In 2001 Steve Waugh referred to India as the "last frontier", as Australia had not won a Test series there since a 3-1 victory under Bill Lawry in 1969. It would appear clear from social media and message boards that the Australian public's perception of the importance of Test matches against India has now risen above those of more traditional rivals such as the West Indies. Underpinning this shift is the fact that India is, without any doubt, the financial powerhouse of world cricket at the moment. In February 2013, 13 Australian players were picked up at the IPL auction, more than double any other country. However, the desire of Australian cricketers to go to India is a relatively recent phenomenon based primarily around the astonishing sums of money on offer. Therefore, it is interesting to reflect upon Australia's first-ever Test series in India in 1956, and the fact that even back then financial and political considerations were primary reasons for the tour taking place.
India had joined the family of international cricket nations in 1932, playing their inaugural Test against England at Lord's. This one-off game was followed by a further nine matches against England, spread spasmodically over the next fourteen years. The Australian Board of Control for International Cricket was clearly less enthusiastic about the role of encouraging and nurturing new Test countries than their English counterparts. Australia had played 74 consecutive Tests against England before they ventured into a match against South Africa in 1902. It was then another 28 years and 123 Tests before they played against a fourth team, West Indies. India had not played an official Test against a country other than England until 1947, when they were invited to tour Australia. India struggled to compete, and lost the five match series 4-0, with the one drawn game losing well over three entire days due to rain. It was almost a decade later before Australia finally agreed to a reciprocal tour of India, following the 1956 Ashes tour and a one-off Test against Pakistan.
An undercurrent of international politics and financial considerations appears to have played a significant role in the tour occurring. From 1947 to 1950, when its Constitution came into force, India was a self-governing Dominion in Britain's Commonwealth*. Australia had been closely involved in the development of the Commonwealth over many years, with the coining of the term "Commonwealth of Nations" being ascribed to Lord Rosebery during a visit to Australia back in 1884.
The Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies had been placing considerable pressure on the ABCIC to establish stronger cricketing ties with the fellow Commonwealth countries of India and Pakistan. It was only a year previously, in 1955, that Australia had toured the West Indies for the first time and the Caribbean series was seen as being the direct result of Menzies' influence. There were both political commitments and financial opportunities for Australia in the Commonwealth community and Menzies was keen for cricket to act as a vehicle to facilitate other partnerships. The Prime Minister sent a letter to the ABCIC in 1955 that made it very clear, couched in appropriately diplomatic language, that they should reconsider their rejection of India's 1953 request for a tour. The 1956 Ashes campaign had been arranged well in advance, but there was a very late decision to tack another month on the end to incorporate a brief visit to Pakistan and India.
While the addition of the Pakistan and India Tests would have satisfied Menzies, not everyone was similarly pleased. The players back then displayed far less enthusiasm to go to India than those who put themselves up for recent IPL auctions. Australia had just finished the unsuccessful 1956 tour of England, in which they lost largely to the great bowling of Jim Laker and Tony Lock. There were strong emotions evident around the pitch conditions in England, with considerable angst regarding the surfaces presented at Leeds and Manchester in particular. It would appear that many of the touring party were not keen for the tour to go on to India and Pakistan, and instead just wanted to go home.
However, it was deemed that there was not sufficient time for the players to return to Australia and then go back to Pakistan and India, with commercial air services relatively new and travel by ship still commonplace. The team was therefore left largely to their own devices in Europe for a month, before regrouping in Rome for departure on 8 October. While in principle this break sounds attractive, all of the Australian players were amateurs and many felt considerable financial pressures as they were not earning money during this time. The players received a touring fee of one thousand pounds for the eight month trip, which compared pretty poorly with the average annual income in Australia at the time of £1,675.
The Australia team arrived in India on 18 October, following their first-ever match against Pakistan at Karachi. The pitch for that game raised the hackles of the tourists again, as it was played on matting rather than the traditional turf. Australia lost the Test comprehensively by nine wickets, with Pakistan medium-pacer Fazal Mahmood taking 13 wickets in a brilliant display of seam bowling. The match finished on 17 October, and the team flew straight to India the next day, as the first Test was scheduled to begin at the Corporation Stadium in Madras on 19 October.
