Sunil Gavaskar played a superb innings at The Oval in 1979 © Getty Images (File Photo)
In this 16 part series, Arunabha Sengupta captures one special moment from each of the 16 previous Indian tours to England. In the ninth episode he looks back at the near miraculous fifth day at The Oval in 1979 when India almost chased down 438.
There had been quite a few magic moments on the tour.
David Gower had struck an ethereal double hundred at Birmingham during England’s huge innings win. He had followed it up with a superb 82 at Lord’s, including two pulled sixes off Bishan Bedi and captain Srinivas Venkataraghavan.
Ian Botham had been an emotional cocktail during that Lord’s Test, his jubilation at getting Sunil Gavaskar as his hundredth Test wicket worth going many a mile to watch. And then there had been the five hour 20 minute resistance carried out by Dilip Vengsarkar and Gundappa Viswanath that went on to save India the Test match.
In a rain curtailed match at Leeds, Botham switched from masterly bowling to audacious batting. He produced a century with hits that thundered off the bat, and never since Ted Dexter had the Englishmen seen anything approaching such bravado from their one of their own.
Yet, the best was reserved for the final day of the series.
With the sun resuming duties with full force at The Oval after going AWOL at Headingley, the match turned out to be an all-time classic.
There was not much to cheer about during the first three and a half days, though. Botham was superb with the ball and in the field, Graham Gooch provided some spirited display in the first innings and Viswanath batted beautifully on the second day. Other than that, the cricket was often ordinary, with wickets lost through batting that fell well short of Test class. But, as Wisden noted, “this was, of course, an important factor in allowing the marvellous finish.”
It was not that Mike Brearley needed to declare. With his team one up in the series, he could have been excused for letting the third innings run its course. However, he closed at 334 for eight, leaving India 500 minutes to survive — or go for 438 runs. With Botham, Bob Willis, Mike Hendrick and Phil Edmonds up his sleeve, with comeback man Peter Wiley to support the wicket-takers, the England captain perhaps did not expect India to even contemplate a chase. However, chase they did.
The epic 221
It is said that huge chases are never planned, they just evolve. And so did the Indian innings, from one plane of disbelief to the next.
Gavaskar, with his trusted ally in Chetan Chauhan, batted through the two hours and a bit of the fourth day, finishing on 76 without any reduction in the batting resources. It meant 362 to get on the final day, at approximately a run a minute. It would be four and a half hours followed by 20 mandatory overs. And as each hour elapsed, Indian hearts soared with hope and the English beat with unexpected trepidation.
The two openers continued to bat. The rate was never fast, just about steady. They put on 93 before lunch, going into the break at 169 without loss. Could they do it? The goal was near invisible, across an ocean of runs. No one had ever scored that many to win a Test match, not then, not till date. However, the Indians had chased down over 400 at Port of Spain three years earlier. That win had been achieved against a much inferior attack, but had stretched the definition of impossibility by some distance in the Indian mindset.
A major problem resolved itself. Hendrick, nagging and parsimonious, had conceded just 15 in eight overs, 11 off six on that final morning. In his exertions he pulled a shoulder muscle and bowled no more in the match. Willey pegged the Indians back with eight overs that resulted in just two runs. But, overall the scoreboard kept moving at the steady rate. 44 were scored in the third hour, and at the drinks interval, the Indians were 213 without loss. Gavaskar, clearly the mastermind behind the audacious attempted heist, was already past his hundred.
The despairing Englishmen finally tasted success when Chauhan edged Willis, and Botham held it in the slips. The long serving opener departed, yet again unable to get to three figures, something he would never manage in his career. Dilip Vengsarkar now joined Gavaskar at the wicket.
This was the period when the Indian inclination to go for the runs became abundantly clear. Gavaskar took charge, unleashing superb drives on both sides of the wicket. Vengsarkar played himself in and started to blossom, nonchalantly driving Willis back over his head. At tea, India were 304 for one.
A visibly nervous England dragged their feet after the interval. Just six overs were bowled in the half hour before the 20 mandatory overs began. India were 328 for one, 110 required with nine wickets in hand.
The runs kept coming, and by the end of the eighth over, India were 366 for one. The England side looked in the grip of panic. Even the brilliant Botham had just dropped Vengsarkar off a skier. Gavaskar was past an incredible double hundred. Vengsarkar had completed his half century.
And now, the Indian innings stumbled a bit. Vengsarkar hit Edmonds tamely to Botham at mid-wicket. It sparked off the final streak of brilliance in the great all-rounder. Besides, captain Venkataraghavan kept making some dubious changes to the batting order. Kapil Dev was promoted to hustle the score along and skied Willey to long off.
Gavaskar was still going strong, weaving the innings forward with Yashpal Sharma as his new partner. And at 389, Botham ran in to perform his last act of genius. Eight overs were left with 49 runs to get. And Gavaskar’s supreme knock came to an end as he drove into the hands of Gower at mid-on. The great man walked back with 221 impeccable runs made in eight hours and 10 minutes off 443 balls. And as he departed, he took with him the calm serenity that had guided the chase so far.
Viswanath struck two crisp boundaries before being caught at cover — perhaps a bump ball, but it did not matter to the scorecard. Botham picked up Yajurvindra Singh and Yashpal in successive overs. Venkataraghavan promoted himself in front of the far more capable Karsan Ghavri, and was run out by the spectacular Botham.
It left 15 to get off the last over, with Ghavri and wicketkeeper Bharath Reddy at the wicket. England needed two wickets to win. All four results were possible as Willey began the final over. After having dealt with some serious panic, Brearley now crowded the batsmen with fielders
With only Bedi to follow, Ghavri and Reddy settled for safety. The wicketkeeper did manage a boundary — but with one ball to go the score was 429 for eight, nine runs to win. Willey did not bowl the final delivery. With draw the only possibility, time was called on the match.
The epic last day at last drew to an end. One man had done nearly everything with his broad blade but had fallen just short of securing the win. Gavaskar’s 221 remains one of the very best fourth innings efforts in the history of the game.
As England legend Len Hutton observed, “Gavaskar’s 221 should, at the very least, be bracketed with Stan McCabe’s 232 at Trent Bridge and Wally Hammond’s 240 at Lord’s.”.
England 305 (Graham Gooch 79, Peter Willey 52; Kapil Dev 3 for 83) and 334 (Geoff Boycott 125, David Bairstow 59; Karsan Ghavri 3 for 76) drew with India 202 (Gundappa Viswanath 62, Yqajurvindra Singh 43*; Ian Botham 4 for 65) and 429 for 8 (Sunil Gavaskar 221, Chetan Chauhan 80, Dilip Vengsarkar 52; Ian Botham 3 for 97).
(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)