(This is Part 2 of a four-part series on the socio-political and cricketing history between India and England. You can read the first part here.)
India became a republic after Independence, which should ideally have meant them not being part of the British Commonwealth. But Jawaharlal Nehru decided otherwise, despite facing opposition from within the Indian National Congress.
The impact of Nehru’s decision on India is beyond the scope of this piece. However, what we do know is that as per Rule 5 of the ICC Constitution, the decision helped India retain their Full Membership Status.
The ICC met in 1950 to draw up its Future Tours Programme, months after India became a republic. This FTP featured an MCC tour of the Indian subcontinent in a previously empty window in 1951/52. What was more significant was the decision to push the Ashes from 1952 to 1953, thus creating an unusual five-year gap between two Australian tours to the UK. India toured England in the summer of 1952 instead.
India won the last Test match of the 1951/52 series, in Madras – their first-ever win in Test cricket. However, they were blown away by Fred Trueman and Alec Bedser when they toured England the next summer. Leading India in both series was Vijay Hazare. While a ‘commoner’, Hazare was on the payroll of the Maharaja of Dewas, Madhya Pradesh.
India were subsequently whitewashed 0-5 in 1959 and 0-3 in 1967 as well. The captains, Datta Gaekwad and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, both belonged to royal families. At the same time, the Indians had been fine with a ‘commoner’, Nari Contractor, leading them against England at home, in 1961/62. India won this series 2-0, their first ever series win against England.
Contractor was no ordinary cricketer. Even today, only four full-time Indian Test captains were neither linked to a major cricketing city (Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, Bangalore, Hyderabad) nor to a royal family (by birth or employment). Two of these four, Vinoo Mankad and Kapil Dev, had to become the greatest cricketer of the side in order to lead. Contractor and M.S. Dhoni remain the only exceptions.
On India’s 1961/62 tour of West Indies, Contractor was hit on the head by Charlie Griffith. The injury virtually ended his career. As new captain, India chose a man who at that point the youngest captain in the history of Test cricket, whose career as leader – barring one match in charge of an Indian Board President’s XI – was restricted to Oxford University.
While Pataudi has been hailed by many (not all) contemporaries, he never won a Test series against a major nation. Of course, he led a weak Indian side. It is, thus, difficult to evaluate Pataudi the captain. However, what cannot be ignored is the fact that in a desperate situation, the BCCI did turn to the royalty to bail them out.
That would change in 1971.
Despite that series win in 1961/62, India were one of the weakest Test sides at this point. All their three overseas wins until then came on the 1967/68 tour of New Zealand, the only side worse than them. Before that tour, India had lost 17 consecutive overseas matches.
In the late 1960s, the Indian selectors – chaired by Vijay Merchant – switched their focus to youth. Eight cricketers (including Gundappa Viswanath and Mohinder Amarnath) debuted in 1969/70 season at home, and three more (including Sunil Gavaskar) on their tour of West Indies in 1971. They also replaced Pataudi as captain.
A Non-Royal Leads India to England
In a way it was symbolic, for the Indian government abolished the privy purse the same year. Ajit Wadekar, a man with no royal connections, was the new captain. Pataudi opted out of the tour. He would contest that year’s assembly elections, but his withdrawal would be perceived by many as his refusal to play under Wadekar.
However, Pataudi’s absence did not matter. Wadekar led India to their first win against West Indies, not only in a Test match but also the series. The West Indies were admittedly going through a slump – they did not win a single series between 1966 and 1973 – but it was still an overseas win in one of the top countries.
However, the real hurdle was England, at that point the best team in the world (thanks to South Africa’s ban). Few gave India a chance despite that win in the West Indies. After all, India’s record in England read four draws, 15 defeats, and England had won 2-0 in Australia to regain the Ashes in 1970/71.
The challenge stretched beyond the field, for India, as a nation, were still grappling with poverty, hunger, and illiteracy. Barring the ones born rich, their cricketers needed a day job outside cricket. Most of their English counterparts, on the other hand, were professional cricketers.
