John Lever © Getty Images
John Lever © Getty Images

John Lever, playing his first Test match, made a rogue replacement ball swing prodigiously and captured seven first innings wickets at Delhi. Arunabha Sengupta recalls December 19, 1976, when a bit of calculated flattery virtually swung the match in England’s favour.

A little flattery can go a long way, especially when it is dealt out by an Englishman in India of the 1970s. England’s manager, the great Ken Barrington, noticed that rookie medium-pacer John Lever was proving quite a handful with the new Indian balls during the warm-up matches. He winked at the young left-armer.

“If you play in the Test match, would you like to use them?” Barrington asked.

Lever said he would. Barrington sidled up to the officials and said, “We think you’ve made great strides in your cricket-ball making, we’d like to use them in Test matches.”

The cricketing administrators smiled gratefully and said: “Thank you very much, Mr. Barrington.”

So, when England played their first Test against India at Feroz Shah Kotla, Lever got his fingers across the seam of this home-made product.

However, it took a while for the ball to make waves. When England batted first after winning the toss, it was the turning ball that did much of the damage. Mike Brearley was brilliantly run out by Brijesh Patel, Graham Barlow was snared by captain Bishan Singh Bedi before he had scored his first run in Test cricket, and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar made short work of Bob Woolmer and Keith Fletcher.

Opener Dennis Amiss stuck around and weathered the spin storm, batting through the first day and much of the second. From 65 for 4, England reached 381, thanks mainly to the mammoth 179 by Amiss, aided by an entertaining 75 by wicketkeeper Alan Knott and a determined 53 by the debutant Lever.

Now, during the afternoon of the second day, Lever ran in with his easy-paced action and tried to swing the ball as he had done in the warm-up matches. Initially, though, there was hardly any movement. Sunil Gavaskar and Anshuman Gaekwad started steadily enough.

But, these balls went out of shape very quickly. And by the 11th over, the ball had to be changed. The replacement cherry turned out to be a rogue one and swung prodigiously.

Lever, with not much repute as a swing bowler even in English conditions, made his stock ball dip late into the batsman. With the extra swing he soon became unplayable. Gaekwad was trapped leg before. The very next ball got Mohinder Amarnath in a similar manner. And 6 runs later, Gundappa Viswanath was the next to go, again leg before to a similar in dipper. Srinivas Venkataraghavan came in as the night watchman and was bowled second ball. From 43 for no loss, India collapsed to 51 for 4 by the end of the day.

Brijesh Patel and Gavaskar survived over an hour the next morning. But, soon Lever started conjuring up his magic once again, getting Patel caught behind by one that moved away. Gavaskar followed after a 140-minute vigil that produced 38. It was 99 for 6 with Lever claiming all the wickets.

Derek Underwood broke the sequence by getting Parthasarathy Sharma caught in the in-field, before Lever unleashed another of those unplayable in-dippers to bowl wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani.

India folded for 122, Lever accounting for 7 for just 46 runs from 23 overs.

What happened next?

As the next ball behaved in a more traditional way, India fought back in the second innings. But, now it was the turn of the spinners to exploit the conditions. Underwood, excellently supported by the off-spin of skipper Tony Greig, tore the heart out of Indian batting.

Gavaskar battled for a skilful 71, but Underwood had the last laugh in a thoroughly absorbing duel. Lever, who did not have to do too much with the spinners sharing 84 overs between them, came back to wipe out the last 3 wickets and finish the match with 10 for 70. England triumphed by an innings and 25 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)