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Australia's greatest challenge

In 1969-70 Australia won their series in India: a battle between spinners and batsmen, played against a background of widespread violence

Stands burn after Venkat was controversially given out caught behind in the first Test, at the Brabourne Stadium  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Stands burn after Venkat was controversially given out caught behind in the first Test, at the Brabourne Stadium  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

The 1969-70 series between India and Australia was as gripping on the field as it was ugly off it. The five-Test series, won 3-1 by Australia, attracted tremendous interest and was watched by large crowds throughout. Unfortunately three of the matches were affected by disturbances - a riot in Bombay, a crowd invasion in Calcutta, and stone-throwing in Bangalore - "so much so that one heaved a sigh of relief when the programme was concluded", Wisden noted.
The series was closer fought than Australia's winning margin suggested. India lost the fifth Test in Madras when well set on 114 for 2, chasing 249. Had they won, they would have drawn 2-2, which would probably have been a fairer reflection of the matches. As it was, most of the games centred on a gripping battle between India's great spinners (Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan) and Australia's powerful batting line-up. The trio claimed 59 of the 70 Australian wickets to fall, but surprisingly Australia's offspinner Ashley Mallett finished the highest individual wicket-taker, with 28.
Surprisingly, at a time when India were renowned for attritional cricket, drawn matches, and dominance by bat over ball, only one Test was drawn, and no batsman averaged over 50. Australia's highest total in the five matches was 348, but the crucial factor was that India's batsmen failed to offer their spinners support when it mattered.
The build-up to the series - three Tests between India and New Zealand - had suggested it would not pass off quietly. The first Test had been moved from Ahmedabad to Bombay because of rioting in the city, and then the third Test, in Delhi, was interrupted by an uproar when spectators became angered by the overreaction of police to a young fan who had run on the field. It set the tone for what followed.
The series started under something of a cloud in Bombay, when India's selectors left out Venkat. In the face of an outcry, Subrata Guha stood down, allowing Venkat to play. As it was, Australia won by eight wickets, thanks to a Keith Stackpole hundred and then John Gleeson (4 for 56) helping to bowl India out for 137 in their second innings, leaving the tourists a target of 64. But the statistics hide an infamous conclusion to the match.
Late in India's second innings Venkat was controversially given out caught behind after a lone appeal from gully. As he trudged off, wicketkeeper Brian Taber shrugged and said: "He missed it by a foot." Unfortunately radio commentators said exactly the same thing, triggering unrest in a crowd already angered by the home side's inept performance. They thought Bill Lawry, Australia's captain, should have recalled the batsman. Lawry, who was not a person likely to turn down anything given by umpires, was in no mood for diplomacy.
Within minutes, stands were on fire and bottles and seats were being thrown at the fielders, striking two of them. The match drifted towards its conclusion against a backdrop of chanting, and the smoke billowing across the outfield got so thick the scorers were unable to see. When one of them, Jehangir Irani, marched to the middle to protest, Lawry, wanting to get the match done and dusted, suggested brusquely he move somewhere where he could make out what was happening. "I reckon I can clean up the tail in this smoke," fast bowler Alan Connolly joked.
Fielders remained close to the middle, although the aim of some of the crowd was good. At one point, as fast bowler Garth McKenzie ran in, he was stopped in his tracks as large stone fell in front of him. In a rather surreal atmosphere, police, at times no more than 40 yards from the square, ringed the action. To their credit, India could have gone off but chose to play on.
Five minutes before the scheduled close, Mallett took the ninth wicket by bowling Prasanna, and after one more over, play finished. On police advice, the Australians remained in the middle for another 20 minutes as attempts were made to clear the clubhouse. Eventually they were escorted towards the dressing rooms but their ordeal was far from over. Several players armed themselves with stumps for protection. Doug Walters, who made do with a bail, grinned: "I'll try and poke someone's eye out with it."
Gleeson was felled by a bottle (he later joked the members had better arms than the mob), while wicker chairs were thrown from the clubhouse balcony, narrowly missing Lawry.
When the Australians reached the dressing room they were almost immediately forced to shelter in the showers, as bottles smashed all the windows. The police again waded into the crowd to try to restore some kind of order. By the time they did, the scene was one of utter destruction, with dozens of policemen and bystanders injured.
Overnight, fingers were pointed in a variety of directions. The Indian newspapers deplored what had happened. "It is a novel and sad state of affairs that violence latent in our public life should spring to the surface on our cricket fields," wrote KN Prabhu in the Times of India. "The major casualty was the fair name of Indian cricket, and Bombay cricket."
In the same newspaper Arvind Lavakare said the fault was with the poor conditions spectators were forced to endure. "It does not require a professional psychiatrist or psychologist to determine the roots of the riots lay basically in the excess discomfort thrust upon the majority by authority," he wrote. "Overcrowding and official antipathy towards comfort cannot keep emotions bottled for all times."
The Cricket Club of India, blaming radio commentators rather than looking closer to home, banned broadcasters from the fifth day, before having to relent when it was pointed out there were international commitments to fulfil. In the event, it barred all bottled drinks from the ground. Though the stands were devoid of much of their seating, and had been charred by the fires, and the match as good as dead as a contest, more than 20,000 turned up to watch the last rites.
