On January 28, 1976 Erapalli Prasanna skittled out New Zealand at Eden Park to lead India to a rare overseas victory. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the best spell by an Indian bowler out of his country.
The pitch looked bone-dry with cracks all over: the Indian spinners were probably dying to get their hands on the ball on the pitch. The track looked so conducive to spin that New Zealand called up an extra spinner – the left-arm Derek O’Sullivan – to go with Hedley Howarth. India were without their captain Bishan Bedi, which meant that Sunil Gavaskar would lead for the first time in his career; they went in with three spinners – Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkataraghavan – and three debutants – Dilip Vengsarkar, Surinder Amarnath and Syed Kirmani.
Fortunately for New Zealand, Bevan Congdon won the toss and elected to bat. The match would have been too one-sided otherwise. There was a decent partnership between John Morrison (46) and Congdon (54), but both Chandrasekhar and Prasanna kept taking wickets consistently, and New Zealand collapsed to 266 from a comfortable 110 for 1. Chandrasekhar took 6 for 94 and Prasanna 3 for 64, while the other wicket fell to Venkataraghavan. The seamers, Madan Lal and Mohinder Amarnath, bowled only nine overs between them.
The ball was already spinning at absurd angles. Though Chandrasekhar was the most successful bowler, Prasanna was already extracting vicious turn: he turned the ball so much that he bowled with only two fielders on the off-side for a substantial part of the innings. Chandrasekhar varied his turn as well, and Venkataraghavan acted as the perfect foil to provide the necessary rest to his more illustrious colleagues.
Early on the second day Richard Collinge trapped Vengsarkar leg before. It seemed that New Zealand had a chance, but Gavaskar and Surinder batted in their respective styles. Surinder went past Gavaskar, was dropped thrice, and eventually raced to a hundred on Test debut, just like his father Lala had done over four decades back: it was the first time a father-son combination had done the same. The spinners could not find any line or length, and the turn the pitch offered went in vain.
After Surinder fell for 124, Gundappa Viswanath fell without any addition to the score. Gavaskar, who was also dropped thrice, reached his hundred on his first Test as captain. When he followed Brijesh Patel to the pavilion, India were 270 for 5. Howarth removed night-watchman Venkataraghavan, and India ended day two at 279 for 6. It seemed that New Zealand were clawing their way back into the Test.
However, on Day Three, Mohinder and Madan Lal batted sensibly, adding 93 runs, but fell in quick succession to Congdon. Mohinder scored a fine 64. Kirmani and Prasanna then added 45 more, and when Congdon finally took the last two wickets, India were bowled out for 414 – clearly in the driver’s seat. Congdon took his first 5-for in Test cricket.
With two early wickets, including the dangerous Glenn Turner, Prasanna had New Zealand in serious trouble. It was then that John Parker joined Congdon, and took control over the situation. They batted beautifully against the turning ball with sensible footwork, and they gradually erased New Zealand’s deficit. At the end of day three, New Zealand were 161 for 2, leading by 13 runs. If they could push the lead to 200…
Their dream met a quick end with Parker being caught by Vengsarkar at bat-pad off Prasanna in the first ball on the fourth day. Soon he bowled one through Brian Hastings’ defense; and at the other end Chandrasekhar trapped Mark Burgess leg-before. The New Zealand umpires – David Copps and Robert Montleith – then took the matter in their own hands, and turned down one plumb leg-before decision after another. Chandrasekhar and Prasanna kept their cool and went on bowling.
Prasanna then bowled a drifter that took Congdon’s edge and went to Gavaskar in the slips. Dayle Hadlee fell to another bat-pad catch off the same bowler, and two runs later, Prasanna snared O’Sullivan as well. New Zealand’s hopes were shattered: from 161 for 2 they had collapsed to 182 for 8, and Prasanna’s morning spell read 5 for 6. He had already taken 10 wickets in the match.
If Chandrasekhar was about unpredictable spin and bounce and Bedi was about the sheer visual beauty of adventurous classical spin, Prasanna was all about guile: he tossed the ball in the air – his fingers making a snapping sound – the ball whirred, almost audibly, tantalising the batsman, keeping the batsman guessing, guessing, guessing about not only where it would pitch but also whether it would turn or not; as the ball finally descended across the arc on the pitch, the batsman had almost invariably taken the edge, or worse, had sneaked in through the gate – to result in the tell-tale sound of timber every batsman hates. And he would laugh: not the innocent smile of the baby, but the sly smirk of the wiliest of foxes.
He was in his elements here, even though several leg-before decisions went against him and Chandrasekhar. He did not lose patience, and finally had Collinge out, caught at bat-pad. And then, Chandrasekhar clean-bowled Ken Wadsworth, and appealed vociferously. As the umpire expressed his surprise, Chandrasekhar famously retorted with “I know he is bowled, but is he out?”
New Zealand were bowled out for 215, a lead of a mere 68. Prasanna had taken 8 for 76 in the second innings – still the best figures by any Indian overseas. His match figures read 11 for 140 (his career-best), while Chandrasekhar returned figures of 8 for 179. Though Venkataraghavan picked up only one wicket, he tied down one end and helped the other two get wickets, taking 1 for 91 in 43 eight-ball overs.
Though Howarth took two wickets in the run-chase, Gavaskar was in a rare ferocious mood: he hit six fours and a six, and the target was achieved in 14.2 overs. Gavaskar had played a crucial role in winning his first Test as captain, but the honours surely went to Prasanna, who had bowled the spell of his lifetime. After Chandrasekhar at The Oval in 1971, yet another spinner had bowled India to a victory in an overseas Test.
New Zealand 266 (Bevan Congdon 54, John Morrison 46, Ken Wadsworth 41, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar 6 for 94) and 215 (John Parker 70, Bevan Congdon 54, Erapalli Prasanna 8 for 76) lost to India (Surinder Amarnath 124, Sunil Gavaskar 116, Mohinder Amarnath 64, Bevan Congdon 64) and 71 for 2 – by 8 wickets.