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When Sunny made 438 look gettable

Had India pulled off a remarkable victory at The Oval in 1979, Sunil Gavaskar's 221 would be up there as the greatest Test innings

Sunil Gavaskar acknowledges the crowd after being named Man of the Match  •  Getty Images

Sunil Gavaskar acknowledges the crowd after being named Man of the Match  •  Getty Images

India's tour of England in 1979 followed immediately after the second Prudential World Cup, which had again been won by West Indies. It was a largely forgettable summer for the Indians, who lost all three matches in the tournament, including a defeat by Sri Lanka, at the time not a Test country, and only managed to win one of their 16 first-class tour matches. After a heavy defeat in the first of four Tests, they drew the other three but saved their best for last, when they came agonisingly close to pulling off what would have been one of the great Test run chases.
India's spinners, who had delivered the side great success earlier in the decade, were all but impotent. Erapalli Prasanna was left at home, while Bhagwath Chandrasekhar dropped out after the first Test because of Achilles tendon trouble. Bishan Bedi took seven wickets at 35.57, while captain Srinivas Venkataraghavan's six wickets cost 57.50 each. The workload fell on seamers Kapil Dev and Karsan Ghavri; both performed well but suffered through a lack of support. India, therefore, leaned heavily on their batsmen to dig them out of trouble and Dilip Vengsarkar, Gundappa Viswanath and Sunil Gavaskar largely rose to the challenge.
Rain helped them draw the second Test, at Lord's, and the weather rendered the third Test meaningless, so India arrived at The Oval in late August only one Test down and with a chance of drawing the series.
At the end of what had been a wet and cold summer, the sun shone throughout the match. The first four days were uneventful. England took a 103-run lead, and after they wobbled in their second innings, a painstaking hundred from Geoff Boycott and some late hitting from debutant David Bairstow enabled Mike Brearley to declare on the fourth afternoon and set India 438 runs in 500 minutes. Few believed an Indian side that had only passed 300 seven times in 15 tour matches had a chance of chasing down what would have been a record target. The more pertinent question seemed to be whether they could bat out a draw. Some elements of the English media criticised Brearley for being over-cautious.
Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan started solidly and India closed the fourth day on 76 for 0, leaving them needing 362 at around a run a minute. While in the modern game that would be considered gettable, in 1970s Test cricket 300 runs in a day was far from common and the target still seemed out of reach. Yajurvindra Singh, the Indian No. 7 in the match, recalled that Gavaskar, who he shared a room with, said that evening that the wicket was so good that India were in with a chance.
A relatively small crowd assembled at The Oval for the fifth day. I headed there with the arrogant teenage expectation of an easy England win, so much so that I arranged to meet friends in central London at 5pm. So enthralling was the finale of the match that I forgot all about the rendezvous until much later in the evening.
Gavaskar and Chauhan made steady progress, adding a further 93 runs in the morning session, taking India to 169 for 0 but putting them further behind the clock. A draw appeared the likely outcome, especially after England's most parsimonious bowler, Mike Hendrick, pulled a shoulder muscle after bowling six overs for 11 runs in the opening hour.
Peter Willey, the offspinning allrounder who had been recalled three years after being part of a side blown away by Michael Holding on the same ground, and slow left-armer Phil Edmonds took the bulk of the bowling duties, sharing over 80 overs between them, while Ian Botham and Bob Willis rested between spells.
By the afternoon drinks session India were 213 for 0, almost halfway to their target, Gavaskar playing the more attacking role while Chauhan provided more restrained support. Willis finally broke through in the sixth hour of the innings, getting Chauhan to edge to Botham at slip for 80. That brought in Vengsarkar, who arrived with a more attacking mindset. By tea, India were 304 for 1 and the crowd had grown sizeably, as the unthinkable started to become a possibility.
One recollection I have is of a slightly surreal atmosphere among those, like me, who would usually have been steadfastly hoping for a clatter of wickets. Even the England fans started, quietly, hoping that India might pull off a sensational win. It could just have been a combination of sun and beer.
After tea England visibly slowed the over rate. In Brearley's defence, he was doing what numerous other captains have done over the years, and his two remaining quick bowlers were tired. It did not stop the crowd jeering. In the half hour before the mandatory last 20 overs started, England managed only six overs. India began the final act of the Test on 328 for 1, needing 110 with nine wickets in hand.
Everything seemed to be going India's way, especially when the usually dependable Botham dropped Vengsarkar off a skier. Gavaskar's double-hundred came and went, and with 12 overs remaining India were 366 for 1, needing 76.
The thrust and counter-thrust of cricket often offer a twist just when the outcome seems decided. At The Oval it came when Vengsarkar timidly drove Edmonds to Botham for 52. With Gavaskar, he had added 153 at more than a run a minute. India still had plenty of batting to come but Venkataraghavan unwisely decided to tinker with the batting order.
"To most people's surprise Viswanath did not come in until the fifth wicket fell at 410," Wisden noted. "His delayed entry possibly cost India the victory which almost everyone - except the England team and officials - hoped they would achieve after such a magnificent performance." Viswanath and Gavaskar had both scored hundreds when India had chased down 403, the second-highest target in Test history, in the Caribbean three years earlier. As it was, the promotion of Kapil Dev to No. 4 failed as he holed out to Willey for 0.
Yajuvindra said Venkataraghavan panicked. "There were five of us padded up and none of us knew which of us was next in." Brearley later wrote in The Art of Captaincy that "it was not merely second-guessing that made me think the change in their order had been a mistake".
Briefly, Yashpal Sharma seemed set to offer Gavaskar support, but the introduction of Botham for his final spell - with 49 needed from eight overs - ripped the heart out of the innings. As happened so often in his career, Botham had been largely impotent for much of the day, but when it mattered, he suddenly upped his game to turn the match.
As Botham warmed up, Gavaskar called for a drink. "It may have been his first mistake of the day," wrote John Woodcock in The Cricketer. "It allowed England a few vital moments to gather their thoughts and might just have broken his concentration."
In Botham's first over he struck gold. Gavaskar clipped a half-volley low to David Gower at mid-on. Gavaskar's 221 had lasted eight hours and ten minutes and had come off 443 deliveries. He wearily returned to the pavilion to rousing applause. "His cool control of the developing crisis was missed by India as much as his runs," Wisden said.
Viswanath kept the chase alive with 15 from 11 balls before he drove Willey low to Brearley in the covers. There was the briefest of hesitations as, perhaps more in hope than expectation, Viswanath waited to see if the catch had been off a bump ball.
As India started to grow more flustered, Botham removed Yajuvindra and Yashpal in successive overs. Botham's final four overs brought him a crucial 3 for 17. Venkataraghavan then promoted himself above Ghavri, arguably a better batsman, but his brief innings was ended by some slick fielding by, almost inevitably, Botham.
By this time the sense in the ground was not only that India had blown their chance but that England might be able to snatch victory, with only Bedi to come. The final over, bowled by Willey, started with India needing 15 with two wickets in hand. Brearley, attacking for just about the first time all day, crowded the bat.
Although Bharath Reddy managed one boundary, India settled for the draw and the captains agreed on a draw with one delivery remaining and nine required.
Yajurvindra said that the Indians felt key decisions had gone against them. "The umpiring was the main cause of us not making those runs. It was horrifying. It looked like we were never going to get it because the umpires weren't going to allow you to."

What happened next

  • Venkataraghavan was dismissed as captain and replaced by Gavaskar, who he had himself replaced at the start of the summer
  • Brearley resigned as captain after that winter's tour of Australia but returned, triumphantly, in 1981
  • In 40 Tests, Chauhan passed fifty 16 times but failed to score a hundred
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