Lever's Indian summer
If England want to make a quick start in India, someone should call John Lever. No Englishman has better figures in that country than Lever's, on debut in December 1976, when he swung the ball prodigiously to take 7 for 46 in India's first innings in Delhi. It set the tone for the series: by the time it finished in mid-February the following year, Lever had taken 26 wickets in England's 3-1 series triumph.
Much has changed since, of course: India are likely to prove rather less accommodating hosts this time. Back in 1976, a bit of flattery from Ken Barrington, England's tour manager, had ensured that first Test was played with an Indian-produced ball that swung prodigiously. It was the perfect implement for Lever, a fastish left-armer with an easy, rhythmical approach, whose smoothly delivered stock ball, when it swung, had a habit of dipping into the batsman very late.
"Ken said to me: 'If you play in the Test match, would you like to use them?'" Lever, who had enjoyed success with the ball in warm-up games, says. "I said yes. He went to them and said, 'We think you've made great strides in your cricket-ball making, we'd like to use them in Test matches.' They said: 'Thanks very much!'
"The first ball didn't swing an awful lot. The problem with these balls, though, was that they went out of shape - and that one had certainly done so. Tony Greig got it changed and the next ball swung quite a bit. We were very pleased!"
It was to prove a happy series all-round for the touring party. England had a strong side, captained by Grieg and including a mixture of experience (the likes of Derek Underwood, Dennis Amiss, Bob Willis and Alan Knott) and younger talents like Lever. India, under Bishan Bedi, proved no match. Much is made of the unique difficulties of an Indian tour by English cricketers, but Lever speaks of that trip with undisguised nostalgia.
"It was absolutely fantastic," he says. "It was something I'd never experienced; I'd played a few finals in county cricket in front of big crowds, but these were massive. Calcutta was 100,000-plus; it was a real experience and a real eye-opener, and quite enjoyable. At the end of the day you needed a quiet moment because that noise carried on throughout. It was wearing.
"The Indian supporters were lovely people: they obviously wanted their side to win, but they were happy to see people do well. They were happy to see Amiss get 200 , they thought the world of him, and to see Greig do well."
Lever's own standing amongst that Indian support suffered during the third Test in Chennai due to a ball-tampering row.
Lever was accused of using Vaseline on the ball to help make it swing: as Greig explained in an article for ESPNcricinfo two years ago, Lever and Willis had been told to wear Vaseline-impregnated gauze strips across their eyebrows to stop the sweat getting in their eyes. Lever had decided to take his off and dropped it at the foot of the stumps, where one of the umpires found it - and the furore began.
For Lever, it clearly still rankles. "It took a lot of satisfaction away as far as I was concerned," he says. "They found nothing on the ball but it still took a little bit away from the fact that I ran up and swung the ball. I guess Bedi was under a bit of pressure, they were 3-0 down: he was looking for something to justify the performance of that Indian side.
"The worst thing was that those Indian supporters, all they're going to know is what they read in the paper - so all the good that I'd done was taken away a bit."
Lever experienced Greig's impulsive streak in the moments following the press conference at the end of that first Test in Delhi. "We came out of that press conference and stood at the side of the road," says Lever. "Greigy being 6ft 7in, blond hair, stood there in his whites, he waved down two motorbikes and said to the guys, 'We want to go to the so-and-so hotel'. There we were careering through the streets of Delhi - I've never been so scared! I'm thinking, 'It started well but it could end here!'
"These guys couldn't believe they had Tony Greig and John Lever on the back of their bikes, so they were trying to look at us all the time. I don't know how we stayed upright!"
Lever's career never reached the heights of that series again. He returned to India in 1981, to play in a series widely regarded as one of the dullest of all time. The home side won the first Test and five draws followed. "The pitches were flat, flat, flat and we never had a chance of a result," Lever says. "It was absolutely awful, so dull! Even to play in it was mind-numbing."
After that, he went on a rebel tour of South Africa and played domestic cricket for three seasons there, for Natal. Those were the best years of his career, he says, and the figures bear him out: he played a crucial workhorse role in Essex's first-ever Championship in 1979 and then again when they repeated the feat in 1983 and '84, when only Nottinghamshire's Kiwi titan Richard Hadlee took more wickets than his 106. Lever, who played 21 Tests, clearly regrets the fact that he didn't get more chance to display his talent in the highest form of the game.
"I felt as though I could have played a lot more Test matches and after the '81 Indian trip, which came on top of not really playing too many matches in England, I felt slightly disillusioned - so when the chance came to go on the rebel tour I took it." He played just one more Test - against India, at Leeds in 1986.
Lever, now 63, has spent the last 23 years teaching cricket at Bancroft's School in Woodford Green and will be an interested observer during the upcoming series. "We've got a very, very, talented seam attack," he says. "If we're going to do well, that could be the answer: Steven Finn, in particular, is looking better and better every time I see him.
"If we get wickets with any sort of life at all we'll bowl any side out - but they know that. Certainly, it won't be an easy contest but it should be worth watching."