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That first victory at Chepauk, 72 years ago

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Last updated on 08 Feb 2024 | 06:36 AM
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That first victory at Chepauk, 72 years ago

It's the story of that Test at Chepauk and those 11 men, many of whom are just reduced to names of domestic cricket trophies

Vijay Hazare. Lala Amarnath. Vinoo Mankad. Mushtaq Ali. Polly Umrigar.

These are not just trophy or tournament names from the Indian domestic cricket calendar. These names belonged to Indian men, real in flesh and blood, who won the first-ever Test match for an ancient country that was now a republic. 

This is the story of these 5 men and 6 others who climbed the first step of Test glory for a cricketing nation that was on the verge of adulthood. This is the story of India’s first Test victory at Chepauk, 71 years ago to this day.

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Strategy for a Test match - What is that? Staying in five-star hotels together as a team - You’ve got to be kidding right? Twisting and jumping so hard in celebration of a wicket that every sinew in your neck pops out - Is this a circus?

These would have been the responses if someone time-traveled back to 1952 from 2023 and asked any Indian team player the above questions. The players of India’s first-ever Test-winning team stayed in private homes in different parts of the city because the BCCI couldn’t afford to accommodate them in a hotel. They hardly knew each other as they assembled at the ground just a few hours before the game. No coach, no trainers, no specialized drills. The captain (who in India’s case, was Vijay Hazare) was everything, everywhere all at once. 

India played its first Test match in 1932 and in the next nineteen and a half years played just 10 more. In each of those games, it ended up on the losing side. It was an era when even a draw was enough to impart the contentment of victory. 

So no eyebrows were raised when the A-listers of the English cricket team - Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Alec Bedser, and Jim Laker amongst others, didn’t tour India for the series. Rookie players were sent on the tour but such was the poverty of victorious precedence and unity in the Indian side, that even beating a second-rated England team was going to be a herculean task for them. 

India was a team brimming with mercurial all-round talents like Vinoo Mankad (who was at the peak of his abilities), Lala Amarnath (his charisma had faded a bit but both his bat and ball still spoke eloquently), Dattu Phadkar (who averaged 40+ with the bat and low 30s with the ball) and the young Polly Umrigar. Batters of the quality of Vijay Hazare, Pankaj Roy, and Mushtaq Ali were never easy to topple. And then there was Ghulam Ahmed with his canny off breaks, Prabir Sen the keeper, and also C. Gopinath. 

However, it was a team divided by parochialism as regional loyalties outweighed national ones. C. Gopinath, the only living member of the side, recalls the state of the team in his interview with Ayan Acharya of the Sportstar - “We could never imagine ‘this is our country.’ The mindset, of course, changed as the years went by... But right after our independence, we were vulnerable to regional or parochial views... I was called a Madrasi, which is borderline contemptuous...like saying why are you playing cricket... We didn’t get together as a team or as a country.”

England proved Gopinath right when they arrived for the last Test at Chepauk 1-0 up in the series. 

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England captain Donald Carr won the toss and chose to bat first. Despite keeper, Dick Spooner and Jack Robertson’s dominating 66 and 77, England ended the first day at 224-5, largely due to some characteristically exceptional spin bowling by Mankad. When the English returned after a rest day (preponed due to King George VI’s death, and there used to be a rest day in a 5-day Test match), Mankad ran through the lower order and England’s first innings ended at 266. 

Vinoo Mankad ended with 55 for 8, India’s most famous eight-for. His guile in the air, exhibited by his alluring loop and flight, got four batters stumped by Sen on a track that was as placid as an extremely hot Chennai afternoon. The air was heavy with serendipity and anticipation for an incredulous Indian victory as Chepauk was bursting at its seam with 25,000 spectators. 

India responded emphatically with all the batters in the top 8 scoring more than 20. The stylish opener from Bengal, Pankaj Roy, delighted the crowd with an aesthetic 111 that included 15 boundaries. Later Polly Umrigar notched a hundred as well, scoring 130 and getting a 104-run partnership with Phadkar first and then a 93-run one with Gopinath. It was the innings that established him as the mainstay of Indian batting. Funnily, had it not been for Hemu Adhikari’s sprained wrist, he wouldn’t have played the game. 

Vijay Hazare declared the innings at 457/9, and India piled up a 191-run lead. 

With two days left in the game, India started the second innings with aplomb as Dattu Phadkar and his new ball partner Ramesh Divecha got rid of the openers. Later Ghulam Ahmed and Vinoo Mankad bowled brilliantly on a track that was worn up enough to assist them significantly. Only Alan Watkins and Robertson could delay the inevitable for a bit. The spin twins ended with 4 sticks each and England was bundled up for 183. 

India had won their first-ever Test match by an inning and 8 runs. The series was drawn 1-1. For the first time ever, Indians knew what victory felt like. The crowd went crazy in the stands. But the players who were taught to be phlegmatic remained somber as if they are in their school’s morning assembly. 

Gopinath reveals - “We won the match, went back to the dressing room, and everybody said, ‘Well done,’ and we all went back home! In those days, teams did not stay together” 

There was no toota hai Gabba ka ghamand moment for the pioneers Hazare, Mankad, Roy, Umrigar, etc. They just patted each other’s back. 

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10 out of those 11 mythical men are no more today. The last surviving member of the team is 92. But it was their pioneering achievement that preceded the overseas glories of 1971, the miraculous achievement at Lord’s in 1983, the swan songs of a very very special 281 in 2001, and the breaching of the Gabbatoir by a keeper batter from Uttarakhand. They played for a country that was yet to become a nation. 

Since that momentous day in 1952, India have won 169 Test matches. When India won its 100th Test match under MS Dhoni, each member of the team was given a prize money of 25 Lakhs. But the BCCI finances were floating in a drain in 1952, and all it could give its players was a measly match fee of 250₹. 

In an era of raining cash records from the BCCI, and frothing fizzy rivers of Champagne flowing in the dressing room to celebrate a victory, all of this seems remarkably subdued. The history of Indian cricket remains besotted with the 25th of June (1983 WC victory) and 2nd of April (2011 WC win) of the calendar, but the 10th of February remains forgotten like a 70-year-old forgetting their childhood. 

But that’s what words are for right? 71 years after that day, you dear readers, are here celebrating the first victorious steps of Indian cricket through these words. 

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