It would take an incorrigible optimist to hope that news of an all time low performance of a national cricket team would not attract headlines. Only a national disaster or another event of greater magnitude possesses the potential to divert attention away from a poor show by a team in the international arena. England, who were shot out for a paltry total of 58 runs in the first innings of opening Test against New Zealand that took place couple of weeks ago, were extremely fortunate that their pathetic show was overshadowed by the ball-tampering controversy involving Australian skipper Steve Smith. The gaze of cricket lovers world over was so fixed on the events that took place in Cape Town and subsequently in Australia that they chose to ignore the happenings at Auckland when New Zealand took on England in the first match of a two-Test series.
Put in to bat on a pitch with plenty of grass on it, England struggled against the New Zealand new ball pair of Tim Southee and Trent Boult. They lost their first wicket with only six runs on the board. Three wickets fell with the total at 18 while two batsmen were dismissed when the score had reached 23. When the eighth wicket fell with the total at 23, there would have been some observers who wondered whether the hosts were likely to gain sweet revenge on the visitors for bundling them out for the lowest total (26) in the history of Test cricket 63 years ago. However, this was not to be as Craig Overton found a suitable ally in last man James Anderson and the duo added 31 runs for the last wicket to boost the final score to 58 runs. Boult was the wrecker-in-chief returning figures of 6/32, while Southee ended up with a four-wicket haul.
New Zealand replied with a total of 427/8 declared, helped by centuries by skipper Kane Williamson and Henry Nicholls. England fared better in their second innings scoring 320, but still lost the match by an innings and 49 runs. However, England fought back in the second Test to come very close to winning the match. It was only a determined rear guard action by Ish Sodhi that stood between England and a series-levelling win. Sodhi hung around with an unbeaten knock of 56 and helped New Zealand earn the draw with two wickets intact.
While England showed remarkable resilience to bounce back after a poor start to the Test series, Australia, on the other hand, faltered and stumbled badly, after starting their campaign in South Africa with a win. The series was tied at 1-1 when Smith decided to indulge in “organised” ball tampering in the third match. The shock waves created by this episode and its fallout were so great that Aussies simply lost their zest for playing and caved in meekly to their opponents, losing the last two Tests by huge margins. The contrasting performances of England and Australia brought to one’s mind a similar occasion when an Indian side was at the receiving end on account of issues that dogged it inside and outside the playing arena and surrendered without a fight.
India, under Ajit Wadekar, had landed in England in May, 1974, with the aura of a champion side. Wadekar had led the side to three back to back series victories, out of which two were against the West Indies and England on their home turf in 1971. Though India had struggled to defeat a second order England side at home during the five-Test series in 1972-73, followers of the game tended to overlook the weaknesses that had crept into the side in the glow of victory. Hence when the embarked on their journey in 1974, Wadekar’s men were expected to retain the “rubber”, despite the more experienced followers of the game cautioning against harbouring excess optimism.
However, the side floundered from the very beginning of the tour, with none of the players, except Sunil Gavaskar, hitting top form. There were reports of dissensions and infighting within the squad which neither Wadekar nor the manager Hemu Adhikari were able to control. Wadekar himself suffered an injury to his hand before the start of first Test but was forced to play as his absence would have created further problems within the team. The first Test was hit by rain which reduced the playing time considerably, forcing Mike Denness, the captain of England to make a sporting declaration setting India a target of 296 runs on the last day. India never attempted to mount an effective chase and, even worse, could not even survive the day and lost the match by 113 runs.
Having sensed the weakness of the visitors, England went for the jugular in the second Test played at Lord’s. Batting first, they scored a mammoth total of 629, helped by centuries by Denis Amiss, Tony Greig and skipper Denness himself. Though India started well with a 131-run opening stand between Gavaskar and Farokh Engineer, the remaining batsmen found the going tough and the innings ended at 302. Denness enforced the follow on and India were two runs without loss of any wicket when play closed at the end of day three.
The events that took place on June 24, 1974, in London would make that day one of the darkest ones in the history of Indian cricket. When play resumed after a day’s rest on June 24, a cloud cover and sudden drop in temperature combined to create conditions favourable for seam and swing bowlers. This was exploited to the hilt by Geoff Arnold and Chris Old, the England opening bowlers who possessed the necessary skill sets to capitalise on them. Indian top order batsmen did not have any clue as Arnold and Old swung the ball prodigiously and they perished in quick succession. Eknath Solkar, who came in with the score board reading 14/4, offered some resistance, even hooking a bouncer from Old for a six, while the other batsmen capitulated without a fight. In a span of 15 overs bowled on that day, England dismissed nine Indian batsmen and with injured B S Chandrasekhar unable to bat, this signalled the end of Indian innings for a mere 42 runs.
