A rivalry of which nostalgia is made
It is not surprising that a series against England stirs the senses in India. In recent times, encounters against Australia have produced a little more vitriol, and cricket against Pakistan tends to consume everyone, often for the wrong reasons. But, in spite of the fact that the Empire is now a distant memory and the Commonwealth merely a reason to bring together some fine athletes, India v England has a gravity to it. India's first Test at Lord's was 80 years ago and the most significant one in recent times came in Chennai in December 2008, when England admirably returned after the Mumbai terror attacks and did both India and cricket a huge favour.
It is the history that does it for me. It is everywhere: in the crumbling books in our house, in sepia-toned photographs at cricket grounds, in magnificent literature in the anthologies (and even though cricket writers back then inevitably looked down on India, they still produced excellent prose). I sometimes wonder if they actually made up some of it, but even if they were tales, they were told enchantingly. There was a generation to whom India was a land they ruled, and so taking the odd liberty with the Indian way was thought to be okay. We'd bristle at any such suggestion now but in an era where rupees were few, and pounds unthinkable riches, where a visit to England got you a photograph in the local paper back home, even Indians seemed to accept being portrayed like that.
And it is the history that I turn to, now that another series has got underway. Mine begins as a little boy reading Sport and Pastime in a neighbour's house and imagining Tiger Pataudi making 64 and 148 in Leeds in 1967. He was a charming and handsome man who learnt his cricket in England and led India with pride. His father, of course, is the only man to have played Test cricket for both countries, but Tiger's story was more remarkable. His passing away last year was very sad, and increasingly we lose such bridges between our nations. I know the Anthony de Mello Trophy exists but there must be a way of making Pataudi that link between India and England. We will lose an opportunity if we do not do so.
And then 1971, on short-wave radio, all my heroes, Sunil Gavaskar, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, Farokh Engineer, and of course Abid Ali, had a role to play. We waited and waited as India crawled, stopped and crawled again. Last year, some of those romantics gathered in Mumbai to celebrate 40 years of that event. Sadly we listened too, in parts, to the "summer of 42" in 1974, and first saw television highlights with the distinctive BBC title music in 1979. The radio was a friend in 1976 too, when John Lever ran through India in Delhi. In the middle of a movie we heard someone listening in to the commentary and were reassured that Gavaskar was still batting.
That was when we were first aware that Vaseline could do things to a cricket ball, and a couple of smart alecks amongst us tried using it on a hard cork ball without much success. In later years, Tony Greig, captain of that side is reported to have said, "Vaseline no, lip ice maybe." Mike Selvey, who was on that tour and is now back as a very fine cricket writer, swears there was nothing to it.
And after the most dreadful series in 1981-82, only remembered for Geoffrey Boycott having had enough after breaking the world record, England returned in 1984 to run into Mohammad Azharuddin and the mystifying legspin of Laxman Sivaramakrishnan. Siva, another colleague now, took 12 wickets in Mumbai and was so much fun to watch. I would give anything for footage of that Test, though I would rather it was without the audio track, which featured a certain young man also in his first Test.
I will pause only once more, since more recent encounters find their way onto the 24-hour cricket channels with some regularity, for the Lord's Test of 1990, which had more drama in it than most full series can. Graham Gooch, also in India at the moment, made 333, and he smote the ball, as did Kapil Dev. In a moment of high drama, when India needed 24 to avoid the follow-on, Kapil chose to clear the boundary, where the giant mushroom-shaped media centre now stands, four times in four balls. Just visualise that. Narendra Hirwani is at the other end. In a team of No. 11 batsmen, he would bat at No. 11. India need 24 to make England bat again. Four blows, four sixes, and Hirwani gets out first ball of the next over. India still lost, but Azharuddin, then naïve and generous, played an innings no one can ever forget. It was a great Test match, and I rub my eyes in disbelief at the fact that someone who played that game is playing this one in Ahmedabad. I won't be surprised if Sachin Tendulkar approaches this one with the same excitement he showed so many years ago.
And now, our two nations, with so much in common, will make many more memories. These are very different, more equal times. An Indian company (Tata) is now among the largest private-sector employers in the UK, young English players want to complete their cricket education by coming to India, visitors travel and stay in a fair degree of luxury and can see as many Premiership games live as they could back home. But Indian lawyers still read judgements from British courts, and my hotel in Ahmedabad serves bangers and mash (the one in Nottingham did an Indian curry).
My three favourite India-England Tests since I started covering cricket are Lord's 1990, Leeds 2002 and Chennai 2008. Maybe I will be able to add to that list in the month ahead.
Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here