In this inaugural game, India captain Polly Umrigar won the toss and chose to bat first. The Australia fast-bowling attack was considerably weakened from that of the last Test in England around eight weeks earlier. The pace attack at The Oval was Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Alan Davidson and Ron Archer. In Madras, Miller, Davidson and Archer were all missing due to injury. It ultimately turned out that neither Miller nor Archer, who both suffered knee injuries on the matting in Karachi, would ever play Test cricket again. While Miller was at the end of his career, it was a particular blow for the 23-year-old Archer who was seen as the long-term replacement for Miller in the team.
"Benaud cut his run-up in half and changed his previously straight run to come in at an angle. He had taken 50 wickets at an average of 35 prior to this; following it he took nearly 198 wickets in just 39 games at an average of 25"
Lindwall ended up opened the bowling with the Dubbo-born Pat Crawford, and they were supported by the medium pace of Ken Mackay and offspin of captain, Ian Johnson. However, the most successful bowler was easily the allrounder Richie Benaud. India were dismissed for just 161, with legspinner Benaud taking an impressive 7 for 72. While this was his 25th Test since debuting in the team in 1952, Benaud hadn't managed to take five wickets in an innings up to this point. However, he had made a change to his bowling run-up following the Karachi Test. As a consequence of the extreme heat and humidity, Benaud had decided to cut his run in half from 12 paces to six, and had changed his previously straight run to instead come in at an angle. He first used this new run-up in the Madras Test, and then proceeded to use it for the remainder of his career. It is worth noting that he had taken 50 wickets at an average of around 35 prior to this change in run-up; following it he took nearly 198 wickets in just 39 games at an average of 25.
In a sign of things to come throughout the series, the pitch was completely unsuited to quick scoring, and the India run rate had stagnated at a mind-numbing 1.6 runs per over. Australia replied with 319, Johnson leading the way with 73 from No. 9 in the order. Only Benaud and Lindwall failed to make double figures but the Australia batsmen also struggled to dominate on the slow pitch. They scored at the slightly higher rate of 2.37 runs per over, but were kept quiet by the great legspinner Subhash Gupte, with 3 for 89, and the slow left-arm orthodox of Vinoo Mankad who took 4 for 90 off 45 overs. The innings of Johnson turned out to be highly significant, as he guided Australia from a precarious lead of around 30 with seven wickets down to nearly 160.
India's second-innings total didn't even match their first, making just 153 to lose by an innings and five runs. Interestingly, the destroyer this time was Lindwall, who took 7 for 43. Colin McDonald completed a feat that is unlikely to be matched in the foreseeable future. He had previously faced the first ball in a Test match by an Australian in both the West Indies in 1955 and Pakistan a week earlier, and by similarly taking the first ball for Australia in this match he became the first, and so far only, player to face the first ball for his nation in three separate countries.
The second Test started at the famous Brabourne Stadium in Bombay only three days after the completion of the first Test. Umrigar again won the toss and chose to bat. Australia were led by LIndwall for the first and only time, with an injury to Johnson further depleting the bowling attack. The home team scored 251, largely on the back of an excellent innings of 109 by Gulabrai Ramchand. Ken Mackay was the best bowler for Australia with 3 for 27 off 14 overs. The run rate was again slow, with India making only 169 in the entire first day's play. Australia replied with a mammoth 523 for 7 declared, based largely around centuries to Jimmy Burke (161) and Neil Harvey (140). Australia's first innings did not finish until midway through day four, and India easily managed to bat out the remaining 137 overs in the match. They finished on 250 for 5, with Pankaj Roy making 79 and Umrigar 78. While the scores indicate that the pitch must have been flat and lifeless, it was still an excellent effort by the India batsmen to avoid defeat, as some reports indicate that every ball was bringing up a puff of dust on the final day.
In a sign of the minimal importance that Australia attributed to this tour, two players made their debuts in this match, in what almost seems to be an early sign of the current rotation policy. Jack Wilson, a 35-year-old left-arm spinner who bowled near medium pace, didn't get the chance to bat, took match figures of 1 for 64, and never played for his country again. John Rutherford, the first Western Australian to have been selected for a major Test tour, opened the batting and scored 30. Like Wilson, this was to be his only Test match. It appears clear from comments by other tourists that both Rutherford and Wilson were given a token Test cap as a reward for their participation in the extended tour. Looking back now, it was actually appropriate to acknowledge Rutherford in this way, as he went on to contribute greatly to the development of cricket in Western Australia and deserves to be remembered as a Test cricketer.
In a scheduling nightmare that would probably see current Test players go on strike, the third Test in Calcutta began just two days after the end of the second Test. Ultimately, the three Test matches took place over a period of just 19 days and, when you include the one-off Test against Pakistan, Australia had played four Test matches in extreme heat in less than four weeks.
India's improved batting performance in the second Test had raised the home team's expectations, however the pitch at Eden Gardens was described as being "impossible" by Benaud. There was talk that the field had been flooded prior to the match, and the pitch spun square from day one. Umrigar won the toss and, in a change of tactics, chose to field first on the under-prepared ground. This move looked to have worked well, with only Peter Burge passing 50 in Australia's first innings of 177. Having not played in the previous match, offspinner Ghulam Ahmed took 7 for 49, with fellow spinners Gupte and Mankad taking the remaining three wickets. However, India failed to take advantage of dismissing Australia for less than 200, and were themselves bowled out for 136. Benaud continued to his improved form, with his leggies taking 6 for 52. The pitch was not getting better with time, and Australia's second-innings total of 189 was built around an excellent score of 69 by Harvey and four scores in the twenties by Peter Burge, Mackay, Benaud and Lindwall. Ramchand was the only India seamer to take a wicket, with Ahmed, Gupte and Mankad collecting 19 between them.
On face value, India were only chasing a relatively small total of 233 for a famous victory but it would be easily the highest score of the match, and it ultimately proved well beyond them. They scored 136, exactly the same as their first innings. Benaud was again the main destroyer with 5 for 53, getting excellent support from the part-time offspin of Burke who took 4 for 37. The match had finished in just over three days, with Australia winning the game by 94 runs and the series 2-0.
The Australia team left India and flew back to home on a Qantas flight eight months after departing Freemantle on the ship SS Himalaya for England. In hindsight, it is interesting to see what individual importance the players placed upon this tour. Johnson, in his 1957 book Cricket at the Crossroads, failed to even mention India, with the focus almost entirely upon the 1956 Ashes. Alan Davidson's autobiography Fifteen Paces made one brief reference to the tour. "Slasher" Mackay and Harvey both spent more time describing the following 1959-60 tour than the 1956 one. Lindwall's main comments about his one-and-only Test as captain pertain to how hard it was to manage a very under-manned bowling attack due to injury. Perhaps the most succinct and accurate summary of the tour was made by Benaud in Willow Patterns when he noted, "This 1956 series in India, consisting of only three Tests, produced remarkably little attractive cricket."
Their first Test tour of India would appear to have been almost completely discounted by many of the Australia players and history has also largely overlooked it. The cricket in 1956 was not scintillating, with a run rate that generally hovered between 1.5 and 2.5 runs per over. However, the series was starting point for a rivalry that has grown dramatically over the years since. As a consequence of the IPL, Australian players no longer look at India with the same type of distrust that seemed to permeate these initial tours.
It is unlikely that the 2013 series in India, which started last week, will reach the heights of some other recent contests, with both countries in a process of re-building and rejuvenation following the retirement of key team members. Nonetheless, there still remains the possibility that this series will be remembered for the making of some players, much like the 1956 series was the turning point in Benaud's career, as he transitioned from a useful contributor with the ball into a genuine match-winner. On the other hand, seven members of the 1956 touring party that played in either Pakistan or India, including Johnson, Miller and wicketkeeper Gil Langley, never played Test cricket again. It will be fascinating to see how many of the current Australia team are similarly consigned to the proverbial cricketing scrapheap at the end of this series and how many manage to survive to see the subsequent Ashes tour.
10.45GMT, March 1: The blog had previously incorrectly stated India gained independence in 1950
Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow