India's first win was set up by EAS Prasanna (left) and Ajit Wadekar (right). Photo Courtesy: Getty Images and H Natarajan
India’s first win was set up by EAS Prasanna (left) and Ajit Wadekar (right). Photo Courtesy: Getty Images and H Natarajan

India won their first overseas Test on February 20, 1968, at Carisbrook, Dunedin, New Zealand, under Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. Paulami Chakraborty re-lives the day from where it all started for India.

It was 1968, 36 years since India had played their first Test. Led by CK Nayudu, eleven men had created mayhem at Lord’s for half an hour. Then Douglas Jardine took over, and the Indian talent had buckled against the experience of the English. India had lost the inaugural affair by 158 runs. The infants of cricket had no answer to the Jardine, Bill Bowes, Bill Voce, Hedley Verity or Les Ames. Nayudu and Amar Singh had resisted with bat. Mohammad Nissar and Jahangir Khan took crucial wickets. But that was it.

It took India a couple of decades to register their first victory. It came against the same opponent. India were playing England at Madras, and Vinoo Mankad’s 8 for 55 restricted Donald Carr’s men to 266. Dick Spooner had provided a good start with his 66 but fell to Vijay Hazare while Mankad stopped Jack Robertson at 77. In response, Pankaj Roy and Polly Umrigar scored hundreds, and Vijay Hazare declared with a 191-run lead. This time Ghulam Ahmed came in aid of Mankad, and between them, they beat England by an innings.

Another 16 years passed. India, meanwhile, played 79 Tests against different opponents winning 9 and drawing 38 of them. Barring England, they had also beaten Australia and Pakistan, but both at home. They had also won series against England and New Zealand, but none of them came overseas. India had played 31 Tests away from home, drawing 10 and losing 21.

The whitewashes and the combination

1967 had not been the best year for India. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi’s India had been whitewashed 0-3 in England and 0-4 in Australia. But here they had a chance, for New Zealand were easily the weakest side in contemporary cricket. The problem was, India needed a seam-based attack in New Zealand.

Ramakant Desai, India’s lone quality seamer for many a year, was ageing. Despite his skills as all-rounder, Rusi Surti was hardly a spearhead. Subrata Guha, the man who could have made a difference with the new ball, was nursing a knee injury. Abid Ali was too new.

But this was New Zealand, and seamers were important. Pataudi decided to pick three. He could afford to do that, for both Abid Ali and Surti could bat. The spinners were the guileful EAS Prasanna (then in the form of his life) and Bishan Bedi, backed up by the accurate Bapu Nadkarni. The fact that Nadkarni was a good batsman helped.

Day Dowling

Barry Sinclair won a crucial toss on what Wisden called an “easy-paced pitch”, and sent Graham Dowling along with debutant Bruce Murray to open the batting. The duo started off well but Ramakant Desai came into action and reduced them to 45 for 1, trapping young Murray LBW.

Bevan Congdon took the crease. The Dowling-Congdon pair, bit by bit, built up a partnership that looked quite dangerous. Congdon gradually reached his half-century. The score was trotting towards 200 for the loss of a single wicket. Then Nadkarni, bowling with relentless accuracy, struck: the ball pegged the stump back; Congdon walked back for 58, and the 155-run stand came to an end; and New Zealand were 200 for 2.

The next 3 wickets fell within another 46 runs. This included Dowling, who had scored 143. Mark Burgess, who would later emerge as one of the prominent faces of New Zealand cricket, walked out to bat for the first time in an international match. At stumps of day 1, New Zealand were 248 for 5.

India gain ground

With 80 and 71, Ajit Wadekar laid the foundation of India's victory © Getty Images
With 80 and 71, Ajit Wadekar laid the foundation of India’s victory © Getty Images

The next day did not start well for the Kiwis. Prasanna removed Bryan Yuile for 4 early in the morning. Next in, Bruce Taylor also went cheaply. Wickets kept falling at the one end, but Burgess stayed at the crease. The New Zealand innings came to a halt finally at 350. Burgess scored a half-century in his debut match, proving to be one of the promising talents. Abid Ali finished as India’s best bowler with 4 for 26, taking two wickets on each day. Nadkarni’s figures, 36.3-19-31-2, also deserve a mention.

Now Abid Ali came out to open batting, with Farokh Engineer. The combination reflected the depth in the Indian batting line-up more than anything else. Unfortunately, Abid Ali could not make an impact with the bat as Taylor happily removed him for 21. But Ajit Wadekar, the domestic champion, walked in and the Bombay duo soon brought up 50 for India with the loss of one wicket.

Engineer got to his 50, often stepping out against the spin of Vic Pollard and Jack Alabaster. The partnership became stronger. By the time Engineer fell for 63 India had already reached 118. Wadekar batted serenely, and just when it seemed he would bat out the day, leg-spinner Alabaster removed him for 80.

February 20, 1968 will always remain one of the milestones of Indian cricket. Not only because of significance of the moment, but also, as Prasanna said, “It marked the first instance we played as a team. Before that, most of the Indian wins were all about a few individual performances.”

Dowling later told ESPNCricinfo: “Farokh hit it hard when it was there to be hit and played all the shots. Ajit just struck the ball so sweetly through the off side, square of the wicket. He cut well too, and picked his gaps on the on side with ease.”

Pataudi sent Prasanna as night-watchman, and he and Surti batted out time. India finished on 202 for 3, trailing by 148.

