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August 24, 1971 revisited

Public memory is proverbially short. But for cricket fans, some events and dates will always stay in the mind. India's first ever Test victory, the miraculous win at Kanpur on Christmas eve in 1959, the country's maiden rubber triumph over England in 1962, the India Rubber Year of 1971, the World Cup triumph in 1983. In my book I would particularly include the two most astounding victories registered by the country in Test cricket in my opinion - at Port of Spain in 1976 when India successfully chased a victory target of 403 and at Melbourne in 1981 when against all expectations and with an emaciated bowling line-up, India routed a formidable Australian side for just 83 runs when the home team were set only 143 runs for victory.

In the minds of the keen cricket fan, certain dates too cannot be forgotten easily. February 10, 1952. March 10, 1971. August 24, 1971. June 25, 1983. March 10, 1985. No prizes for guessing the momentous events that took place on these days. For the older generation, perhaps February 10, 1952 will always be remembered. But for me and those of my generation - by which I mean born shortly after independence - August 24, 1971 will always be evergreen in memory.

It is 29 years ago today but I can remember the events of that day - and the days leading up to the joyous occasion - as vividly as though it took place yesterday. I used to sit glued to the radio and the BBC commentary for years and 1971 was no different. But as luck would have it, I had to leave Madras on the night of August 19 - the opening day of the final Test at the Oval between India and England - to attend a relative's wedding in Bangalore. Over the next few days, caught up as I was with the festivities of the occasion, I had little time to keep in touch with the way the Test was progressing. On Sunday, the day of the wedding, all I knew from a brief glance at the newspaper was that England had scored 355 on the first day, the second day's play was washed out and India had made 234 for seven on the third day.

On Monday, August 23, 1971 I was busy the whole day and reached the station to catch the night train back to Madras. Waiting for the train to arrive, I saw some people on the platform listening to the commentary and suddenly it struck me that it was the fourth day of the Test. Casually I walked up to them and asked for the score. I was told that India had just commenced their second innings. It was 9 pm in India (around tea time at the Oval) and so I naturally assumed that after India had been all out, England had gone for quick runs and then declared leaving India four sessions to save the Test. After all, the second Test had also progressed along these lines. Imagine my surprise when I was told that India required 173 runs for victory as England had been bowled out for 101. This was after India had made 284 in the first innings and those listening to the commentary excitedly told me that Chandrasekhar had taken six wickets.

Still skeptical about all what I heard, I boarded the train. My reluctance to come to terms with the situation can perhaps be understood by the fact that out of 21 Tests played by India in England till then, 15 had been lost and six had been drawn. Over the past three tours, eleven out of 12 Tests had been lost. It was only when I reached Madras and saw the morning papers that it dawned on me that India, who in the meantime had reached 76 for two, were in with a chance to accomplish what no previous Indian team in England had achieved. Just 97 runs more with eight wickets in hand and a whole day ahead should pose no problems, we all reckoned. Only the psychological pressure on approaching a historic triumph seemed to stand in the way of the Indians.

Tuesday, August 24, 1971 was a holiday in India, it being Ganesh Chaturthi. It was a closed holiday for the newspaper I worked. My friends and I planned a little celebration in anticipation of India's victory and by around 3.30 pm, the scheduled time the match was to start in England (where it was 11 am) we had all gathered in my house. All of us felt the early alarm of Ajit Wadekar being run out without any addition to the score. Did this mean the Indians would succumb under the relentless pressure that England applied on them under the shrewd generalship of Ray Illingworth, who had yet to lose a Test as captain?

We need not have worried. Dilip Sardesai and Gundappa Viswanath took the score to 124 through careful, methodical batting. All this time it was a pretty tense bunch of cricket fans listening to the radio commentary. Finally Sardesai was out for 40. But when the consistent Eknath Solkar was fifth out at 134 for his first failure of the series, the feeling of anxiety returned. Sure, only 39 runs were needed and five wickets were left as Farokh Engineer walked out to join Viswanath. All the same, it was nail biting time all over again.

Again the worry was unnecessary. Hitherto the runs had been scored but the rate was painfully slow. Engineer changed all that. He unleashed a thrilling counter attack and England, plainly surprised at the sudden change in strategy, were thrown in a bit of disarray. At lunch, India had progressed to 146 for five. Now only 27 runs were required and the old confidence was back.

During the break, my friends got something suitably bubbly to celebrate the impending Indian victory. When play resumed at 6.40 pm we were all ready, eagerly waiting for the winning stroke from either Engineer or Viswanath. The winning stroke did come about but not from either of these batsmen. Engineer hurried India along while Viswanath was firm at the other end. The score went past 150, 160 and reached 170. The time was now shortly after 7 pm and we had the bubbly ready in our hands. Illingworth had by now given up and put on Brian Luckhurst on to bowl. Surely the winning stroke was now only moments away but there was one minor change in the now well settled scenario. With victory round the corner, Viswanath essayed a big hit off Luckhurst and as the commentator raised his voice, we all thought he was hailing the winning stroke and raised our glasses. A few seconds later, ironic laughter burst across the room as we realised that Viswanath had snicked the ball to Knott.

So it was a more cautious bunch a few minutes later when the commentator raised his voice excitedly again but this time it was for real. For Abid Ali had square cut Luckhurst to the boundary. We came to know it was a square cut later but at the moment all we were aware of was that India had won. Our noisy celebrations started and went on for long even as we could hear the crackers go off everywhere and see bonfires being lit all over. It was one hell of a night. Over and over again, we heard over the radio the news of India's triumph and the congratulations being rushed to the team from the President and the Prime Minister and other dignatories.

As I said, it was Ganesh Chaturthi so there were no newspapers the next day. But I rushed to the office early to rummage through the overnight copy and read the various reports. Keith Miller's description of the momentous events in `The Indian Express' made for entertaining reading and within a few days came Khalid Ansari's emotional piece `If your eyes were moist' in `Sportsweek.' Oh yes, it was a heady feeling, the kind of feeling a later generation would have felt on June 25, 1983. Yes, I did see the World Cup final on television and I know it ended around 11.55 pm IST. I did experience the joy, and again the crackers and the bonfires were part of the scene. But for me, August 24, 1971 will always be something special, very very special. Years later when I went through Mihir Bose's `A history of Indian cricket' - published in 1990 - it pleased me immensely to see that he thought it fit to start the monumental work with the triumph at the Oval. That August 24, 1971 will continue to have a special place in the hearts of cricket lovers in the country is something no one can deny.