When Sharma took over at Lord's
It was perhaps fate that Chetan Sharma's career would forever be remembered for one delivery he bowled as a 20-year-old at a desert venue that appears to have gone the way of Atlantis. That last-ball six from Javed Miandad would define his career, harsh reality for a spirited man who bounced back from that leg-side full toss to set India on course for their first and only victory at Lord's.
That summer of 1986 is best remembered for Diego Maradona, the Hand of God and the greatest goal ever, but in many ways, it also marked the pinnacle of a golden age for Indian cricket. The World Cup victory in 1983 had established their one-day credentials, and an emphatic triumph at the World Championship of Cricket two years later confirmed that the Lord's upset of West Indies would not be a lone swallow of summer.
Progress on the Test front had been trickier. Following a 3-0 rout at West Indian hands in the aftermath of the World Cup, there had also been a home reverse against England, with Mike Gatting and Graeme Fowler completing the turnaround at Madras after Laxman Sivaramakrishnan's leg-spun variations had given India the initiative in Bombay.
India had followed that disappointment by dominating a series in Australia, deprived of victory only by umpiring so astonishingly one-eyed that it made the much-maligned subcontinental umpires look good. But even then, expectations were hardly sky-high when the team arrived at Lord's in early June. Dating back to 1932, and India's inaugural Test, Lord's had been more burial mound than happy hunting ground, with two draws and eight thrashings in ten Tests.
England too were at a low ebb, with Ian Botham's cannabis-related indiscretions ruling him out, and the others still nursing wounds from another blackwash in the Caribbean. For some like Mike Gatting, nose pulped by a Malcolm Marshall bouncer, India's less-than-fiery pace attack offered a chance of redemption, but right from the time that Ken Palmer called play, the script was shredded by Sharma.
Kapil Dev and Roger Binny did not have much luck with the new ball, but once Maninder Singh made the initial incision, it was very much the Sharma show. Six weeks on from that ball, he had David Gower, a pale shadow of the man who had been such a colossus in the previous summer's Ashes series, caught behind. Soon after, Gatting was bowled, as Sharma's whippy action and raw pace discomfited the top order.
|Six weeks on from that ball, he had David Gower, a pale shadow of the man who had been such a colossus in the previous summer's Ashes series, caught behind. Soon after, Gatting was bowled, as Sharma's whippy action and raw pace discomfited the top order|
Resistance came from the two big Essex men. Gooch, as upright and stolid as ever, grafted patiently for a century, while Derek Pringle offered limpet-like companionship. The partnership was worth 147 by the time the tireless Sharma bustled in to knock over Gooch's stumps at the fag end of the day, a breakthrough whose importance would become apparent the next morning when England stuttered to 294 all out.
After Dilip Vengsarkar's classy hundred gave India a slender lead, Sharma relinquished centre stage to his captain. Once again, the seamers stifled English progress, and it was Kapil who dealt the decisive blows, winkling out Gooch, Tim Robinson and Gower with just 35 on the board.
Sharma's work was not quite done though, and he added the key wicket of Gatting as the innings disintegrated. His exertions subsequently ruled him out of the Headingley game where the series was clinched, but he was back for the final Test at Edgbaston, where he became the first Indian bowler to take ten wickets in a match in England.
He was not the only unlikely hero either. Madan Lal was 35 and spending the summer in the northern leagues when Sharma's injury resulted in him being called up for Headingley. He responded with a superb spell of 3 for 18, a special way to end a career that had started an hour's drive south at Old Trafford 12 years earlier.
Sharma finished the series with 16 wickets at 18.75, while Binny, whose 24 Tests outside of England realised only 35 scalps, had 12 at 20.91. Kapil, man of the match at Lord's despite Sharma's 5 for 64, replicated his 1982 figures, though his tally of ten wickets doesn't reveal just how well he bowled at times.
If there is a lesson for Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth and RP Singh to learn from those days of long ago, it is the value of accuracy. Even allowing for the fact that those were years of less hectic run-plunder, the fact that no Indian bowler conceded more than three runs an over is testament to how well they applied pressure. A three-pronged pace attack and one miserly spinner capable of moments of inspiration, Maninder. Times have changed, but that old combo could yet be India's formula for success this summer.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo