Tuesday, 24th August 2021, is a significant day in the history of Indian cricket. It is the 50th anniversary of India’s historic victory over England in the Test match at The Oval which gave India its first ever series win over England in England in 1971.
The conquest of England was a turning point in the annals of Indian cricket. It gave new confidence to Indian cricketers and made them realise that they were no less than anyone else. But the victory went far beyond the boundaries of a cricket field. With that triumph, the eleven men who represented India seemed to have raised the morale of the entire Indian society in various spheres.
Exactly 50 years ago, the whole nation went into celebration mode as Ajit Wadekar’s team humbled the mighty Englishmen. Till then, England had not lost a single Test match for three years. England skipper Ray Illingworth had an unbeaten run as captain having led the side for 19 Tests in a row. His team was regarded as the world’s best team at that point.
Nobody had expected that the Indians would be able to get the better of England under English conditions. India had earlier defeated West Indies but the famed Caribbean cricketers were then past their best. Against England, the visiting side was up against a team that had great all round strength and was high on confidence.
It was a three match Test series. The first two ended in draws so the focus of millions of cricket lovers in India was on the third and final Test at The Oval.
This ground, also known as the Kennington Oval, is famous for hosting historically important sports events. It was on this ground that England hosted its first Test in 1880 and England’s first international football match against Scotland, a decade earlier. By tradition the last Test of the season is held on this ground. So it was a fitting scene for India’s epochal victory.
The man who made it possible was a thin and frail person. At the age of five, he was struck by polio and lost sensation in his right arm. Massage therapy and constant attention by caregivers helped him to regain use of the arm although it remained spindly. In school he used to play table tennis with his left hand but as he grew older he began taking interest in cricket. Then, quite miraculously, he found that despite being polio affected, his right arm could give the cricket ball a tremendous amount of spin at a fast pace.
Thus was born the bowling career of B.S. Chandrasekhar who was then considered the most dangerous spinner the world had seen. Even the great Vivian Richards was left foxed on a number of occasions by the mix of googlies and top spin deliveries that Chandra hurled like thunderbolts down the pitch.
When the Oval Test got underway, Illingworth won the toss and decided to make first use of a wicket that looked full of runs. The England captain was quite right. His team piled up a total of 355 in its first innings thanks to sound batting by opener John Jameson (82), Richard Hutton (81) and wicketkeeper Alan Knott’s enterprising 90.
Eknath Solkar who was otherwise famous for his electrifying catches, got three wickets with his slow medium pace bowling while the spin trio of Bedi, Venkataraghavan and Chandrasekhar picked up two wickets each.
When India batted, it was less successful. Only Dilip Sardesai and Farokh Engineer crossed the half century mark and India ended up with a first innings deficit of 71 runs. England’s captain Ray Illingworth himself emerged as the top wicket taker with five for 70.
With hopes high of forcing a victory, England began its second innings on the penultimate day. It was at this stage that the wily Mysurean, B.S. Chandrasekhar, pulled out his bag of magic tricks. Bowling with extraordinary venom, he got the ball to kick up and turn unexpectedly. The batsmen were all at sea. They probed and prodded hesitatingly and had no clue about what the ball was going to do.
Chandra dismissed the top four in the batting order cheaply. Then Venkataraghavan dismissed the dangerman Alan Knott. Thereafter Chandra returned to the attack and polished off the tail. By taking six wickets for only 38 runs, the man with the polio affected arm put India in the driver’s seat. England was all out for 101 and now India needed only 173 to win its first ever series in England.
But England did not give up the fight. Fast bowler John Snow was in full cry. He dismissed Sunil Gavaskar for a duck and the dangerous spinner Derek Underwood got rid of Ashok Mankad, Dilip Sardesai and Eknath Solkar.
But in the end Farokh Engineer and Syed Abid Ali pulled India to a victory. There is an interesting story about how the match ended. Engineer was the more reputed batsman and apparently he instructed Abid Ali to take a single and not lose his wicket.
But the Hyderabad all rounder was confident of his own ability and had other ideas in mind. He lashed out with a perfectly timed square cut that sent the ball racing to the fence and the match came to an end.
With a big smile Abid Ali said later: “I think that actually Farokh bhai wanted to score the winning run. That is why he told me to take a single. But why should I lose the opportunity of being a hero? I decided that I would hit the winning boundary and I did.”