a wicket, you get to the point where you can relax a little bit, and you don't generally get that in Test cricket. It was fantastic, particularly in such high temperatures, and to concentrate for that long is an amazing thing.
One Test later, Foxy Fowler's Test career was over. It was harsh, but that decision was always there in the making, with Graham Gooch waiting in the wings to come back from his ban for touring South Africa. Goochy was a fine player and quite rightly reselected, but it was harsh on Foxy, who was a good lively team man, and a great contributor on tour with his sense of humour. You always think that a big game is going to set you up for a few more, but in those days that wasn't always the case. Now, fortunately, it is.
Even though we had a huge first-innings lead, we still had to get past Mohammad Azharuddin, who was in a phenomenal run of form. Usually you'd get to see a player beforehand and bowl with a general theory to him to explore his weaknesses. But Azhar didn't seem to have any weaknesses. He'd got runs against us in a friendly match before the series, and followed up with hundreds in his first three Tests, a feat that hasn't been equalled. We couldn't find any answers for him. He was a fantastic player, but as his career unfolded he tended to play far more aggressively than when we first came across him, and so gave more chances. But at that time, we simply didn't know where to bowl at him.
We went into the final Test needing a draw to take the series, and mentally that does affect your strategy. Ideally you would say you are going out to win a game, and play the best cricket you can. But in crucial matches, you get a lot of talk beforehand about what the wicket may be like. We didn't expect them to produce a flat wicket, but our preparation was a bit uncertain. As it happened the wicket looked like crazy paving and we thought it would spin, but it didn't, it just stayed flat. Without playing astonishingly good cricket, and without being entertaining, we managed to grind out a draw pretty comfortably.
Historically, India are always a tough side to beat at home, but especially in that era before neutral umpires. People should never underestimate the effect that the umpiring had in assisting India at winning games of cricket. You only have to look at the statistics to see that we would have a lot of lbws given against us, but there would be pretty much none given against them.
Nowadays, the umpiring is more even, but India are still very very strong at home. They are used to the conditions and the weather, and a long tour can obviously be trying for visiting sides. There's the acclimatisation process in general, plus the sights you might see and the illness that sometimes pervades. All of which makes it very difficult. And so, for our side to have come back from 1-0 down, it's almost unheard of really.
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