Since 1932, when India began its Test journey Indian cricket has witnessed many memorable matches. Some of these have been instrumental in laying the foundations on which the game in the country stands tall today.
One such match was the third Test of India’s tour to England in 1971 played at the Oval. To give you a perspective, India had never tasted success in the previous 21 Tests played in England. India had lost 15 of these Tests and drawn the remaining six. So will the result be any different on the 22 yards of British soil on the 22nd attempt was the question.
“We had a great team in which everyone pulled their weights”
In a bid to rewind that journey, we caught up with former India wicket-keeper Farokh Engineer who had played a significant role in the victory. The first two matches of the three-match were drawn. In the third match, Engineer was the top scorer in India’s first innings with 59 and remained unbeaten on 28 in the second. Overall in the series, he ended up as the second-highest run getter (172 runs) for India behind skipper Ajit Wadekar (204 runs).
“We had a great team in which everyone pulled their weights. The secret was to believe in ourselves and I just did my best to instil that self-belief”, he downplayed his own contribution.
Given India’s maiden victory in the Caribbean in the same year and the performance so far on the tour, there was definite hope. Indians began the match confidently and had the Englishmen at 175 for six when Bhagwat Chandrasekhar had bowled out skipper Ray Illingworth. But Alan Knott and Richard Hutton put together a century partnership before the former was dismissed for 90. Hutton continued the rear-guard action and was the last man dismissed for 81 with the team’s score at 355. For the Indians, Eknath Solkar took three wickets while the spinners Bishan Singh Bedi, Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Chandrasekhar took two each.
In response, although many Indian batsmen got starts, none of them were able to convert it into a big one. At 125 for five, the Indians were in big trouble. Frontline batsmen like Ajit Wadekar (48) and Dilip Sardesai (54) who had contributed a bit were now back in the pavilion. At the crease were Solkar and Engineer. Ekky (Solkar) who scored 44 was known to be a fighter and he kept on telling Engineer to not worry.
The two meant business and put together a 97-run partnership to avoid a meek surrender. Engineer made good use of his experience in English conditions. Such was his resolute that he curtailed his usual flamboyant style of batting and didn’t hit a single boundary in the entire knock. Post their departure, there was also an important 48 run eighth-wicket partnership between Abid Ali and Venkat. But despite all this, the visitors ended up conceding a lead of 71.
“Although we were 70 behind, we knew that if we are chasing anything around 200-220, we could win”
This deficit didn’t dampen the spirits of the Indian team. “We were just determined that we were going to win the Test match. I kept on telling that we will win. Although we were 70 behind, we knew that if we are chasing anything around 200-220, we could win. We had the batsmen to do it”, Engineer said.
But in order to do that, the bowlers needed to up their ante. The Indians had to attack and as per Engineer it meant that Chandra had to deliver. “For me, Chandra is the finest spinner that India has ever produced. I have the highest regards for him. He was phenomenal and the entire team had tremendous faith on him”, the wicket-keeper who shared an excellent rapport with the leg-spinner elaborated.
England’s second innings had an unfortunate start with the run-out of opener John Jameson who had scored 82 in the first essay. Post this wicket, Chandra came into his own. Pretty soon he bowled out John Edrich with a quicker one, a delivery which is now part of the Chandra folklore.
“While most other fielders would not have reached near the ball, with his calibre I had no doubt”
Prior to this delivery, as Chandra was going back to the bowling crease, he heard Sardesai shout “Mill Reef daalo” (Bowl a Mill Reef). Sardesai was actually referring to the horse on which he along with Chandra and Erapalli Prasanna had been putting their money. About that delivery, Chandra said, “I had already made up my mind on the type of ball that I was going to bowl when I heard him (Sardesai). But half-way into the run up, I changed my grip and bowled the faster one”.
The next man Keith Fletcher was dismissed off the subsequent delivery. Wickets kept on tumbling and when Knott, the top-scorer from the first innings was brilliantly caught by Solkar of Chandra’s bowling, the score read as 54 for 5. The Indians were clearly on top. “It was a crucial wicket and thanks to Ekky who held some lovely catches. While most other fielders would not have reached near the ball, with his calibre I had no doubt”, reminisced Engineer.
The home side was eventually bowled out for 101 and Chandra was the wrecker in chief with figures of 6 for 38. With a target of 173 in the fourth innings, Wadekar’s men had a chance to create history. Unfortunately, the start wasn’t the most auspicious one, as the star of the Caribbean tour Sunil Gavaskar was dismissed without disturbing the scorers. Thankfully, Wadekar, Sardesai and Gundappa Viswanath chipped in with useful 30s and 40s to take the Indians closer to victory. But when Sardesai’s and Solkar’s wicket fell in quick succession, the visitors still needed 40 runs to win with five wickets in hand. Incoming batsman Engineer stitched together a 36-run partnership with Viswanath and ensured that there wouldn’t be more twist in the tale.
“It was probably the finest 28 runs that I have scored in my life because I was absolutely determined that we must win”
By the time Viswanath got out, India needed only three runs to win. Incoming batsman Abid Ali hit a boundary of the fourth delivery that he faced and soon he was being carried on the shoulders of jubilant Indian fans. “It was probably the finest 28 runs that I have scored in my life because I was absolutely determined that we must win”, a proud Engineer narrated.
Interestingly, both Engineer and Chandra were not part of the victorious team to West Indies. So, when Engineer was included in the team for the England tour, he was delighted to play despite the ill-treatment given earlier. Considering his commitment with the Lancashire county, he was given permission to play only the Tests and not all the tour games.
One can just imagine the joy that these two players would have felt. In fact, not just them, all the Indians were over the moon. The final day also coincided with the Ganesh Chaturthi festival and keeping up with the festive spirits, the Indian fans had got an elephant name Bella on the ground much to the bemuse of the Britishers. The celebrations continued late into the night in an Indian restaurant, which hosted the entire team.
Since Engineer had to be in Manchester for a Lancashire vs Derbyshire game on the next day, he had to leave before the party got over. The restaurant owners packed some Tandoori Chicken for him which he relished on his way back to his county. He reached early in the morning and slept for hardly a couple of hours before being at Old Trafford for the match.
“Most of the crowd comprised of Britishers and it brought a tear to my eyes. I will never forget that, it really touched me”
As luck would have had it, Derbyshire elected to bat and Engineer had to quickly put on his wicket-keeping gloves. But what transpired at the stadium would have taken away all his tiredness. The whole stadium stood up and gave him a standing ovation for his contribution to India’s victory. “Most of the crowd comprised of Britishers and it brought a tear to my eyes. I will never forget that. It really touched me”, said an emotional Engineer.
I am sure many Indians would have shed a few tears after the victory. It was indeed a proud moment for the entire country. As Engineer said, “I have always been proud to be Indian, but that day I was very very proud to be Indian”.
He added that to beat a nation which had supposedly taught us the game in their own backyard was something special. “During the entire tour, we all Indian players wanted to change the tag of bloody Indians and third grade cricketers. That was in our mind. We wanted to show that we were a proud race and were not only equal but superior to the Britishers”, a proud Engineer recalled.