March 31, 1997. India needed 120 for a win at Barbados with all 10 wickets in hand. They lost the last eight wickets for 49 runs to be all out for 81.Arunabha Sengupta recounts the day when furious pace on a dodgy wicket led to a heart-breaking defeat.
The day had started with India standing at the brink of their first win in the Caribbean since that successful 400-plus run chase in 1976. That April day, India had overhauled a staggering target at Queen’s Park Oval, finishing victorious by amassing 406 for four. By contrast, in this Test at Bridgetown in 1997, the ask was a puny 120. Yet, as VVS Laxman and Navjot Sidhu walked out to open the Indian second innings on the fourth day, they knew the quest would not be that easy.
In 1976, the pitch had been slow and low. Three rather unimpressive spinners in the form of Albert Padmore, Raphick Jumadeen and Imtiaz Ali had shared 105 overs between them in the fourth innings. This Kensington Oval strip, in contrast, had large patches of grass, the bounce had grown progressively uneven to the point of treacherous, and lateral movement was abundant in the air and off the wicket.
Fast and faster
The captains were two young legends of the game — Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara, the latter leading the side for the first time due to a pulled hamstring that had side lined Courtney Walsh. The grass on the pitch had been influenced largely by their mutual agreement. Two rather monotonous stalemates had egged them to ask for a more result-oriented pitch.
The horses that they bet on had been chosen as par the course. Seven fast men were in the fray, all six footers and some several inches above.
Curtly Ambrose and Ian Bishop formed a pair of peerless pace and quality, whereas Franklyn Rose and Mervyn Dillon provided an excellent supporting unit for West Indies. Walsh was absent, but there was enough speed in the reserve.
For the Indians, Abey Kuruvilla, Venkatesh Prasad and Dodda Ganesh were perhaps were not in the same league. But, they did their job admirably enough.
West Indies had been dismissed for 298 in the first innings — a total that might have been much lower but for a resilient maiden century by Shivnarine Chanderpaul. In 18 previous Tests, the young left-hander with perhaps the strangest technique in the world had managed 13 fifties, but his highest had been 82. He could not have chosen a better occasion to get over his jinx.
Ambrose, Bishop and Rose bowled with a lot of fire when India batted, but there was some superlative batting in response. Rahul Dravid and Tendulkar added 170 for the third wicket. The Indian captain counter-attacked with panache for his 92, studded with 14 fours and a hooked six off Rose. He fell to Bishop, caught by Sherwyn Campbell at gully, but television replays suggested that Bishop had overstepped. Still, as the master walked back, the score stood at 212 for four, and a large lead was on the cards.
Dravid was the more watchful, batting two and a half hours more than the skipper for his 372 minute effort of 77. Unfortunately, none of the other Indian batsmen could settle down. The last six wickets fell for 46, and the promise of a sizeable lead remained unfulfilled. The difference at the end of the innings was only 21.
The move of the pawn
By the third afternoon, however, the small lead took on formidable proportions. Stuart Williams and Chanderpaul were dismissed before the arrears were wiped off. The six-foot, five-inch frame of Abey Kuruvilla answered the West Indian pace with the unusual Indian brand of fire. Brian Lara launched a thrilling counter-attack, but when Mohammad Azharuddin leapt to his left at second slip to catch him off Prasad, the West Indians seemed to be looking down the barrel. At 107, Kuruvilla dismissed Rose. With one wicket in hand, West Indies led by just 86. The Indian fans rejoiced. The match was as good as over.
Merwyn Dillon, walking out as last man, had no pretensions as a batsman. He had been dismissed for a duck in the first innings. But, as so often happens when there is precious little to lose, Dillon swung merrily, and connected much too frequently. At the other end Ambrose was stoically serene. Dillon blasted three fours and an uncontrolled pull stroke that cleared the boundary.
Kuruvilla disturbed his stumps to pick up his maiden five-for, but the young fast bowler had made a crucial 21, adding 33 for the last wicket with his senior bowling partner. It was the highest partnership of the innings. At that moment, it seemed a rather inconsequential romp indulgently allowed by the Indians. In the end, it proved pivotal — the last batsman’s heroics as telling as the last move of the pawn that makes it a powerful piece.Dillon would not be needed to bowl in the final innings, but he had played his part.
