Twenty six years ago, a hot gruelling day in Madras witnessed an epic encounter ending in the second Tied Test in the history of cricket. Arunabha Sengupta relives the pulsating moments of that final day.
A handful of diehards did turn up to watch, but several others stayed away. The final day of a dead Test match, that had been largely dominated by Australia, and which in all probability would see the visitors indulging in batting practice – the idea did not really appeal to many.
Blessed were those who had enough faith in the uncertainties of the game. It came as the pleasantest of surprises in an era of tall scoring draws when the Australian side walked out into the ground, followed by Sunil Gavaskar and Krishnmachari Srikkanth.
The sun was blazing down when Madras saw a sudden beeline for Chepauk. The news filtered through the city that the Test match had suddenly been resurrected. Allan Border had declared at the overnight score of 170 for five, setting India a target of 348. As the day progressed, televisions, transistor radios and word of mouth variously conveyed that the Indians were perhaps going for it.
Perhaps egged on by manager Bobby Simpson, Border thought he could win. After the batting feast of the first two days, scoring runs had not really been that easy. It had taken one belligerent Kapil Dev century, something that never really correlated with the batting conditions, to save the follow on against Greg Matthews and Ray Bright. And then, the Australian batsmen had struggled during the fourth day, with Ravi Shastri and Maninder Singh tying them down and picking wickets. Finally, the one Indian batsman in Bradmanesque form, Dilip Vengsarkar, had pulled a back muscle during a One-Day International some days earlier and was not playing in the Test match.
Thankfully for cricket, Indian skipper Kapil Dev felt that he could win it as well. And the conviction grew as he watched Gavaskar guide the innings skilfully, mixing caution with some excellent strokeplay.
The chase begins
“Big chases are not really planned, they tend to happen as things progress,” Ravi Shastri recalled later. When India reached 94 for the loss of just Srikkanth at lunch, it certainly looked a distant, but distinct, possibility. Mohinder Amarnath was at the crease with Gavaskar, perhaps forming the oldest and wisest pair of the generation.
Batting a tad too slowly for the liking of the increasingly vocal crowd, Amarnath reached his half century about an hour after lunch before falling to Matthews. But, he was ably replaced by young Mohammad Azharuddin who used his wrists to superb effect to keep the scoreboard ticking.
With the score at 193 for two at Tea, 155 needed from 30 overs, India looked all set to pull off a memorable win.
Eleven runs after the interval, Gavaskar reached out to drive Ray Bright through the covers and hit it in the air. Dean Jones, who three days earlier had battled dehydration and saline drip to score an epic double hundred, held it gleefully. It had been an invaluable 90, but Gavaskar looked inconsolable as he walked back.
At the other end, Greg Matthews was in the midst of one of the greatest spells of bowling by a visiting spinner in India. Having been handed the ball at the end of the eighth over, he kept things tight and difficult.
It was here that a superb little cameo was essayed that is seldom recalled with adequate acclaim. Chandrakant Pandit, the Bombay wicketkeeper, was playing as a batsman, walking in the enormous shoes of Vengsarkar. He showed little sign of nerve as he came in, and found gaps in the field with delightful, delicate deflections. Even the jolt of Gavaskar’s huge wicket seemed smoothly absorbed. Azharuddin continued to flower, and Pandit’s easy progress made the Australians jittery.
India entered the home stretch. The mandatory overs were in progress, the target reduced to less than a hundred, seven wickets in hand, the asking rate less than a run a ball. Everything seemed to be in control and at this juncture, Azharuddin rather needlessly charged Bright and was caught in the outfield.
At 251 for four, Kapil Dev entered, having promoted himself ahead of Ravi Shastri.
If the captain could have repeated a small fraction of his fabulous first innings feat, India would have won with overs and aeons to spare. But he lasted just two balls.
Things were getting tense – India needed 95 with five wickets remaining. The crowd had magically grown to over 30,000. Shastri now joined Pandit. Not much batting remained. Spectators, journalists, commentators – all wondered whether India would down the shutters and put safety ahead of ambition. But, cricket came out victorious. There was no indication of giving up the chase.
Pandit continued his facile innings, and Shastri embarked on a gem – perhaps the best he ever played in Test cricket. Solid as a rock in defence, when the asking rate showed signs of inching up, he stepped out and launched Greg Matthews over the deep midwicket.
At 291, with 57 more required, Matthews spun one past Pandit’s angled bat, hitting the stumps. The fluent effort had yielded 39 off 37 balls, to go with 35 in the first innings. Had he been there, Vengsarkar might have won the match without hassle, but Pandit had not done too badly either.
With four wickets to go, Chetan Sharma walked in. Shastri walked down the pitch to have a long conference. And in the television commentary box, Kishore Bhimani attempted to play the role of Sanjaya of the Mahabharata, paraphrasing it for the viewers, “Shastri goes up to him and says ‘forget it.’” When Sharma defended a couple of balls, Bhimani was convinced, “The Indian gameplan looks quite clear now.” Thankfully, he got it wrong – by several light years. To be fair, such Test matches were rare in the drab eighties.
The final stages
Chetan Sharma might not have been blessed with the prodigious talent of his Haryana senior Kapil Dev, but he could bat. And apparently, Shastri knew that. The Bombay all-rounder did not change his attitude, and continued to milk runs with ease. He picked his spots brilliantly – even when he stepped out and hit Matthews over widish long on for his second six, there seemed to be minimum amount of risk. Chetan, on the other hand, was all guts and instinct, fighter to the core. Forty runs were added in even time.
