When India headed to England in 1971, they did so in confident mood. Even though they had not won any of the 19 Tests they had played there since the inaugural match in 1932 - in fact, they had only drawn four - they had enjoyed a superb winning tour to the Caribbean earlier in the year. England were equally upbeat, returning home after regaining the Ashes the previous winter and then defeating Pakistan 1-0 in the first of the two three-Test series of the summer.

In modern times the series would have been marketed as the clash of the top two countries but in a more gentle era there was no hype and barely any advertising.

India, who had been whitewashed 5-0 and 3-0 on their previous two visits, had a bowling attack centred on their outstanding spin quartet of Bishan Bedi, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, and backed by a strong batting line-up that included the brilliant young Sunil Gavaskar and their captain, Ajit Wadekar.

As England laboured to beat Pakistan - they had drawn the first Test after following on and then snatched an improbable 25-run win in the deciding game after appearing to be heading to defeat - India went into the first Test on the back of four thumping wins against county opposition.

The first Test, at Lord's, was drawn when rain took the sides from the field with India on 145 for 8 chasing 183 - the match is best remembered for the collision between Gavaskar and John Snow - while at Old Trafford, India slid to 65 for 3 chasing an improbable 420 and were spared when the final day was washed out.

The teams headed to The Oval for the third and final Test with India, despite the Manchester reprieve, in the ascendancy. England's batsmen had struggled to master the spinners and their top order had been in indifferent form.

On the first day, in front of a crowd of around 10,000, England won the toss for the third time and batted. After losing Brian Luckhurst in the second over, they took on the Indians and scored 355 at a run-a-minute, being bowled out in the final over of the day. Alan Knott (90), John Jameson (82) and Richard Hutton (81) never let the spinners settle, and Bedi, who finished with 2 for 120, suffered in particular.

Rain washed out the Friday, and on a grey Saturday in front of 7000 spectators, India staged a back-to-the-wall performance in making 234 for 7, a recovery after they had slipped to 125 for 5. Most pundits predicted a draw.

The match turned on its head on the Monday. India's last three wickets added another 50, but nonetheless England had a first-innings lead of 71 and were in a strong position.

Jameson and Luckhurst started confidently but the game turned on a stroke of luck for the Indians when Chandrasekhar, in his first over, shortly before lunch, deflected a straight drive from Luckhurst into the stumps at the bowler's end, with Jameson out of his ground. If that had been fortunate, what followed was brilliant.

With the final two balls of the morning Chandrasekhar ripped the heart out of the innings. His team-mates referred to his faster ball as his Mill Reef (after the Derby winning horse of that summer) and as he prepared to bowl his first delivery to John Edrich, one of them called out for him to "bowl the Mill Reef".

"I had thought of bowling something else, but halfway through my run-up I thought I might as well give it a try, as he had asked. So I bowled the quicker one and Edrich's bat was still in the air when the ball hit his middle stump." He then had Keith Fletcher caught by Eknath Solkar at short leg with the next ball, and that proved the last ball of the morning.

The day marked a Hindu festival honouring the elephant-headed god of good fortune and the destroyer of obstacles. A handful of Indian supporters arranged for an elephant, loaned from Chessington Zoo, to parade round the outfield during the lunch interval. With England in trouble when they resumed after the break, Wadekar crowded the bat. The second delivery of the afternoon from Chandrasekhar, who was completing his unfinished over, found the edge of Basil D'Oliveira's bat, but the ball brushed slip's hand and went for three.

The let-off mattered little. Bowling from the Vauxhall End, which offered little help for the spinners, Chandrasekhar got the ball to bounce as no others had managed. D'Oliveira survived another hard chance to Dilip Sardesai at short leg, but his luck ran out when he hoisted Venkat to long-on.

England's middle and lower orders had repeatedly bailed them out over the previous 12 months, but this time there was no recovery. Chandrasekhar continued to wheel away, and when he was given his only break - and even that lasted only the one over - his replacement, Bedi, snared Derek Underwood.

Two-and-a-half hours after the innings started, England had been blown away for 101, their lowest score against the Indians. Chandrasekhar had taken 6 for 38 in 18.1 overs. "On a pitch which gave him little if any assistance Charda had vindicated a vanishing breed of bowling in a fashion which can only be described as astonishing," wrote Playfair Cricket Monthly. Wisden added: "He was wonderfully accurate for a bowler of his type, and his extra pace made him a formidable proposition even on the sluggish Oval pitch."

India were left eight hours to score 173 and they started badly. Gavaskar was leg-before for 0 in John Snow's second over. He later claimed the ball had pitched well outside leg stump, and his excuses did not end there. His first-innings dismissal, so he said, came about because there had been a long delay while a dog was removed from the outfield, and so he claimed, he was upset because of his phobia of the animals.

However, batting with extreme caution, India reached 76 for 2 in 150 minutes by the close.

The final day started with the ground almost exclusively populated by Indian supporters, and they were still filing in when Wadekar was run out in the first over of the day, crazily taking on D'Oliveira's arm at cover. England sniffed a chance but Sardesai - still troubled by his injured hand - and Gundappa Viswanath dug in and inched India towards their target.

England relied heavily on their two spinners, Ray Illingworth and Underwood, but they were not nearly as threatening as Chandrasekhar had been.

"I was very confident of reaching the target," Wadekar said. "Illingworth's psychology was that we were not good against their pace, and in the process he floundered. Then he relied too much on Underwood. I just told my batsmen to wait and watch and go for the runs."

India still contrived to lose wickets, just as their fans appeared to be relaxing, and at 135 for 5 there was all to play for, given the long tail.

Farokh Engineer joined Viswanath and took India to the brink with a mix of attack and dogged defence, and it was left to Abid Ali to stroke the winning runs, a square cut that never reached the boundary as it was engulfed by jubilant supporters charging onto the ground.

Not everyone was celebrating. Wadekar had gone to sleep after being dismissed. "I was nudged awake by Ken Barrington, the England manager, who told me that we had won. I said to him that I always knew we'd win."

It took the players several minutes to reach the sanctuary of the dressing rooms, and, as was traditional at The Oval, the last Test of the summer, the captains came out on the balcony. Illingworth's appearance was brief, but Wadekar, then joined by his victorious team, soaked up the adulation.

"India was a colony of England, and to beat your masters at their own game was a bit of a feather in the cap," Engineer told the Times. "Any victory in a Test series was joyous, but to beat England in England was a phenomenal feat at the time for us Indians."

"In Bombay, the birthplace of Indian cricket, unprecedented scenes were witnessed," Wisden noted. "There was dancing in the streets. Revellers stopped and boarded buses to convey the news to commuters. In the homes, children garlanded wireless sets over which the cheery voice of Brian Johnston had proclaimed the glad tidings of India's first Test victory in England, a victory which also gave them the rubber."

What happened next?

  • India returned home to a ticker-tape welcome in Bombay. "We went from the airport to Brabourne stadium," Chandrasekhar recalled, "and some of those cheers still echo inside my head even today."
  • India followed the victory with a 2-1 win over England in 1972-73

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