Bad light stopped play on the third evening with India on two without loss.
Day 4 destruction
When Sidhu and Laxman walked out on the fourth morning, the West Indians were expected to bowl their hearts out before the inevitable took place. Well, they did run in, big men with the largest hearts, and continued to run in faster and faster as one after one the wickets started to fall.
The first ball from Franklyn Rose jagged back and bounced rather awkwardly. It hit Sidhu on the knee roll and landed in front of the slips. Doubts emerged in the minds of the batsmen, and hope in the bowlers. The next ball leaped up from good length and hit the shoulder of the bat, flying to the slips. There was nothing Sidhu could do about it but fend. However, replays later showed later that Rose had overstepped, yet another no-ball overlooked by the umpire.
The first ball to Dravid shot in and hit the pad low, but down the leg side. The batsman eyed the pitch with a look of consternation. It was clear that every run would be difficult.
The balls kept darting through, and after painstakingly surviving half an hour, Dravid was undone by one from Rose that bounced awkwardly and left him. Courtney Brown took it behind the stumps. It was 16 for two.
Laxman pulled twice — one of those a scintillating short-arm version that went searing to the fence. The next was a top edge that flew streakily over the slips. The next ball from Rose was pitched up and went straight ahead at scorching pace. The bat came down inside the line. The off-stump was pegged back.
Laxman walked back for 19. He was to be the only man to reach double figures.
Bishop now produced an out-swinger. Tendulkar shaped for the drive and the outside edge flew fast and low to first slip. Brian Lara dived and rolled, scooping up the ball as it dipped downwards. The West Indians were ecstatic. Ambrose ran in from the deep and Bishop did a jig with him. It was 32 for four, and the most important man was back in the hutch.
Ambrose soon got into the act. The ball from the great man moved away, beat Sourav Ganguly’s tentative prod and struck the off-stump — 45 for five.
India pinned their hopes on Mohammad Azharuddin. It was a phase of the career of the classy Hyderabadi batsman when he played his strokes with unbridled freedom. A few well-connected blows could still win the match. One off-driven boundary allowed a small ray of hope to filter into the Indian camp. But, the ball which got him was virtually unplayable. Ambrose pitched short of good length, Azhar stayed back expecting the bounce, and it virtually shot under his bat to hit the stumps. The maestro stared in disbelief. The tail was in.
Anil Kumble attempted to turn one from Bishop to the leg. The ball stopped and took the leading edge, sending it straight up in the air. Roland Holder held at mid-wicket.
Nayan Mongia struggled for nearly forty minutes, doing all the hard work in keeping the fast men at bay, before shouldering arms to a straight one from Bishop. It was 66 for eight.
Kuruvilla and Ganesh survived till lunch through a lot of pluck and chance, with looping balls often falling inches beyond fielders. After 25 minutes of defiance, Ambrose dismissed the tallest of Indian bowlers with another one that stopped. It was another leading edge, this time off Kuruvilla’s bat, went high to mid-on. And finally Bishop hurled in a yorker that could not be blamed on the vagaries of the pitch. Prasad was not expected to get a bat on that and did not. The shell-shocked Indians were all out for 83. Thousands of expatriates who had come in to celebrate the victory went home with hearts shattered by darting balls on a dicey pitch.
The crowd went wild in celebration that Wisden called bacchanalian. It was the lowest total that the West Indians had ever defended. Brian Lara became only the sixth West Indian to win his first Test match as captain.
Brief scores: West Indies 299 (Shivnarine Chanderpaul 137; Venkatesh Prasad 5 for 82) and 140 (Brian Lara 45; Abey Kuruvilla 5 for 68) beat India 320 (Rahul Dravid 77, Sachin Tendulkar 92; Franklyn Rose 4 for 77) and 81 (Ian Bishop 4 for 22) by 38 runs
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix