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A Vaseline-coated series

Partab Ramchand

December 6, 2001

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The England Tony-Greig-led squad that toured India in 1976-77 was the strongest since Douglas Jardine's side of 1933-34. Fittingly enough, then, it won the series in India, the first English team to do so in 43 years. Virtually no major player declined to make the trip as in the past, and Greig was fortunate to have a well-balanced side of batsmen, bowlers and all-rounders.


Except for a couple of players, the England team lacked flamboyance, but they remained dedicated to the task at hand. As true professionals, the players showed determination and a thoughtful approach, and this paid rich dividends. Greig's charisma enabled him to extract maximum effort from his players.
Still, it was not as formidable a squad as the results would indicate. England won the first three Tests ­ the first side to accomplish that feat on a tour of this country - and, although India came back in the five-match rubber, the final margin of 3-1 was somewhat flattering to the visitors. However good the visitors were, it must also be admitted that India played a lot of bad cricket in the first three Tests, and by the time they recovered, the series as a contest was over.

The truth is that the home team was exhausted when the first Test commenced at New Delhi. Just before the series started, the Indians had completed a three-Test rubber against New Zealand and had put their best foot forward, winning it 2-0. The Indian players were thus already jaded and perhaps a shade over-confident.

Greig, a tough competitor and never one to miss a chance to strike back, spotted the chinks in the Indian armour and exploited them ruthlessly. He saw to it that the batsmen were always under pressure, thanks to his three-pronged pace attack of Bob Willis, John Lever and Chris Old, who responded magnificently. Whenever required, he and Derek Underwood picked up vital wickets with spin. The batsmen, inspired by their captain and elder statesman Dennis Amiss, played the famed Indian spin attack with a great degree of assurance.

Except for a couple of players, the England team lacked flamboyance, but they remained dedicated to the task at hand. As true professionals, the players showed determination and a thoughtful approach, and this paid rich dividends. Greig's charisma enabled him to extract maximum effort from his players.

However well the batsmen responded to the challenge of coming good against the spinners, it was the bowling that played the key role in the triumph. Willis, used in short spells, was very effective, and he finished with 20 wickets at 16.75 apiece. Underwood gave the batsmen little respite with his accuracy and deceptiveness, and he finished as the highest wicket-taker with 29 wickets at 17.55 apiece. But the biggest success was left-arm seamer John Lever. Making his debut in the first Test, he had a match-haul of 10 wickets for 70 and ended the series with 26 wickets at an average of 14.61.

Among the batsmen, Amiss led the way with 417 runs at an average of 52.12. His 179 in the first Test was vital, for it proved that the Indian spinners could be negotiated. Greig came up with his tactically brilliant 103 in the second Test at Calcutta, reaching his hundred in 413 minutes, then the fourth slowest for England. Alan Knott as usual frustrated the spinners, sweeping them repeatedly with his unorthodox approach. These three ­ and the bowlers ­ covered up for the lack of depth in the batting.

For India, this was a series to forget as little went right for them. Their main problem was the batting; that there was only one hundred by an Indian in the series ­ by Sunil Gavaskar in the last Test at Bombay ­ best exemplifies this problem. Their totals in the first six innings were 122, 234, 155, 181, 164 and 83. The form ­ or lack of it ­ of Gundappa Viswanath symbolized the Indian plight; in the first seven innings, the great stylist was reduced to just 87 runs, and although he came good with an unbeaten 79 ­ at number seven ­ in the fourth Test, that remained his only knock of note, and he finished the series with 175 runs at an average of below 20.

Gavaskar topped the aggregates with 394 runs, but for large periods he too struggled and did not bat very fluently. Brijesh Patel hit 286 runs at an average of only 28.60 but finished third in the averages ­ a telltale sign of the fragility of the Indian batting. The inability of Anshuman Gaekwad to come good, and the failures of Parthasarathy Sharma, Mohinder Amarnath, Madan Lal and Yajuvindra Singh in the limited opportunities that they had, added further to the batting blues. The inclusion of Surinder Amarnath for the last two Tests was a slight advantage, particularly as a counter to Lever and Underwood.

The Indian spinners suffered from the failure of the batsmen, who did not give them the adequate totals. The bowling, however, was less a problem when compared to the batting. Bishan Singh Bedi, baffled as he was by the battering that his side was receiving, did not let this interfere with his bowling skills and took 25 wickets at 22.96, in the process bagging his 200th wicket - the first Indian to reach the mark.

BS Chandrasekhar, after a slow start, did well in the third Test and won the Bangalore Test for his side with a bag of nine wickets. He finished the series with a haul of 19 at 28.26. But perhaps the best Indian bowler was Erapalli Prasanna who, at 36, still retained all his old guile and control. He headed the averages with 18 wickets at 21.61 apiece.

A series played in a competitive but happy spirit, thanks to the excellent public relations of Greig and Ken Barrington, was unfortunately marred by the Vaseline controversy, in which Lever was the central character. The swing bowler was accused of smearing the ball with Vaseline at Madras. The matter was taken up by officials from both teams, and finally it was accepted that, though it was a breach of law 46, the offence was totally unintentional and was not a direct infringement of the laws of the game.

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