India's tour from hell
By the mid-1970s India were riding high in world cricket. In 1970-71 they went to the Caribbean and won the series, and followed with a historic victory over England in 1971. The strength of their batting line-up and the effectiveness of their spin attack were confirmed when they beat England at home in 1972-73.
They arrived in England in 1974 to play a side that had been drubbed the previous summer by a resurgent West Indies and then outplayed in a return series in the Caribbean, from which they had emerged with an unlikely draw. What's more, Mike Denness, appointed as England captain for that tour, was a far from unanimous choice and he had been under immense media pressure from day one.
In a split summer, India had the misfortune to tour first, playing in far from ideal conditions which frustrated their spinners and were perfect for England's seamers. In 12 warm-up matches preceding the first Test, India were unbeaten but managed only two wins. Those came after Syed Abid Ali, no more than a gentle medium-pacer, ripped through the first innings.
The spin attack was thwarted by unseasonal cold and wet which, Sunil Gavaskar recalled, meant that most players wore layers of sweaters and the slips kept their hands in their pockets until the last moment. India were also far from settled, and a row early on the trip between Bishan Bedi and Ajit Wadekar, the captain, set the tone.
At a persistently chilly and dank Old Trafford, India lost by 113 runs and failed to bowl England out in either innings. The three-man spin attack of Bedi, S Venkataraghavan and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar managed 5 for 263 between them.
Two morale-boosting wins followed before the second Test at Lord's. England, who had omitted the struggling Geoff Boycott, won the toss and batted on a perfect track under a deep blue sky. Runs flowed and by the time England had been bowled out late on the second day, they had made 629, their highest post-war score. India's trio of spinners - Erapalli Prasanna had replaced Venkat - had taken 8 for 425, of which Bedi's share was 6 for 226. Chandrasakar's role was limited by a thumb injury he picked up trying to field a hard return drive from Dennis Amiss.
Bedi's contribution did not meet with approval. Gavaskar moaned that despite being heavily punished, Bedi continued to toss the ball up. "Bishan has said he will not stop giving the ball air just because the batsman is attacking," he wrote. "The situation was such that he should have bowled tight."
India's reply started confidently, Gavaskar and Farokh Engineer attacking with a flurry of pulls and hooks. But after an opening stand of 131 Gavaskar was caught by Alan Knott, and thereafter the innings lost its way. India were bowled out for 302 shortly before the close on a third day, which was the hottest of the lot.
They resumed at 2 for 0 in the follow-on after a rest day spent at the home of a wealthy supporter. Most newspapers had predicted India would face few demons on a pitch which had, till then, offered little. Indeed, the wickets that had fallen in India's first innings had largely been self-inflicted, three being caught at long leg off hooks.
But the day dawned overcast and hazy and the ball, which had shown no inclination to deviate off the pitch or in the air, started moving sideways. Chris Old and Geoff Arnold - an 11th-hour replacement for Bob Willis - were experts in such conditions, and never gave anyone else a chance to bowl. From the moment Engineer was trapped leg before in Arnold's opening over, it took 63 minutes for the innings to end.
Against a seaming, swinging ball, a succession of batsmen nibbled and perished to catches behind the wicket. Only Solkar remained unbowed, his 18 not out providing almost half of India's total, and ten of those came from a four and a six in one memorable Old over during which Solkar was also hit on the head attempting a hook.
In reality only nine wickets fell as Chandrasekhar was injured and did not come out to bat. Old finished with 5 for 21, Arnold with 4 for 19. "The reality was that Arnold and Old bowled five good balls which got our top five out," Gavaskar explained. "After that there was no resistance from the tailenders."
India's 42 was their lowest in a Test and the lowest by any side in a Test at Lord's - two records that remain. Their only solace was that precious few were in the ground to witness the debacle. "To Indians in India it must seem like the end of the Golden Age," wrote John Woodcock in The Times.
"A funereal atmosphere invaded the changing room as nobody was talking to each other," Wadekar said. "As it was very early in the day still, I decided it would be better to practise rather than brood over nothing, so the team turned up for the nets."
As if things could not get worse, the next day the squad was embroiled in a row after turning up late to a reception being hosted at the high commissioner's residence. Wadekar and some other senior players were asked to leave because of their late arrival, and after a standoff, during which the squad sat on the team bus, they were finally readmitted. The Indian media had a field day.
To add to their woes, 24 hours later it emerged that SS Naik, who was to make his debut in the final Test of the series, had been arrested for shoplifting at Marks & Spencer in Oxford Street. He pleaded guilty.
All that was left to play for at Edgbaston was pride, but England again ground India down in utterly favourable conditions. The first day was washed out, and then India were stuck in and skittled for 165. By the second day the pitch had lost its zip and the weather was warm. England feasted against bowlers who 18 months earlier had bamboozled them. David Lloyd scored 214 not out and Denness a second successive hundred as England made 459 for 2 before declaring. India's spinners took 2 for 324. India's second innings offered little other than Naik's battling 77, and they again lost by an innings.
In India the mood was angry and the 1971 Victory Bat, erected at Indore to commemorate the triumph of that year, was defaced. Fittingly, the players returned in dribs and drabs rather than as a unit. Wadekar went to the USA for a holiday with his wife. "Most of the reportage was a bit exaggerated," he said when asked about the reaction to the defeat in India. "They reported that stones were thrown on my house. Now, I used to stay on the fourth floor, so whoever could throw stones at my house could have been in the Test team."
So what went wrong? "It was a totally disastrous series and the tour was one of the worst I had made," Gavaskar said. "There was no such thing as team spirit. Instead there were a lot of petty squabbles that didn't do anybody any good. The many incidents that gave the team such a bad name didn't help. It was all extremely frustrating."
Wadekar had even asked MAK Pataudi to join the tour. "What we wanted was someone with good experience of playing in English conditions, and with his stints for Sussex and knowing that he is good in those conditions, I had decided to call Pataudi, but he declined."
The wretched weather hardly helped. India's spinners, the cutting edge of their success, were almost impotent in unfavourable conditions. In 1971 spin had accounted for 37 wickets at 28.48; in 1974 the figures were 15 wickets at 67.46.
For Wadekar, it was the end. "I thought I was not wanted after I came back. They dropped me from the West Zone team. That time I felt that if I was not wanted, what was the point ... at the same time I got a promotion from the State Bank of India, my employers, so I decided to retire early.
"It wasn't the defeat in England - it was expected considering the situation there - it was when they dropped me from the West Zone team that I felt I was not wanted."
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Sunny Days Sunil Gavaskar (Rupa & Co., 2002)
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack
Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo.