Alan Whitehead (left, © Getty Images) was a perfectly acceptable option for the Indians; Rex Whitehead was not
Alan Whitehead (left, © Getty Images) was a perfectly acceptable option for the Indians; Rex Whitehead was not

June 24, 1982. Gales of laughter were heard from the Indian dressing room at The Oval. Arunabha Sengupta relates how the moment of mirth was earned through a series of misfortunes over umpiring decisions.

The Drama

The ball from Dennis Lillee kept a bit low. Sunil Gavaskar, caught on the crease, tried desperately to get bat on it. But it thudded on to the pads.

Did he get a nick? Perhaps. Perhaps not. We will never know. The television clips that remain are not conclusive.

Umpire Rex Whitehead’s finger went up. A visibly upset Indian captain protested that he had got a touch. And Lillee, helpful as ever in such circumstances, pointed out exactly where it had hit Gavaskar on the pads.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Gavaskar walked off in a huff, with speech and body language that would have hauled him in front of the match-referee in the modern day incarnation of the game. And what he did next would have handed him a rather long suspension.

Perhaps there was a word or two from the Australian fielders. Gavaskar urged partner Chetan Chauhan, with captain’s prerogative accompanied by physical coaxing, to accompany him back to the pavilion.

It was only quick thinking on the part of Wing Commander Salim Durrani, the manager of the Indian side, that saved the situation. Clad in a suit, Durrani walked down the steps to the ground, ordered Chauhan back to the pitch and patted the Indian No. 3 Dilip Vengsarkar on the back as he emerged on the ground.

All that is known.

It is also known that Gavaskar was on 70. His run of scores in the series was 0, 10, 25, 5 and 10. Lillee and his accomplices, Len Pascoe and Rodney Hogg, had got him cheaply each time. This was his final opportunity in the series, and he had finally looked like making a substantial score.

It was not the first time Gavaskar was facing Lillee. He had faced him for Rest of the World when they had played the Australians in 1971-72. His scores had amounted to 257 runs at an average of 28.56. Lillee had got him four times, for 22, 7, 0 and 38. So, perhaps there was an unsettled score there as well.

On the whole, there have been numerous occasions when a batsman given out has shown dissent. But asking his batting partner to come off because of that is rather rare, especially outside the confines of corridor cricket.

All Gavaskar said was, “When smoke is coming out of your ears you cannot think straight.”

But, the story does have another dimension. A dimension other than Gavaskar. We can look at it through a lens focused on umpire Whitehead.

The prologue

The second Test at Adelaide had seen Whitehead stand as umpire. There had been a succession of decisions during that Test which had gone against India, leading the team to name Whitehead’s finger ‘The Gestapo Index’.

Despite the decisions, the Test was drawn amidst drama. While the Indian side battled to bat out the final day, the steady Vengsarkar was given out by Whitehead, caught at slip off the left-arm spin of Alan Border. The replays showed quite clearly that the ball had come off his boot.

The Test ended with Karsan Ghavri and Shivlal Yadav batting out the last half hour with a pensive Dilip Doshi padded up. After that Gavaskar did make some comments about the umpiring. However, he did not put anything on paper. He did not take to the elaborate, complicated formal channels.

Nightmare continues

Hence, Whitehead stood again for the final Test at Melbourne.

Australia batted after India had been bowled out for 237. At 81 for 3, Border came in. Yadav ran in and struck him on the pad. According to the Indians it was plumb. But Whitehead disagreed.

With the batsman on 91 Ghavri moved one away, there was a distinct noise as Border drove at it. Syed Kirmani pouched it behind the stumps and the Indians almost considered an appeal unnecessary. But Whitehead was unmoved. Ghavri stood for a while with his hands on his knees before walking back to his bowling mark.

It was 320 for 4, with Border on 124, when Yadav floated one up to him, pitching outside the leg-stump. The attempted sweep could not connect, the ball went round the legs and the bails were dislodged. Border was not sure. Whitehead looked at his colleague Melville Johnson.

The decision was given against Border, but only after deliberation. According to Gavaskar, if it had been ruled in favour of the batsman he would have been the only one standing in the ground because his team was ready to concede the series.

Hence, the incident surrounding Gavaskar’s near forfeiture had a lot of Whitehead index in it.

But the Indians, outplayed during the tour till the penultimate day, roared back on the final morning to square the series. That, however, is another story.


This incident had a follow-up in the summer of 1982.

India were playing in England, and they trailed 0-1 going into the final Test at The Oval. And suddenly, to add to their woes, the team heard it announced that the umpires for the forthcoming match would be Dickie Bird and Whitehead.

Everyone knew Bird. But Whitehead? Again? In England? We need to remember that this was long before the age of neutral umpires.

Captain Sunil Gavaskar was going through another lukewarm series with the bat. But his sense of humour was intact. Or was it relief?

With his team listening with apprehension, Gavaskar informed: “Not Rex but Alan. No relation.”

Gales of laughter were heard from the dressing room.