Three decades and more ago, the Indian cricket team did not have a great reputation as visitors. Not much has changed since then, but that is another story. Their record in England was particularly bad, coz they had lost all their previous outings from as early as 1952. The Indians had traveled to English soil 6 times before the 7th team ventured to play the game, that over the years had grown into the Indian way of life.
The earlier series that India had participated in had no memories or positives to take back home, save embarrassment and a harsh realization, that they came nowhere close to the cricketing talent of the English teams that they were up against. There was no reputation to protect, but the 1971 Indian squad had to create one. There were young men in the side, for instance the 22-year-old Sunil Gavaskar, who was the find of the West Indies series that they had just completed, earlier in the year. The Indians won the 5-match Test series, 1-0 and therefore had that winning feeling, before arriving in England. Gavaskar had a particularly good series scoring 774 in 4 of the Tests that he played in, with a double hundred in the final Test and three tonnes to add to his kitty of centuries. So, for young Sunil Gavaskar, this West Indies series of 1970-71 would be one he"d cherish.
Nothing was expected from this team of 1971 as they arrived in England. Despite the good showing that they had in the Caribbean, the English were quick to size them up, as just another poor quality Indian team. But they soon realized that this was perhaps not the case. One had heard of the superlative 'spin trio' and in the practice games, their strengths were exposed. They showed glimpses of the new attitude and talent that they had in the team. The Indians knew that they had to prove that they were indeed a unit to be taken seriously.
In the three Test series, the first two Tests had their moments. In the first Test at the mecca of cricket – Lord"s the English found themselves bowled over quite literally, when on the first day, they were reduced to 71/5 with Bedi and Chandrasekhar spinning them into problems. But the hosts fought back. With bad weather not withstanding in the end it was a balanced battle with England setting India a target of 183 to win the Test. In their 2nd innings, the Indians started well but the middle order collapsed. They were struggling at 142/8 but the weather Gods intervened and saved India what would have been a defeat.
The second Test at Old Trafford, Manchester saw the hosts build up a total of 386 with Abid Ali and Venkat sharing a large part of the spoils. To win the match, the hosts set the visitors a target of 420. There was a whole day to get the Indians out and at stumps on the 4th day, they were not comfortable at 65/3. But as luck would have it, rain intervened yet again and saved India some blushes that they could do without.
Now it all boiled down to the third and final Test, at the Oval. The Indians were hungry and knew that if they wanted to they could try and get the rearguard of the English side out in a quicker fashion. As for the English, they realized that this Indian team was no pushover. This final Test was poised well and both teams had a lot to gain from it, more so for the Indians. The English won the toss and elected to bat and in their first innings they put up a total of 355. There were no centurions and for the Indians, Eknath Solkar that prolific fielder, captured 3 wickets. While the 'spinning trio' gaining 2 wickets each. Rain made an appearance yet again and there was no play on day two of the Test. This must have been frustrating for both sides. On day three the Indians managed to get to a score of 234/7! But it was day four that will remain extra special for one and all who witnessed the action, and even today, when we look back at what happened on that golden day! The Indians added 50 runs to the over night score of 234 and England commenced their innings. And before they could say Bhagwat Subramanya Chandrasekhar, he had gone through the entire batting line up and ended with figures of 6/38. A superlative performance that reduced the hosts to a mere 101. Chandra ( as he was affectionately called) had created an unforeseen situation for his country. They needed only 173 to get and had 4 sessions in which to achieve that target. The hosts could not believe the predicament that they were in. They just had to get the Indians out. They struck early. Young Gavaskar – was out with the score on 2! And at 76/3, things were not looking good. But the Indians fought hard and thanks to a sizeable 4th wicket partnership between Dilip Sardesai and GR Vishwanath, India achieved that elusive win. They won not only the match but the first ever series on English soil. Celebrations were the order of the day, the 7th team to visit England had accomplished what they had set out to get.
A heroic welcome awaited the team and they were specially flown in to meet the President and Prime Minister in the capital Delhi. As for the welcome in Bombay ( now Mumbai) fans lined the roads all the way as the motorcade went on it"s journey, with the heroes on board. All the way from the airport to the Cricket Club of India the fans cheered on their champions. It must have been a sight to behold. As most of us were not there on that historic day, the best that we can do is relive that fantastic 4th day of the final Test and salute the team that made it all happen!
Cheers to the Team 1971!!