“It was like a beautiful girl with a cancerous c**t”, was how Sir Lankan manager Abu Fuard remembered the pitch at Barabati Stadium, Cuttack.
One just had to land the ball on the wicket – the rest was a lottery raked up by the hand of chance. The ball darted and shot through, moved and stopped, and, once in a while, leaped up. From a distance the strip looked perfect, but a few overs were enough to determine that it was treacherously underprepared.
Kapil Dev called correctly, and India batted. Soon Sunil Gavaskar was walking back. The ball from Ravi Ratnayeke had been short enough for the master batsman to attempt a pull, but it did not rise high enough to reach the knee-roll. Gavaskar hardly waited for the umpire to raise his finger as the ball thudded into his shin.
Krishnamachari Srikkanth used the early and ephemeral evenness of the track to compile a brisk 40 before becoming the first batsman to be bowled by a shooter. Soon, the star-studded batting order was struggling against tidy bowling and a maliciously temperamental pitch. No one was quite at ease, but for one solitary man.
Dilip Vengsarkar batted as if it was a shirt-front wicket, diligently pressed and laid out for his exclusive use. The tall, elegant Bombay batsman was in the form of his life, going through a phase when he could roll out of bed and score a Test hundred with a toothbrush in his hand. Besides, he sort of specialised in unplayable conditions. The previous summer he had rattled up scores of 61 and 102 not out with the ball darting around at Leeds, where the next highest in the match had been 36. Here, he came in, moved his long left leg down the wicket and negotiated the vagaries of the pitch without the slightest hint of discomfort.
For the rest of the men, it was a hard-fought battle for survival. Mohinder Amarnath batted over four hours for a dour 39. By the time he was bowled by a shooter from Don Anurasiri, Vengsarkar, who had come in a good hour and a half after him, was already cruising along on 63 – finding ways and means to essay those classical cover drives and on drives with uncanny frequency on a virtually broken wicket.
Vengsarkar ended the day on 98, with not one false stroke to tarnish the developing gem of an innings. India stood at 224 for three, a monumental score given the conditions.
Masterpiece on tattered canvas
The next morning, Rumesh Ratnayeke dismissed Raman Lamba with another shooter and bowled a testing over at Vengsarkar when the batsman was on 99. However, the fully deserved century came soon enough. By the time Ravi Shastri fell, the score was 272 and the Lankan bowlers were tiring.
Kapil Dev now joined Vengsarkar at the wicket. It was not often that the two got going together, but when they did, it was always a special treat for the spectators. Vengsarkar picked up the gaps with ease, a picture of technical perfection even on the devilish wicket. With his steadying influence, at the other end Kapil Dev started enjoying himself. The disheartened bowlers were flogged around the park, as Kapil answered the difficult questions of the pitch early and efficiently with his excellent eye. The pair added 111, and when Kapil fell to Anurasiri for 60, India had made a mockery of the underprepared pitch – batting at 383 for six.
Two runs later, Vengsakar, who, according to television commentator Kishore Bhimani, was “like the Mahanadi behind him, going on and on” showed increasing glimpses of fatigue and fell leg before to Ravi Ratnayeke. His 166 had come in seven hours, and contained 14 boundaries. Considering the wicket, it had been a superhuman innings. Strangely, it remained Vengsarkar’s career best knock.
The last few Indian wickets fell away without much many more, but a total of 400 was nothing short of a miracle, and the wicket was getting worse by the minute.
The surrender and the milestone
Sri Lanka was never going to get close. Kapil Dev used variable bounce with all his experience and soon reduced the visitors to 125 for six. Roy Dias and Aravinda de Silva bravely battled to save the follow-on, and at 188 for six it looked that they would manage it. But, Maninder Singh got de Silva leg before with another ball that hugged the wicket, the young de Silva desperately trying to influence the decision by pointing at his bat, an instrument that had not been within a foot of the ball.
The last four wickets fell for three runs, and Sri Lanka followed on 209 runs behind. By the end of the third day, they were 51 for three in their second innings, with only the last rites to be performed. The rout was expected, but did not go down too well with everyone. On being declared caught in the slip off Shivlal Yadav, Ravi Ratnayeke flung his bat down the pitch in disgust, gesticulating aggressively that the ball had come off his pads.
The following morning, night-watchman Rumesh Ratnayeke and Duleep Mendis added 40 with some determined batting. And then Kapil Dev came back into the attack, uprooted Ratnayeke’s off-stump and stood with a huge smile under that legendary moustache, arms raised heavenwards, as the rest of the team ran to embrace him. It was his 300th wicket, the first Indian bowler to get to the landmark.
Yadav, Maninder and Shastri wiped out the rest of the batting and the end was quick. Indian dominance had been complete and the resulting win by an innings and 67 runs only underlined the same.
The bitter after-taste
It should have been a happy camp but for the fiasco surrounding the post-match awards. The prevalent thinking in those days was to present the Man of the Match and Man of the Series to different players. With 56, 157 and 166 in his three innings in the series, Dilip Vengsakar did not have a rival for the Man of the Series award. The organisers thought long and hard, and decided to declare Kapil Dev the Man of the Match.
The Indian captain missed the announcement as he was being interviewed by the television team. However, Vengsarkar could not believe his ears. He refused his Man of the Series trophy. “The men who have decided on the awards are not aware of the basics of the game, and I am not going to accept an award from them,” he fumed. The 166 on that wicket had been a virtually impossible innings, the dream knock of any batsman.
It was not the first time Vengsarkar had been overlooked in similar fashion. The previous summer he had scored his third hundred at Lord’s – a fascinating innings that had enabled India to take a match winning lead. Yet, Kapil Dev had run away with the Man of the Match award for his five wickets in the second innings. Vengsarkar had not complained then, perhaps because the wickets had been as important and the bowling superlative. But now he found it beyond his tolerance limit. Taking four wickets on such a track was by not a big deal by any stretch of imagination.
A bemused Kapil Dev, made aware of the situation later that afternoon, offered his Man of the Match award to Vengsarkar. The Bombay stalwart was, however, having none of it. He left the ground in a huff.
It did leave a bitter after-taste to one of the best knocks ever played on a bad wicket, and the great achievement of 300 wickets.
(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
First Published: January 5, 2013, 10:50 am