The Indian team at The Oval, 1971  © Getty Images Standing, from left: Ramprakash Mehra (official), EAS Prasanna, D Govindraj, Bishan Singh Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Ashok Mankad, Pochiah Krishnamurthy, Kenia Jayantilal, Abid Ali, Hemu Adhikari (Manager). Sitting, from left: Dilip Sardesai, Abbas Ali Baig, Ajit Wadekar (c), Srinivas Venkataraghavan (vc), Farokh Engineer. Kneeling, from left: Syed Kirmani, Gundappa Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar, Eknath Solkar.
The Indian team at The Oval, 1971 © Getty Images
Standing, from left: Ramprakash Mehra (official), EAS Prasanna, D Govindraj, Bishan Singh Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Ashok Mankad, Pochiah Krishnamurthy, Kenia Jayantilal, Abid Ali, Hemu Adhikari (manager).
Sitting, from left: Dilip Sardesai, Abbas Ali Baig, Ajit Wadekar (c), Srinivas Venkataraghavan (vc), Farokh Engineer.
Kneeling, from left: Syed Kirmani, Gundappa Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar, Eknath Solkar.

On August 24, 1971, climbing the web spun by Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, India reached a new high by winning their first Test and series in England. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the final day when the drama unfolded, spectators sat on the edge of their seats and captain Ajit Wadekar slept through all of it.

Unwisely, Ajit Wadekar took on the arm of Basil D’Olivera at cover, and was run out in the first over of the day.

At 76 for 3, England perhaps got the whiff of a chance. Hordes of Indian fans who had turned up at The Oval were made to bite their nails to the quick and crack their knuckles to the limits.

However, with just 97 more to win, the skipper was confident enough to return to the dressing room, lie down and spend the next three hours till the end of the match in the depths of slumber-land.

The blessings of Ganesha

It was the previous day that had really turned the match on its head. Having obtained a first innings lead of 71, England had started confidently enough before Bhagwat Chandrasekhar had spun his web to trap the innings before it could take off.

A Brian Luckhurst drive was deflected on to the stumps by the leg spinner, catching John Jameson short of his ground.

And a few minutes later he struck twice, in successive balls, just before lunch. Prompted in mid stride by his teammates to bowl his faster ball – christened “Mill Riff” after the Derby winner of that summer – Chandra ripped one through. John Edrich’s bat was still in the air when the ball hit the stumps. And the very next delivery saw Keith Fletcher gobbled up by Eknath Solkar at short leg.

Lunch was taken at this stage, but the action in the middle remained more than ample, although peripheral. Bella, a three-year old elephant, plodded around the outfield, regaling the crowd. In a curious way of celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi, she had been loaned from the Chessington Zoo.

Bella the elephant © Getty Images
Bella the elephant © Getty Images

Blessings from the god seemed to pour forth after the break, as one after another the obstacles on the way to an Indian victory were removed. The English innings folded for 101 in the next hour and forty minutes. Wadekar crowded the bat with a battery of close in fielders and the English batsmen obliged with snicks and edges, the highlight being Solkar’s famous full length dive to dismiss Alan Knott off Srinivas Venkataraghavan.

Chandra finished with 6 for 38 from 18 overs – one of the greatest spells by an Indian spinner bowling abroad. Playfair Cricket Monthly waxed eloquent about his performance, noting “On a pitch which gave him little if any assistance Chandra had vindicated a vanishing breed of bowling in a fashion which can only be described as astonishing.”

Needing 173 to win, India had a disastrous start. Sunil Gavaskar, involved in the infamous collision with John Snow in the first Test, was now trapped plumb by the bowler for no score.

However, Ashok Mankad put his head down and batted longer than he had done in the entire series, spending 74 vital minutes at the wicket for 11 runs.

Wadekar and Dilip Sardesai saw through till stumps, with India on 76 for 2.

Ajit Wadekar (in blazer) and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar wave to cheering crowd at The Oval after India won the Test series against England. Partly seen behind Chandra is Dilip Sardesai © Getty Images

The home stretch

The breach created by the early morning dismissal of Wadekar was soon sealed by the arrival of Gundappa Viswanath. The English skipper, Ray Illingworth, tried to recreate the magic of the Indian spinners by bowling in tandem with Derek Underwood, but they were not nearly as effective. Later Wadekar observed, “Illingworth’s psychology was that we were not good against their pace, and in the process he floundered. Then he relied too much on Underwood. I just told my batsmen to wait and watch and go for the runs.”

Underwood did create a few hiccups by snaring Sardesai at 124, and getting Solkar to hit one back to him ten runs later. But Farokh Engineer and Viswanath batted calmly, sprinkling the defensive approach with a few attacking strikes. India was within a stroke from victory when Viswanath edged one from part-timer Luckhurst.

August 24, 1971 - The day when India ended England s home rule
Abid Ali is carried shoulder high by Indian fans after hitting the winning run against England at the The Oval on August 25, 1971 © Getty Images

It was left to Abid Ali to finish the match with a square cut. The speeding ball did not quite reach the fence, with the Indian supporters sprinting in to celebrate almost as soon as it had left the bat.

Ken Barrington, the manager of the English team, was the first to enter the Indian dressing room to congratulate the victorious captain, only to find him snoring away. He nudged Wadekar awake to give him the good news. Wadekar recalls, “I said to him that I always knew we’d win.”

The fans erupted when Wadekar and his men appeared on the balcony of The Oval, savouring the moment – a snapshot of cricketing history famously recorded by the photographs of the day.

When interviewed later by The Times, Engineer explained:  “India was a colony of England, and to beat your masters at their own game was a bit of a feather in the cap. Victory in a Test series was joyous, but to beat England in England was a phenomenal feat at the time for us Indians.

According to Wisden: “In Bombay, the birthplace of Indian cricket, unprecedented scenes were witnessed. There was dancing in the streets. Revellers stopped and boarded buses to convey the news to commuters. In the homes, children garlanded wireless sets over which the cheery voice of Brian Johnston had proclaimed the glad tidings of India’s first Test victory in England, a victory which also gave them the rubber.”

After his triumphant tour of West Indies, this was the second overseas win for Wadekar in just over four months. Indian cricket was not used to such success stories.

Appendix:

The list of overseas Test series victories of India (other than in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, till 2011):

Year Opponent Result Captain
1967-68 New Zealand 3-1 MAK Pataudi
1970-71 West Indies 1-0 Ajit Wadekar
1971 England 1-0 Ajit Wadekar
1986 England 2-0 Kapil Dev
1993 Sri Lanka 1-0 Mohd. Azharuddin
2003-04 Pakistan 2-1 Rahul Dravid (2 Tests), Sourav Ganguly (1 Test)
2006 West Indies 1-0 Rahul Dravid
2007 England 1-0 Rahul Dravid
2008-09 New Zealand 1-0 MS Dhoni
2011 West Indies 1-0 MS Dhoni

Brief scores:

England 355 (John Jameson 82, John Edrich 41, Alan Knott 90, Richard Hutton 81; Eknath Solkar 3 for 28) and 101 (Bhagwat Chandrasekhar 6 for 38) lost to India 284 (Ajit Wadekar 48, Dilip Sardesai 54, Eknath Solkar 44, Farokh Engineer 59; Ray Illingworth 5 for 70) and 174 for 6 (Ajit Wadekar 45; Derek Underwood 3 fo 72) by 4 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)