With 30 balls to go, 18 required, and four wickets in hand, India looked the certain winners. And in the heat and humidity, tempers rose and angry words flew around. Border argued openly with umpire Dara Dotiwalla, And when umpire Vikram Raju turned down an appeal against Sharma, the temperamental Matthews resorted to body-language that left nothing to imagination, and bowled as hostile an over ever witnessed to be bowled by a spinner.
In the 17th mandatory over, with things very much in control, Sharma rushed out and lofted Bright against the spin. Craig McDermott, who had had little bowling to do, held it at long on. 331 for seven.
Having crossed over, Shastri managed a two and a single, but Kiran More was leg-before to Bright the first ball he faced. It was 334 for eight, and suddenly an Australian win transpired as a clear possibility on the cards.
It was a moment of analysing risks and solving intricate problems. Three overs remained with less than a run a ball required, but how could Shastri manage to score all of it without taking too many risks?
Shivlal Yadav, the off-spinner from Hyderabad, had his own ideas about the situation. Dogged and determined at the crease, the earlier season he had been touted as the best No 11 since the Second World War. Now, coming in at No 10, he faced Greg Matthews. Trying to prise him out, Matthews gave the ball air, and Yadav charged down the wicket and scythed it away, the ball hung in the air before eluding the long on fielder for a surprise six. The equation once again shifted towards India, Yadav looking good enough to rotate the strike.
But, with nine balls to go and just four to win, he went for an elaborate sweep off Bright. The ball hit his pad and deflected on to the leg stump. Later, Yadav confessed, “Ravi and I should have got the runs. It was a rush of blood that made me go for the stroke.”
In walked Maninder Singh – Indian team’s solitary certified rabbit. “I will honestly say I was absolutely numb at that time because we were in such a good winning position then,” he says now. As he took guard with two balls remaining of Bright’s over, the nation joined hands in prayer. Perhaps it was the collective entreaty of millions that saw him block the last two balls of the Australian left-arm spinner who finished with five for 94 from 25 overs.
The last ball
And now, Matthews started the final over of the match, his 40th on the trot. The fielders were spread far and wide – willing the batsman to take a single. Shastri defended the first ball. The second was pitched up and he aimed for the widish mid-wicket. It a thick inside edge that took the ball to deep-square leg. Geoff Marsh ran in to field, did not pick it up cleanly, and Shastri raced back for two.
The next ball was played as a picture of poise and calm, with the spin, to the deep mid-wicket, and the batsmen ran one. India would not lose. And Maninder Singh had to find a way to score a run off three remaining deliveries.
In his column Off the Field, Shastri later wrote, “If Ravi Shastri had not taken a single, gone for a big one and holed out. Suppose you met him the next day in the street corner. Would you have spared him?”
Maninder recalls, “Ravi came up to me and showed me the gaps. He said if you could get a run, get it, otherwise give it a smack. So that is what I was trying to do. There were three balls to face and I thought I would try to take a single without any kind of risk. If I can't get it through the fielders, then I might as well give it a heave.”
Maninder defended the fourth ball with some difficulty. Finally, at 5:18 on that sultry Monday, Matthews ran in for what would be the final time. Maninder played back, fatally – the ball hit his pads and umpire Vikram Raju raised his finger.
The Australians were jubilant. The picture of the last moment, with Matthews exulting like a bird in flight as the umpire’s finger went up, has become legendary – and hangs neatly framed in Vikram Raju’s home.
Maninder protested. He was sure – and still is – that he had got a tickle. Years later, as an umpire himself, he says, “I am sure the umpire was nervous. I was surprised because before I even played the ball, I could see his finger going up. I mean almost before playing the ball. That shows he was nervous, but that's part of the game.”
Matthews, who finished with five for 145 from 39.5 overs, and 10 wickets in the match, disagrees. “It takes the most courageous umpire to give that decision,” he recalled later.
Shastri’s bat reportedly went flying across the Indian dressing room when he returned. However, 48 in 40 balls under monumental pressure was by some distance the most brilliant and valuable innings of his career. Indians had been so close to victory that the historical significance of the occasion did not quite register. As Kapil Dev later said, “It is okay to have been part of history, but we would have liked to win the match.”
Bobby Simpson, the Australian manager, perhaps experienced a sense of déjà-vu. He had been in the thick of things during the first Tie in the history of Test cricket, that famous Brisbane game in 1961. It had also ended on the penultimate ball. Each team had scored a total of 737 runs in that Test, and now the second had seen 742 apiece.
It had taken 498 Test matches to witness the first Tie. After 554 Tests, the result was repeated.
The Australian dissent on the final day, Srikkanth’s shaking his fist at Bright and Maninder’s charging run across 40 yard to tell Jones where to go after getting him out in the second innings – all these perhaps marred the occasion. The Brisbane Test had been played in exemplary spirit of the game.
Perhaps the inability of the Indians to dismiss the Australians in both the innings and the declaration on the final day made the result seem a trifle contrived. Unlike the first Tied Test where there was an even balance of exchanges throughout, the advantage lay with the Australians all through the first four days, with India most of the final day – with some frantic shifts during the final session.
But, for all those who were in the stadium or glued to the screens on September 22, 1986, it was knuckle-cracking, nail-biting, edge of the seat excitement – a day to remember and relive for a lifetime.
(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)