Indian cricket could be said to have truly come of age in 1971. As it entered its fifth decade there was still only one victory overseas (New Zealand in 1968) and this had left a yawning gap in India’s record. All that changed in one dramatic summer.
It all began in December 1970 with the removal of the Nawab of Pataudi as captain after nearly a decade and his replacement by Bombay’s left-hand batsman Ajit Wadekar.
The tour to the West Indies early in 1971 was his first in charge and for the first time, India emerged triumphant.
A couple of months later India were in England where they had been trounced on the previous tour four years earlier.
Further, England under Ray Illingworth had regained the Ashes in Australia the previous winter and were considered the best side in the world. They had gone 26 Test matches without defeat and were on top of the cricket world.
Wadekar’s team was an experienced one with more than half the touring squad having toured England before. And in opening batsman Sunil Gavaskar they had the toast of the cricket world, having scored a record 774 runs in his debut series in the West Indies.
In six previous visits India had not even got close to victory on English soil. Twice (5-0 in 1959 and 3-0 in 1967), there was the ignominy of a whitewash. Now it was left to Wadekar and his men to re-write cricket history.
With the weather intervening, both the first Test at Lord’s and the second at Old Trafford were drawn. So it was all to play for as the two teams went into the third and final Test at the Oval. BS Chandrasekhar was part of the 1967 team to England but he had been out of international cricket for four years, a combination of injuries and some strange selection policies.
Now he would play a historic role with back-up from Bishan Bedi and S. Venkataraghavan.
Illingworth won the toss and England reached 355 by the end of the first day. Bombay-born opener John Jameson hit 82 in only his second Test but it was once again wicket-keeper Alan Knott who was the scourge of the Indian bowlers top-scoring with 90. His century partnership with Richard Hutton (81) hauled England off the ropes from a score of 175 for 6.
The entire second day’s play was washed out and it looked like rain would have the final say in the series.
The Indian batting struggled on the third day and ended it at 234 for 7. There were useful scores by Wadekar, Dilip Sardesai, Eknath Solkar and wicket-keeper Farrokh Engineer, who like his English counterpart was top scorer with 59. The next morning the tail added useful runs to extend the total to 284 all out. But in the face of accurate English bowling led by their skipper and off spinner with five wickets, India had conceded a lead of 71 runs.
August 23, the fourth day’s play would be one of the most dramatic in Test cricket and the man who played the role of match winner was none other than Chandra, the leg spinning genius who had been ignored for four long years.
In fact he had a ‘hand’ in the inadvertent dismissal of Jameson when Brian Luckhurst drove the bowler hard down the pitch—only for the ball to divert off Chandra’s hand and onto the non-striker’s stumps with Jameson stranded outside his crease.
John Edrich was as stunned as everyone else at the ground as he was yorked and bowled by Chandra after facing just five balls, beaten more by pace than by spin. This was the unique gift of one of India’s greatest bowlers.
The very next ball saw Keith Fletcher’s dismissal on the stroke of lunch, brilliantly caught by Solkar at his famous short leg position. England 24 for 3 and the alarm bells starting to sound.
From just wanting to hang on for a draw, suddenly the Indians sensed their chance. Wadekar admitted that at this moment he felt India could win.
Solkar’s greatest moment would come when he lunged forward and snapped up Knott (1) inches off the ground from Venkat’s bowling.
England’s tail had been the bane of the Indian bowlers right through the series but with half the side gone for 54, it crumbled under Chandra’s onslaught.
The predominantly Indian fans in the stadium could scarcely believe their eyes—England tumbled out for 101, their lowest score since 1948 and Chandra (6-38) returning the best figures for an Indian on English soil.
The victory target was 173, not a formidable score but not an easy one either. India’s fragile batting was now facing its sternest test.
Time was not the issue. There was still two and a quarter hours batting left on the fourth and the full fifth day, weather permitting.
Caution was the watchword, especially with both openers Gavaskar and Ashok Mankad dismissed with 37 runs on the board.
Wadekar and Sardesai inched the total to 76 without further loss at stumps and now the target was less than 100 runs away.
The final day was an auspicious one being the Ganesh festival and it seemed all of India was praying for a miracle.
But there was a huge setback right away when Wadekar was run out without adding to his overnight 45. The tension was mounting all round as GR Viswanath and Sardesai nudged the score ever closer against the accurate but increasingly desperate English bowler.
Sardesai (40) and Solkar fell within 10 runs of each other. Had the pendulum swung away at 134 for 5? Engineer with typically bold strokes broke the shackles while Viswanath stuck around for nearly three hours for his 33.
Then with victory tantalizingly close, he perished in trying to hit the winning boundary and it was left to Abid Ali to complete the formalities with four wickets in hand. After 39 years of one humiliating defeat after another, India had finally won a Test—and the series to boot--for the first time on English soil and Wadekar and his men had made 1971 a golden double.