A slender lead

A big stand would probably have sealed the Test for India, but that did not happen. The Indians played their strokes (Wisden wrote that they “took all manner of risks”) and perished in the process. Every single Indian batsman — including extras) went into double-digits — but Engineer and Wadekar were the only ones to score more than 35.

The innings was not without incident. Dick Motz, for example, hit Desai on the jaw. Thankfully, it was not a fracture. Nadkarni’s calm presence helped his Bombay teammate calm down. Nadkarni himself survived a leg-before against Taylor, and subsequent sledges. Nadkarni told ESPNCricinfo: “Taylor started using abusive language, so I asked him to remain silent and said, if I am given out I will walk.”

Nadkarni perished soon, but Taylor and Motz kept bowling short at Desai and Bedi, which is where they probably lost the plot. Bedi, especially, was an easy target for fast bowlers, but the fast bowlers kept bowling shot, and India came back into the Test. They even managed a slender 9-run lead, Motz (5 for 86) doing the main damage. The lead flattered India, for New Zealand dropped eight catches on the third morning. The ground-fielding was also below-par, allowing Desai (32*) and Bedi (22) add 57 for the last wicket.

But India hit back. Though Murray resisted the Indian spinners, the spinners removed Dowling and Congdon. Sinclair was run out, and New Zealand finished the day on 84 for 3. They led by 75. It was anybody’s match from there.

In the end, EAS Prasanna's 6 for 94 in the second innings made the difference between the sides. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan.
In the end, EAS Prasanna’s 6 for 94 in the second innings made the difference between the sides. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan.

Prasanna destroys

Play resumed after the rest day, and Day Four belonged entirely to Indian bowlers. Murray, who resumed with 51, was sent back by Prasanna, as was Bruce Yuile. Only Burgess resisted with 39 runs, while Motz, sensing quick runs were needed, astonished everyone by scoring 22 off 5 balls from Prasanna. The mighty off-spinner finished with 6 for 94 as New Zealand were bowled out for 208. Once again, Nadkarni had an economic spell (12-7-13-1). His match figures read 48.3-26-44-3.

Dowling told ESPNCricinfo: “Pras bowled really well. He was a world-class off-spinner and we hadn’t faced anyone of his calibre. Not only did he flight the ball really well, he also had a quite a bit of spin on it.”

Murray, on the other hand, emphasised on exactly what went wrong: “Many of us had never played such sustained and good spin bowling. Pras looped it nicely and turned it and had very good flight. He gave the ball a little bit of air, just enough to make it interesting and difficult. He was the first really good offspinner that I had faced. I don’t think we had really learned the virtues of patience. Instead of pushing the ball for ones and twos, we felt maybe sweeping to the boundary could be a good option, but that did not work.”

Talking about the match to Bikash Mahapatra of rediff, Prasanna said: “The advantage we had was the presence of more experienced batsmen in the team. Subsequently, the batting was complemented by some good bowling … The conditions in New Zealand were very similar to that in England, and our captain knew the English conditions very well. That helped to a considerable extent. We also benefited from the fact that most of the wickets were surprisingly on the slower side.”

Despite the excellent bowling performance, India still needed 200. It did not help that Abid Ali committed a mistake and was run out early with 30 on the board. Engineer hit one back to Alabaster for 29. The score read 49 for 2 at this stage.

But New Zealand still had Wadekar to contend with, and the Bombay star was in no mood of getting out. Runs came in, and Wadekar stayed, with Surti for company. By the time Surti was bowled by Alabaster, he had scored 44, and India needed only 48 to win as Pataudi walked out. India finished the day on 161 for 3, only 39 short of a win. They still had ML Jaisimha, Chandu Borde, Nadkarni and Abid ali down the order. Only a miracle could have stopped them.

India create history

It rained the fifth morning. One might say that the New Zealand skies wept in anticipation of what was to follow. Play started an hour late. Wadekar fell without adding to his overnight score of 71. Six runs later Pataudi was caught by Taylor off his own bowling. India still needed 31. Did New Zealand sniff a chance?

But Jaisimha and Borde were too experienced to let that happen. They strolled to victory, and Pataudi became the first Indian captain to win a Test away from home.

Borde told rediff: “It was difficult to adjust at the start, but as the tour progressed, we went from strength to strength. The wickets were different and New Zealand was a good side. We had to change our technique. We were used to playing on the front foot, but that was a strict no-no. The fact that we had played in Australia just before the series helped to a considerable extent. Winning a series overseas is special. We proved that we could win outside India.”

February 20, 1968 will always remain one of the milestones of Indian cricket. Not only because of significance of the moment, but also, as Prasanna said, “It marked the first instance we played as a team. Before that, most of the Indian wins were all about a few individual performances.”

He did keep the ball as a souvenir.

Brief scores:

New Zealand 350 (Graham Dowling 143, Bevan Congdon 58, Mark Burgess 50; Abid Ali 4 for 26) and 208 (Bruce Murray 54, EAS Prasanna 6 for 94) lost to India 359 (Farokh Engineer 63, Ajit Wadekar 80; Dick Motz 5 for 86, Jack Alabaster 3 for 66) and 200 for 5 (Ajit Wadekar 71, Rusi Surti 44; Jack Alabaster 3 for 48) by 5 wickets.

(Paulami Chakraborty, a singer, dancer, artist, and photographer, loves the madness of cricket and writes about the game. She can be followed on Twitter at @Polotwitts)