A rather confident Indian team landed in London in June 1971 to tour England in the second half of the summer. It didn't seem to matter that India had lost 11 of their last 12 Tests in England.
For one thing, the historic triumph in the West Indies two months earlier had boosted their morale no end. Secondly, in young Sunil Gavaskar, India had discovered a batsman with an insatiable appetite for runs, as his feats in the Caribbean bore out. Third, the team was well balanced, with the right blend of stonewallers and stroke-players in the batting order, and with the spin quartet at its peak.
Moreover, Ajit Wadekar as captain could depend upon Abid Ali with the new ball, and the Hyderabad allrounder proved his worth by rocking England on the opening day of the second Test at Manchester with a superb spell. And then there was the ebullience and experience of Farokh Engineer. So, all in all it did not even matter to the Indians that England were the leading team in the world, just back from a triumphant tour of Australia where they had regained the Ashes after 12 years.
England were a strong side. Led by the shrewd Ray Illingworth, they boasted a fine balance, including in their ranks batsmen of the calibre of Brian Luckhurst, Geoff Boycott, John Edrich, John Jameson, Keith Fletcher, Basil D'Oliveira and Dennis Amiss. The bowling, manned by John Snow, John Price, Peter Lever, Richard Hutton, Illingworth, D'Oliveira, Norman Gifford and Derek Underwood, had the right blend of speed and subtlety. And of course there was Alan Knott, who behind the stumps or in front of them was a force to be reckoned with.
For all their new-found confidence, the Indians faced a tough task. Defeating a West Indian side that was in the process of rebuilding was one thing, but getting the better of a formidable England team and in wicket and weather conditions that had traditionally been difficult to overcome, was quite another.
But then again this was a refreshingly different Indian outfit. In the past when facing a crisis, the Indians would just crumble under pressure. But Wadekar's team was temperamentally strong and had vast resources of resilience. They gave as good as they got, rose to the occasion time and again, and the result was the greatest triumph in the history of Indian cricket till then. By winning the final Test at The Oval after the first two matches were drawn, India not only broke their cricketing duck in England but also took the series.
The warning signs for England came early in the tour. The Indians, showing excellent form, won five out of eight first-class games including four in a row leading up to the first Test. Indeed, they suffered only one loss on the tour, winning six and drawing nine of 16 matches - easily the best record of any Indian team in England.
The batsmen were among the runs and the bowlers among the wickets, but in a way, the most impressive aspect was the fielding. Past Indian teams in England were found wanting in this important but highly neglected aspect. But this time, while the ground fielding was exemplary, the close-in catching touched great heights, with Eknath Solkar, Wadekar, Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Abid Ali snapping up superb catches. Already kept guessing by the spin bowlers, the English batsmen were a harassed lot with four or five fieldsmen close to the bat taking even half-chances.
India may have been a trifle fortunate in that rain washed out the final day of the second Test with England in a commanding position. Needing 420 to win, India were 65 for 3 at stumps on the fourth day. Rain also curtailed the first Test at Lord's with India needing 38 runs for victory with two wickets in hand.
On the other hand, it must not be forgotten that Wadekar lost the toss in all three Tests and that the Indian batsmen had to play in conditions favourable to bowlers complete with interruptions for rain and bad light - in both the first and second Tests. Past Indian teams had succumbed meekly under such circumstances, but there was a steely resolve about this side.
This was symbolised by the manner in which they stormed back to win the Oval Test after being at the receiving end for most of its duration. After England led off with 355 on the first day, rain ruled out play on the following day. At stumps on the third day, India were 234 for 7, and England were in a position to force a win.
But after being all out for 284, India came back strongly to dismiss England in about two-and-a-half hours for just 101 runs, their lowest total against India. This left 173 needed for victory, and overcoming the tension that always accompanies any historic win, they got home by four wickets half an hour after lunch on the final day.
The jubilant scenes that followed and the grand reception that the victorious team got on their return were quite incredible. Posterity will always refer to the Oval game as Bhagwat Chandrasekhar's match, and deservedly so. He wrecked the England innings with 6 for 38, among the most famous bowling figures in Indian cricket. He and Venkataraghavan finished the series with 13 wickets and Bishan Singh Bedi had 11. This tour heralded the greatest period of the spin quartet and to think that the triumph had been registered with Erapalli Prasanna not playing a single Test!
But credit should go to the batsmen too. At various times, Engineer, Solkar, Gavaskar, Dilip Sardesai, Wadekar and Gundappa Viswanath came up with invaluable knocks. On the tour as a whole, the batsmen played their part in the team's creditable record, and both Gavaskar (1141 runs) and Wadekar (1057) crossed the four-figure mark, while Viswanath (938) narrowly missed getting there. As only to be expected, the spinners took most of the wickets. Venkataraghavan led the tally with 63, while Chandrasekhar (50) and Bedi (58) were not far behind.