England were easily the best team in the world when India toured them in 1971. Ray Illingworth’s men had regained The Ashes on Australian soil; West Indies had entered their eight-year lean patch; South Africa had been banned; Pakistan were not even playing regularly; and New Zealand were at best competing. India, on the other hand, toured England on the back of a famous series win on West Indian soil.
However, few gave them a chance to win. India had lost 15 out of their 19 Tests on English soil before the tour, drawing only rest. In fact had lost 11 of their last 12, the run punctuated only by a rain-hit draw. Even in the ongoing series, India had barely clung on to two draws: set 184 at Lord’s, they were 145 for 8 with the utter hopeless situation of Bishan Singh Bedi at the crease (with Eknath Solkar) and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar to follow; and at Old Trafford they were 65 for 3 in pursuit of 420.
It was Ganesh Chaturthi, and someone had arranged for Bella, a three-year-old elephant, from Chessington Zoo. Bella walked around The Oval that day after the Indian and English players broke for lunch. England had lost John Edrich and Keith Fletcher off successive balls, both to Chandra, just before that. The score read 24 for 3, but their 254-run first-innings lead meant that England were still ahead in the match.
England were bowled out in the next hundred minutes or so. Chandra scythed through the middle-order on a pitch that offered little. He “vindicated a vanishing breed of bowling in a fashion which can only be described as astonishing,” reported Playfair Cricket Monthly.
Chandra took 6 for 38. When Wisden nominated their Indian Awards for the Century, it was named The Spell of the Century, ahead of Anil Kumble’s 10 for 74. Srinivas Venkataraghavan took two, of which one of which must be attributed to the genius of Solkar, who dove at full stretch at short-leg to catch Alan Knott inches above the ground.
However, even 173 looked steep against Derek Underwood, especially after John Snow got Sunil Gavaskar for a duck, and Ashok Mankad followed suit. India were 76 for 2 at stumps, captain Ajit Wadekar was run out before another run was scored. Dilip Sardesai and Solkar gritted it out in a near-encore of the Sabina Park Test earlier that year, and Gundappa Viswanath and Farokh Engineer took up the baton from there.
Wadekar, oblivious to all this, had fallen asleep soon after he had returned. He was woken up by England manager Ken Barrington, who had walked into their dressing-room. “I said to him I always knew we’d win,” Wadekar later recollected.
England 355 (John Jameson 82, Alan Knott 90, Richard Hutton 81; Eknath Solkar 3 for 28) and 101 (Bhagwat Chandrasekhar 6 for 38) lost to India 284 (Dilip Sardesai 54, Farokh Engineer 59; Ray Illingworth 5 for 70) and 174 for 6 (Derek Underwood 3 for 72) by 4 wickets.
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