The 1981-82 series between India and England would be up there among the dullest of all time. After India won the first Test, the next five were turgid draws, memorable only for long, soporific periods of play as India easily defended their lead on dead pitches. But the tour itself almost didn't happen, and until shortly before England were due to arrive, it had seemed likely that it would be cancelled.
The problem came almost as soon as England announced a squad containing two players - Geoff Boycott and Geoff Cook - who were among 128 sportsmen on a United Nations blacklist because they had played cricket in apartheid South Africa. As the tour approached it became apparent that the Indian government would be unwilling to allow the pair entry, and the Test & County Cricket Board, the ECB's predecessor, was equally adamant that it would not leave either man out.
The climate regarding sporting links with South Africa at the time was delicate. Few nations were in favour of participating in sport in the Republic while the Gleneagles Agreement, a document agreed between all Commonwealth countries in 1977, forbade contact between international teams. But, as the former India captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi said: "Cricketers here understood that the agreement forbade teams from going to South Africa, but merely discouraged individuals."
Some countries adopted a far stricter interpretation, none more than Guyana, whose refusal to allow Robin Jackman entry earlier in 1981 had led to the cancellation of the Bourda Test against England. New Zealand had their invitation to tour the Caribbean withdrawn because the country had allowed a rugby tour by South Africa in 1980-81. James Beho, a UN representative, went as far as stating that anyone playing against anyone with South African links should also be banned.
Many cricketers, mainly from England, argued they should have the freedom to pursue their work without intervention, pointing out that many multinational businesses openly dealt with South Africa and even had offices there. Around 40 professional cricketers from overseas were plying their trade in South Africa in 1981-82, including Alan Knott, Peter Willey, Bob Woolmer and Alvin Kallicharran.
The whole business was riddled with paradoxes. In 1976-77, Indira Gandhi, India's prime minister, had warmly welcomed an England side captained by Tony Greig, a South African. And Kapil Dev, one of India's rising stars, played his county cricket for Northamptonshire, who were captained by Cook. The real losers of a cancellation would have been the Indian board; the TCCB had taken out insurance against such an eventuality after the Guyana incident.
Reports first emerged that the Indian government was taking a stand against Boycott and Cook on October 15, and the TCCB quickly informed its Indian counterparts that it would not agree to any of its tour party being barred, and were that to happen then it would reluctantly cancel the trip.
The knock-on effect would have ripped world cricket in two. India would almost certainly have cancelled their return trip to England in 1982, and a black-white split in the game would have been almost inevitable. The ultimate irony would have been that, had Gandhi's government stood their ground, then the racial divide that would have followed might well have resulted in South Africa being readmitted to the (white) international fold.
Meanwhile, Donald Carr, the TCCB's secretary, admitted he had heard rumblings but, nevertheless, the news caught him off guard. Responding to Indian press agency reports that the tour was off, he admitted that "the news is less promising than we had hoped", adding that when the team had been picked a month earlier, the board had received "positive assurances it was acceptable". That view was reinforced by an ICC resolution earlier in the year that all teams must be picked without interference from governments.
The next day it emerged that the Indian board had flagged the potential problem with its government the previous August and had been told there would not be a problem. It was only in late September that the government's stance switched. The board was in an impossible position and powerless to intervene. An uneasy period of behind-the-scenes negotiation followed, while the TCCB could only sit and wait. Privately, it started looking for alternatives, with New Zealand the favourite.
In the media, the only compromise anyone touted was for Cook and Boycott to voluntarily stand down, but on October 20 the British newspapers reported that Cook had refused to withdraw, saying that to do so would amount to him admitting guilt for doing something he did not feel was wrong. Boycott, meanwhile, was on holiday in Hong Kong, where he managed to fit some cricket in. "He has not so far played a positive stroke," wrote John Woodcock, "which is not entirely out of character."
The TCCB waited for developments, but with Gandhi in Mexico, the stalemate continued. On October 26 she stopped briefly at Heathrow airport on her way home, telling reporters to expect a decision within a week.
While there was support for Gandhi's stand inside India, it was not overwhelming, and as the likelihood of the tour being scrapped grew, pressure began to be brought to find a solution. The issue was how to do so without losing face.
The compromise came on October 30, when SK Wankhede, the Indian board chairman, announced that the tour would go ahead. He said that he had received "satisfactory clarifications" from the TCCB that it did not approve of tours to South Africa, and that any players who took part in representative matches there would not be considered for selection. On its part the TCCB agreed that anyone wintering in South Africa would not be summoned were replacements needed. Additionally, both Cook and Boycott publicly repeated their opposition to apartheid.
"The cricketing authorities in India have consistently made clear their wish that the tour should go ahead," wrote the editorial in the next day's Times. "They have not been the ones making the difficulties." It was clear where the editor thought the blame lay.
"Hurray for Mrs Gandhi," enthused Frank Keating in the Guardian. "Good sense and good politics. It was an awful dilemma for the Indians and they have solved it honourably and bravely."
On November 5, England finally flew to Mumbai to start a gruelling tour - minus Boycott, who had stayed in Hong Kong to get some more net practice. He arrived late and left early, abandoning the trip after the fourth Test. Within weeks he and 12 other English players were starting a rebel tour... of South Africa.
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The Cricketer - Various
Wisden Cricket Monthly Various
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack1983
The Times - Various