Almost every member of the English team drove cars to cricket matches. In contrast, only six of the touring Indian cricketers owned cars. These did not include Gavaskar, Indian cricket’s newest superstar, or Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, who would emerge as the hero of the tour.
Most Indian cricketers on the tour hailed from the middle class – the contemporary Indian definition, that is – where running water was not available in many households. They travelled by bus or local train, which were almost always crowded, for their daily cricket practice.
The British were aware of India’s problems. While the Indians were on that 1971 tour of England, John Pilger opened his interview of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with ‘could an Indian, hungry and without hope, really regard himself as a member of a democracy?’
To bridge the discrepancy (to some extent, at least), Wadekar and manager Hemu Adhikari negotiated with the BCCI. The ridiculous daily allowance of the cricketers was trebled.
On that 1967 tour, some Indians, especially the vegetarians, often resorted to bread and butter to sustain themselves on the one-pound-a-day allowance.
Fortified by the allowance, the first Indian team devoid of royalty arrived in England.
On tour, Adhikari, a Colonel in the Army, put the fielders through rigorous practice sessions. Wadekar took the bold move of leaving out E.A.S. Prasanna – the best of the famed spin quartet until that point – in favour of S. Venkataraghavan. Prasanna was the more aggressive of the two off spinners, but India already had Chandrasekhar (whom Merchant would call a ‘calculated gamble’) and Bishan Singh Bedi. Wadekar wanted Venkataraghavan, the superior batter and close-in fielder, and who would hold up one end.
India drew the first Test match honourably. During this match, John Snow crashed into Gavaskar and was banned from the second Test match, where India were saved by rain. In the third Test match, at The Oval, India conceded a 71-run lead.
Chandrasekhar then demolished England with 6-38. England were bowled out for 101. India, requiring 174, were 76/2 by stumps.
Back home, thousands of Indians were tuned in to radio sets – often one to a mohalla – next day. Many of them had memories of the British Raj in India. Some had even been part of the freedom struggle. Like the cricketers, many of whom had no memory of the British rule, the fans, too, wanted to be part of history.
Wadekar was run out on the first ball of the day. Runs dried up as England bowled defensively, but India eventually won. Wadekar became the first Indian captain to make the traditional post-win appearance on the balcony of The Oval.
Back home, they celebrated a sporting event like never before. Newsreels preceding movies used to be common practice back then in theatres. For weeks, clips of the Oval Test match drew spontaneous cheer from Indian movie-goers. The craze around cricket received a further boost when India beat England at home in 1972/73 – a series where Pataudi played under Wadekar.
All that good work was undone when India toured England in 1974. They took only 24 wickets in the entire series, and lost all three Test matches convincingly. At Lord’s, they were bowled out for 42, then their lowest total. Sudhir Naik was accused of shoplifting a pair of socks at Marks & Spencer. And owing to a misunderstanding ahead of a dinner, the Indian High Commissioner asked the cricketers to leave. Wadekar was fired.
Despite that, on their next tour of India, in 1976/77, England sent a full-strength squad for the first time. They also won the series (though John Lever was accused of using vaseline to tamper the ball; there was no penalty).
England and India won their respective home series, in 1979 and 1981/82 respectively. The latter was a dreary affair where India decided to go on the defensive after going 1-0 up. Despite the slow over rates, drab pitches, and ridiculous run rates, the matches featured packed houses.
The 1981/82 series also saw India showing some seriousness towards the new fad called one-day cricket. Of the six Full Members, they became the last to host ODIs. They had done miserably in the two World Cups, in England in 1975 and 1979, but now they won the series 2-1.
Little did India know at this point that the one-day format would pave the way for them towards seizing control of the cricket fraternity.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor of CricketNews by day and biryani demolisher at night. He is the co-author of Sachin and Azhar at Cape Town, and tweets @ovshake42.)