By Gulu Ezekiel
The visit of Bill Lawry’s formidable Australian team to India late in 1969 produced one of the most engrossing and controversial series of all.
Though the tourists won 3-1, it was much closer than the scoreline indicates.
The series had been preceded by a rather tame encounter between India and New Zealand in which the hosts were lucky to escape with a 1-1 verdict.
Australia had in its ranks some of the biggest names in contemporary cricket with Lawry, the left-handed opener leading the way and backed up by stroke-players like Ian Chappell, Keith Stackpole, Paul Sheahan and Doug Walters as well as legendary fast bowler Graham McKenzie and off spinner Ashley Mallet.
Ian’s younger brother Greg was unlucky to miss selection and would make his debut with a bang the next season.
The series marked the debut of the one and only GR Viswanath whose debut century in the drawn second Test at Kanpur was the batting highlight for India.
With crowd problems at Bombay and Calcutta and Lawry’s undiplomatic ways as well as the usual umpiring disputes, the tour was full of drama and controversy. There was also plenty of great cricket and it was the Aussies who drew first blood when they won the opening Test match at Bombay by eight wickets.
Thanks to brilliant bowling by Bedi and Prasanna, India drew level by winning the third Test at New Delhi by seven wickets before Australia once again snatched the lead. The margin in the fourth and penultimate Test at Calcutta was a massive 10 wickets and now it was all to play for in Madras.
That India failed to wrap things up after having the tourists tottering at 24 for 6 in their second innings is one of Indian cricket’s greatest regrets. That would have ended the series at 2-2, a fairer indication of its closeness. It could have so easily gone the other way. But in the end it was the famed Aussie fighting spirit that got them home and dry.
How did they pull of the great escape at Chepauk? It was one of the less heralded of their batsmen who led the way. Ian Redpath lacked the charisma and strokes of his more famous team-mates. But what he lacked in glamour he certainly made up in tenacity. Tall, gaunt and angular, it was his defence that held up the charge of the Indian bowlers. That innings of 63 with invaluable help from the tail-enders ultimately made all the difference for his side.
It was Walters who held the first innings of 258 together with an innings of 102 and with Mallett picking up five wickets, India fell in a heap for 163 to concede a lead of 95 runs. The Aussie collapse began late on the second day. And the bowler who triggered it off was debutant Mohinder Amarnath, hero of many battles in the decades to follow, though usually with the bat.
Having gained a tidy lead, there was just about an hour’s play remaining for the batsmen to consolidate. Instead, they lost the precious wickets of Stackpole and Chappell, both bowled by Amarnath to end the day at 14 for 2. It was December 25th but Christmas would be an uncomfortable one for the visitors.
The third morning (after a day’s rest) had the crowd in raptures. This time it was Prasanna who had the batsmen falling like a card of cards.
With the addition of just two runs Walters and Lawry were both foxed by the master off spinner and then it was the turn of Sheahan and wicket-keeper Brian Taber to be sent back for next to nothing.
Sheahan’s brief was to hit ‘Pras’ off his length--and that is exactly what the bowler wanted. He was swept to the boundary and the very next delivery was smashed to the sightscreen. Lured out of his crease, the batsman was foxed by a floater and Farokh Engineer pulled off a simple stumping.
When Taber was out without scoring, Prasanna’s bowling figures made for sensational reading—four wickets for eight runs off 21 balls! The Aussies had no clue to his wiles and looked headed for a record low total.
Redpath was reprieved by the Indian fielders on three occasions and that was all he needed. McKenzie (24), Lawrie Mayne and Mallett all hung around to add useful runs and the final total of 153 was enough to set India a challenging 249 for victory.
The Indian bowlers (and fielders) had failed to apply the coup de grace with the batsmen firmly on the ropes. They would sorely rue their lapses.
Ajit Wadekar and Viswanath had been the mainstays behind India’s successful run chase of 181 in Delhi and with the pair batting on 36 and 31 respectively by the close of the third day, hopes were high among the supporters.
But it was not to be. The wicket had taken spin from the very first day and Mallett took full advantage to run through the Indian batting, picking up his second 5-wicket haul in the match. This after McKenzie had blasted out both openers the previous day. From the overnight 82 for 2, the rest of the batting folded tamely and India were shot out for 171. It was all over an hour after lunch with over a day to spare. Both Mallett and Prasanna finished with 10 wickets in the match. But it was the Aussie who had the last laugh and proved to be the match winner.
It was to be the last series as captain for Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi (jr.) after being in charge of the ship for seven years. The next year the reins were handed over to Wadekar, though Pataudi did make a brief comeback as captain four years later.