Lacking the will to fight
Many explanations have been put forward as to how the famed Indian batting line-up that had played splendid cricket three years ago crumbled so quickly on a wicket where England had batted with ease to score more than 600 runs. Perhaps, the explanation by Gavaskar came closest to the truth “Arnold and Old bowled five good balls, got the top five Indian batsmen and after that there was no resistance!” While there existed no doubt that conditions favoured England bowlers, it was equally obvious that Indian side did not even offer any resistance.
Worse was to follow after the match. The team management had accepted invitations for two receptions- one hosted by Indian High Commissioner to England and the other by State Bank of India (SBI), which employed Wadekar and many other players. This was not a very prudent move as, given the distance between the two venues and the peak time traffic in London, it was likely that the side would get delayed for the second reception. In this case, the team chose to go first to SBI function and then move to High Commission for the formal reception hosted there.
When the team assembled at the hotel lobby prior to departure, they found that manager Adhikari was not present. When Wadekar checked up, he found the manager busy talking over the phone. It took Adhikari more than 45 minutes to complete his call and he did not bother either to explain the reason behind the delay or the cause of the long phone call. The team was late for the SBI function but left from there quickly and proceeded to the High Commission. The heavy traffic en route delayed the team further and they reached the venue more than an hour late.
As soon as the coach reached High Commission, Wadekar and Adhikari rushed in. They approached the High Commissioner, who was surrounded by guests, and informed him “Sir, we have come”. Making no attempts to hide his displeasure over the late arrival of the side, High Commissioner dismissed them with the words “If you have come you can go”. Wadekar was stunned. As the host had ordered him to leave he had no option but to exit the venue and the entire team followed him back to the coach.
Adhikari realised the gravity of the situation and spoke to other officials present who approached the High Commissioner. Soon message was sent to the players sitting inside the coach that they should go back to the reception. There was some resentment among the players about the manner in which they were treated but when Wadekar stood up and said that it was their duty to attend the function they agreed to follow him. The team attended the function, High Commissioner spoke to them playing the role of a proper host and the issue appeared to have been resolved.
However, some scribes who were invited for the function had witnessed the events and this was too juicy a story for them to ignore. Hence this episode fetched banner headlines in the tabloid publications next day bringing further shame on the side. However, what shocked the team members and the cricket lovers more was a news report about an Indian player who had pleaded guilty after being caught for shoplifting. It was only at this juncture that Adhikari revealed to the captain the details of the phone call that had delayed him the previous evening.
Sudhir Naik's predicament
Sudhir Naik, one of the players on his maiden tour, had gone to a big shopping mall in London and bought some pairs of socks, for himself as well as for some of his teammates. He made the payment and was on his way out when he found that two pairs had not been billed. He was alone and did not know what to do with the two pairs of socks. Even as he was thinking of a way out, the security approached him and held him for shoplifting alleging that he had deliberately not made payment for the two pairs. His protestations to the contrary did not help. In desperation he contacted Adhikari, who, after checking with Indian High Commission, advised him to plead guilty. He was taken to the local court where he pleaded guilty and was released on payment of a small fine.
If Adhikari and Indian High Commission had believed, in good faith, that no one else would come to know about the incident, they were proved wrong. A news reporter on court beat got to know about this and he filed a story, which was picked up by the entire tabloid press. Thus, skipper Wadekar and other team members came to know of the episode from newspapers. It is to Naik’s credit that he showed grit and determination to get over the odium caused in the aftermath of the news reports and scored a classy half-century when he made his Test debut at Birmingham a few days later.
Indian side was in no mental state to continue with the tour and went through with the motions during the last Test at Birmingham which they lost in under three days by a margin of an innings and 78 runs. There was no fight left in the side and it was evident that they somehow wanted the agony to end and return home. The reports emanating from India about public outrage over poor performance of the side and Wadekar’s residence being pelted with stones would have added to the stress levels faced by the players. Wadekar announced his retirement from the game not long afterwards and thus became the fall guy for the mishaps on that tour.
The performance by Australia in the last Test of the just concluded series against South Africa reminded one of the travails faced by Wadekar’s boys in England during the summer of 1974. These episodes prove that cricket is a game played as much in the mind as on the field and only players at peak physical and mental prowess can win matches.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)