For the remainder of the tour the Australians were accompanied by armed police.
The second Test, in Kanpur, was the one game that went as expected and finished in a draw, with neither side managing to raise the run rate much above two an over.
The series really came to life in the third Test, in Delhi, when India recorded a seven-wicket win after conceding a first-innings lead of 73. Bedi and Prasanna shared all ten wickets as Australia were bowled out for 107 in their second innings, and Ajit Wadekar's unbeaten 91 steered India home after they had wobbled to 18 for 2 chasing 181.
After a tour match in Guwahati, the Australians headed to Calcutta, at the time a city in chaos, with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing floods in East Pakistan in situ, as well as suffering a campaign of violence from communist extremists. The police presence around the Test was considerable.
The team hotel was surrounded by several thousand people protesting the presence in the side of Walters, because they wrongly believed he had served with Australian forces in Vietnam. Again, windows were broken. A pre-match practice session was abandoned when around 20,000 turned up to watch, proving too much for even the heightened security presence to cope with.
Interest in the fourth Test, at Eden Gardens, was high but Australia took a 123-run first-innings lead and then dismissed India for 161, winning by ten wickets. Huge crowds flocked to the ground every day, but on the fourth (and as it happened final) day, tragedy struck, when around 25,000 people who had been queuing patiently all night tried to rush the ticket counters shortly before they opened. Riot police fired teargas and in return were met with a hail of bottles and stones. Six people died and another 30 were injured. As had been the case three years earlier when there were similar scenes during a West Indies Test, it was widely blamed on the mass of black-market tickets in circulation.
Although play started on time, there was further trouble when spectators in the top tier of a stand started pelting stones at those in the lower tier, forcing them onto the pitch in a bid to escape. After a 15-minute delay police persuaded them to stay on the boundary edge so the match could be concluded. After Stackpole hit the winning runs, the Australian batsmen flanked the Nawab of Pataudi, India's out-of-form captain, as he left the field, to try to protect him from missiles being aimed at him by the members.
As the ten-week tour rumbled on, Lawry became the focus of public and media anger. In Calcutta he clashed with a photographer who came onto the playing field, and the newspapers had a field day. As the team headed to the airport they ran a 200-yard gauntlet of stone-throwing demonstrators near the city centre. In Bangalore he was accused of insulting Indian women when he pulled away facing a delivery when a lady in a bright sari walked in front of the sightscreen.
"[Lawry] became persistently petulant over umpires' decisions, aloof from his team," wrote Jack Pollard in Australian Cricket. "He had always been a non-smoking, non-drinking loner who disliked official functions, but he became a virtual recluse, disappearing after each day's play, seldom meeting opponents socially. There was a famous curry plate-throwing incident on the train from Delhi to Jullundur."
With the series still to play for, there were more huge crowds for the final Test, in Madras, , but once again India's batsmen failed, this time twice: they made only 163 and 171. The last was the most disappointing collapse of the series as far as the home side was concerned, as Prasanna (6 for 74) had bowled them into a winning position only for them to lose their last eight second-innings wickets for 57.
"It was a great challenge," Lawry later said. "It was probably the toughest tour I ever went on. There were very pleasant memories on the field but very unpleasant ones off it."
The unrest had not been limited to the Tests. In the match against South Zone, play had been halted by stone throwing, and Lawry himself had been struck by a missile fired from a catapult while batting.
"We were the last [Australian] side to win in India," opener Stackpole said in 2000, "and looking back on it you wonder how. It was a fabulous place, everyone was really friendly and mad about their cricket. But the conditions we toured under were appalling."
Mallett went further, describing the accommodation they used as "more hovels than hotels". He said on a late-night visit to their hotel kitchen in Guwahati the players "were greeted by a sea of cockroaches swarming over the wet floor and several cats dancing on the salads in the fridge".
Ian Chappell said that the last night of the tour brought home to reality that they had been put up in the cheapest hotels to save their own board money. The squad stayed in the luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. "It was only for one night, and that only increased our anger because we knew that there were good hotels in India, but our board wouldn't book us in at them."
Chappell put down the series win to the side's ability to play spin. "We always believed we could win the series because we could make enough runs, even though we were facing terrific spinners on pitches than turned a lot."

What happened next?

  • A weary Australia went straight to South Africa where they were hammered 4-0 in what was to be South Africa's last series before isolation. They lost the Ashes the following winter, and before that series was out Lawry was sacked and replaced by Chappell. Chappell himself said the India trip sowed the seeds of unrest between the board and players, which led eventually to the Packer revolution. "We weren't staying in the best hotels, and we put that down to the board," he said.
  • India's next generation of batsmen - Gundappa Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar etc - emerged and provided the support their spinners needed, turning India into the best side playing Test cricket in the early 1970s. Pataudi was sacked and replaced by Wadekar.
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The Summer Game, Gideon Haigh (Text Publishing, 1997)
Australian Cricket, Jack Pollard (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982)
The Wildest Tests, Ray Robinson (Pelham Books, 1973)

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa