As the second Test of the series between India and England got off to a slow start at Lord’s on account of incessant rains that are an integral part of English summer, one had time to dwell upon the history of the game at this venue. Lord’s was the seat of Imperial Cricket Conference, which was subsequently rechristened as International Cricket Council (ICC). Though the ICC has moved its headquarters to Dubai, Lord’s continues to retain its romance with the lovers of the game. A visit to this venue is a compulsory part of the tour itinerary of any fan of the game who tours England, just as it is the dream of every aspiring cricketer to score a century on this hallowed turf.
Among Indian cricketers, only one player can genuinely claim right to be having a love affair with this ground. Dilip Vengsarkar was one of the pillars of Indian batting line-up during the 1980s where he held the critical No. 3 position for many years. A tall, elegant batsman whose cover drive was such a beautiful sight that it still brings a smile on the face of every fan of the game fortunate to witness it, Vengsarkar played four Tests at this venue, scoring centuries on three occasions. Out of the threes Tests in which he scored a ton at Lord's, India won, lost one and drew the third one, but all three Tests were made memorable by the brilliance of Vengsarkar’s batting.
Vengsarkar came into national reckoning as a young 19-year-old when he hit a superb century in the Irani Trophy match between Bombay and Rest of India. He was straightaway selected for the twin tours of New Zealand and West Indies in 1975-76, where he made his Test debut as an opening batsman. He was not comfortable in this position and had a poor run, doing nothing exceptional in the opportunities that he was given. He was dropped from the side after this tour and played only one Test during the 1976-77 season. He performed more creditably during the tours of Australia and Pakistan in 1978 and was promoted to the No. 3 position when the West Indies, under Alvin Kallicharan, toured India in 1978-79. He scored his maiden Test century during this series and appeared to have cemented his place in the side when the tour of England commenced in 1979.
India lost the first Test by an innings and 83 runs, with Vengsarkar’s contribution with the bat being 22 and 7. The poor run continued during the first innings of the second Test at Lord’s where the visitors were bundled out for a paltry 96. Vengsarkar again failed with the bat and it appeared that English bowlers had detected a weakness in his technique which made him appear very shaky against swing bowling. Rajan Bala, one of the senior journalists covering the tour was merciless in his criticism, even going to the extent of writing “there could not be worse payers of the moving ball”. When India commenced their second innings, it was evident that Vengsarkar needed a big score to retain his place in the playing eleven for the next Test.
India started better in their second innings, with Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan putting on 79 runs for the first wicket. Vengsarkar was tense when he joined Gavaskar at the crease and was just settling down when his senior colleague from Bombay left, with the total on 99. However, Gundappa Viswanath, who came in next, was in superb touch and he started to dominate the bowlers. Under his guidance, Vengsarkar slowly found his feet and finally came into his own after he crossed his half-century, driving the ball on both sides of the wicket with his characteristic elegance. He reached his century with 13 hits to the fence and was dismissed immediately thereafter. But by then he and Viswanath had ensured that India had reached a position from where the side could not lose the match.
More than the runs scored, this innings boosted the confidence of Vengsarkar and instilled in him the self belief that he belonged to the select list of top class batsmen. There were no further question marks about his technique against the moving ball or temperament to survive at the highest level. He went through a lean patch during the twin tours of Australia and New Zealand in 1980-81, but regained his form during the home series against England in the following season. So when the Indian side departed for the tour of England in 1982, he was among the senior batsmen in the team.
The first Test of the 1982 series was played at Lord's and India were forced to follow on after being dismissed for 128 in reply to England’s first innings score of 433. Coming in at the fall of first wicket with the scoreboard still in single digits, Vengsarkar waded into an England attack comprising Bob Willis, Ian Botham, Phil Edmonds and Derek Pringle with the raw intensity of a man possessed.
Batsmen of the caliber of Gavaskar, Viswanath and Ravi Shastri were dismissed by the time score crossed 100, but Vengsarkar continued undaunted, mesmerising the crowd that had gathered with his majestic strokeplay which sent the ball to all corners of the ground. He completed his century in the company of Yashpal Sharma, but he did not allow the milestone to affect his concentration. He continued with his assault on the bowlers and was finally dismissed for 157, playing a tired shot. England regained the upper hand after the fall of his wicket and it was only a lower order cameo by Kapil Dev that helped India avoid an innings defeat.
The period following this century was not a good one for Vengsarkar. He had an average tour of Pakistan in 1982-83 and was the last man to be selected for the tour of West Indies that followed. It has later emerged that he was the choice of new skipper Kapil who was given the option to choose between him and Viswanath. Vengsarkar was dropped from the side when the 1983-84 season started, but he staged a grand comeback during the series against the West Indies hitting two centuries. But another average season followed and he found himself placed lower in the batting order, with the advent of Mohammed Azharuddin.
When India embarked on the tour of England in 1986, Vengsarkar was into his tenth year in international cricket. The general impression among the followers of the game in the country was that he had been an under achiever who displayed flashes of brilliance. The string of big scores that is the hallmark of a successful Test batsman was not forthcoming, which caused critics to wonder whether he would ever fulfill the great potential he had within him.
It was also rumoured that he was not an ambitious person, but was contented to stay where he was, which was cited as the reason for Shastri moving ahead of him in the captaincy race.
This time also, the first Test of the series was at Lord’s. Replying to England’s first innings score of 294, India had reached 90 for the loss of two wickets when Vengsarkar reached the crease. He held the Indian batting together from that juncture onwards and batted for nearly five-and-a-half hours, displaying immense concentration and great responsibility. He remained unbeaten on 126 when India were bowled out for 341. He added 77 runs in the company of last two batsmen and was instrumental in India securing a vital first innings lead. The visitors eventually won the match by six wickets, recording their second win ever on English soil.
This century was the first of the many tall scores that emanated from the bat of Vengsarkar during the period from 1986 till 1988. This run of big scores elevated him to the post of national captaincy when Kapil was removed from the post after the 1987 World Cup. He led the country for nearly two years before being replaced by Krishnamachari Srikkanth for the tour of Pakistan in 1989.
Vengsarkar retired from international cricket after the tour of Australia in 1991-92 season. He was also part of the side that toured England in 1990, but could not repeat his magic at Lord’s, when he was dismissed after scoring 52 in the first innings and 35 in the second. After his retirement from the game, he served for a term as chairman of selection committee, before which he worked as the chief talent scout for the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
Vengsarkar was a product of the Bombay school of cricket where players put a high premium on their wicket and gave priority to physical courage and purity of technique. Though he was by nature an attacking batsman who was not afraid to loft the ball, he eschewed his strokeplay considerably during his initial years in international cricket. However, from 1986 onwards, he decided to bat according to his natural style and this yielded immediate dividends as he quickly moved to the ranks of top batsmen in contemporary cricket, besides becoming the national captain.
Each of his three centuries at Lord’s came at a distinct juncture in his career and these knocks, in many ways, sculpted his cricketing life. It is for these reasons that Vengsarkar would remain the player most associated with Lord’s in the history of Indian cricket.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)