Shivlal Yadav uses the phrase "it so happened" a lot. It so happens that as manager of the Indian team, his first Test of this assignment is at the MCG, the current team's scourge and the scene of Yadav's finest show of courage as an offspinner and a gritty tail-ender. A little less than 30 years ago, when India last won a Test here, in the days when physios and doctors weren't available 24-7, Yadav took at least seven painkilling injections, straight into his broken toe, to score 20 runs and then bowl 32 overs when India had lost two other bowlers to injury.
It was good-old hanging by the skin of the teeth until Kapil Dev recovered to bowl a magic spell on the final day to take 5 for 28 and bowl Australia out for 83, chasing 143. MCG 80-81 is a Test known for the Gavaskar-Lillee altercation and Kapil's magic spell, but the smaller contributions, the likes Yadav made, are often not retold.
Returning to Australia brings back happy memories for Yadav. He averaged under 30 in this crucible for finger spinners, statistics only two other Indian spinners - Bishan Bedi and Ravi Shastri - have managed. Fifty-five of his 102 Test wickets were Australians. However, it is the MCG that is closest to him. Two days before the Boxing Day Test, as he sits in the empty stands of this huge stadium, with birds' chirpings clearly audible, he recollects those five days in minute detail.
"The wicket wasn't very good. It came up, down, everywhere," he says. "Vishy [G Viswanath] got a brilliant hundred in the first innings. He had been struggling for runs. In first Test in Sydney (which India lost by an innings) he couldn't get many. I remember he had completely stopped drinking. He was absolutely concentrating on the game, and he got the hundred, and then he had a beer. For 15 days not a drop. He said he would only have it after scoring a hundred."
It was a hundred made possible by the No. 10 Yadav, who hung around for 79 minutes and scored 20 runs himself. He was there when Viswanath got to the hundred, but before that his toe cracked. "That's when I broke my toe. Rather Lenny Pascoe broke my toe," Yadav says. "Rodney Marsh was shouting from behind that he was going to keep coming down. I didn't understand what he meant. Lenny started hitting me on the top first. He started with my helmet, then shoulder, forearm, ribs, thigh, then the yorker on the toe. Then I understood what Rodney meant."
Viswanath meanwhile told Yadav to not remove the shoe. He knew the sight of swelling might psyche Yadav up. "It was numb and then it hurt," Yadav says. "I didn't take a runner or anything. Vishy said, 'Don't worry about it, and bat till I am there.' After he got out, Dilip Doshi got out soon. I went to the hospital to get my foot x-rayed. It was a T sort of fracture. Quite visible." Yadav still can't bend his toe.
During Australia's innings, Kapil strained his thigh, and Doshi, too, injured his toe. There weren't many options left. "Sunil asked the doctors if I could take painkillers and be on the field. The doctor said they'd give me shots but I wouldn't be able to chase balls. Sunil said, 'You field in the slips and keep bowling at the other end.'"
Yadav went on to bowl 32 overs, taking two shots before each session, one each into the either side of the toe, for the wickets of Kim Hughes and Allan Border. He points to the mid-on area where Chetan Chauhan "brilliantly" caught Hughes' on-drive. Still, India had conceded a big lead, and had only set a meagre target, thanks to half-centuries from Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan - Gavaskar had threatened a walkout in the second innings after being given out lbw to Dennis Lillee - when Yadav's turn came to bat.
Yadav wanted to wear a bigger shoe than his own, Bharath Reddy's size 11, and go out to bat. But the way he was limping, the manager Wing Commander Durrani told him he could not play any further part in the match. What Kapil did with the ball after that is part of folklore, as is Greg Chappell's attempt at a hook, and getting bowled behind the legs by a Karsan Ghavri grubber. That was the wicket, just before the end of the fourth day's play, that made Lillee say he would bet on India if he were a betting man.
A lesser told story is how the same combine of Yadav and Ghavri had kept India alive in the series with a 10-over ninth-wicket stand on the final day of the second Test in Adelaide. Only Doshi, not much of a bat, was to follow, but Australia couldn't get to him. Ghavri played out 39 deliveries for seven, and Yadav 28 for a 0 not out, called by the Australian papers the most valuable zero of all time.
"Rodney Marsh was shouting from behind that he was going to keep coming down. I didn't understand what he meant. Lenny started hitting me on the top first. He started with my helmet, then shoulder, forearm, ribs, thigh, then the yorker on the toe. Then I understood what Rodney meant." Yadav on his toe injury
Yadav remembers earlier in the tour he had tried to farm the strike when batting with a No. 11, and got himself out while trying to work a single off the last ball. "When we came inside the dressing room, Gavaskar fired me. 'This is not the professional way of playing. Why should you bother about the other fellow? It's his problem. You look after your wicket.' I had made up my mind that if the situation came again I would play my own way. I was not going to bother about the other batsmen.
"It just so happened that in the Adelaide Test we had 10 overs to play when I joined Karsan. He said he would play that end and I said I would play this end. Only on one occasion there was a couple taken, but we never changed ends."
Yadav came back to Australia in 1985-86, and ended up with 15 wickets in the series, more than any other bowler. There was one final act left before he was finally done with the Aussies. The tied Test. In the first innings he added 55 with Kapil to save the follow-on, and in the second he joined Ravi Shastri with India needing 14 to win. It had been a daring declaration by Australia on the final day.
"The moment they declared Kapil said, 'Come on boys, let's go for it. This challenge we have to accept.' Sunil and [Kris] Srikkanth got a good start, and after that we kept losing wickets after every 50 runs we put on. At times we thought okay we should call it off, but somehow we kept getting runs. That momentum kept going on. Ravi played a beautiful knock. If Kapil had stayed there for half an hour, match would have been over.
"When I walked in, with the 40000-odd crowd, my hair was standing, my heart pumping. Ravi came up to me and said, 'Shivi, if at all you want to hit, hit only Greg Matthews, not Ray Bright, because the ball was turning and he was taking it away from me. There was very little I could think - there was huge sound of public shouting. I played a couple of balls, and took a chance because we were running out of overs too. One flighted ball, I just went down the wicket and lofted. Allan Border was at silly point and he shouted 'Catch it, catch it, catch it.' Greg Ritchie was at long-on, and he was trying to get under the ball. The moment the ball cleared him, I was a relieved man. Otherwise it would have appeared as if I threw my wicket away."
With just four required, when Yadav tried to sweep Bright, the ball hit the arm, and then the back of the bat to deflect onto the stumps. Maninder Singh's dismissal after that is stuff of legend, as is the "altercation" between Shastri and umpire V Vikramraju. "We thought we had lost an opportunity to win the Test match, but ultimately we realised it was a tie, and perhaps even better than a win. Even today we talk about it because it was a tie."
Parity has been Yadav's relationship with Australia, especially in Australia. He played an important part in three drawn series against them. The parity ended after his retirement as Australia became a much stronger side and kept whipping India at home. Now that India are starting a series on level terms and not as underdogs, it so happens that Yadav is the manager of the side.