India were the surprise winners of the World Series Championship in Australia in 1985. The side, led by Sunil Gavaskar, stunned the cricketing world by winning all the matches they played in a convincing manner. This was a big surprise as the team had fared very poorly during the domestic cricket season that preceded this championship. However, when the squad played inspired cricket during this tournament to lift the cup, thus providing a dignified exit for their captain, who had announced that he was stepping down from captaincy prior to leaving India. Ravi Shastri, who performed wonderfully well with both bat and ball was awarded the title of “Champion of Champions” and presented with an Audi car, which was quite a rarity during those days prior to the opening up of the Indian economy.
The national side did not return to India after this championship. Instead, they proceeded to take part in the Asia Cup which was held in Sharjah immediately thereafter. Kapil Dev was appointed as skipper in place of Gavaskar and he won the toss in the first match against Pakistan. Shastri strode out with Srikkanth to open the Indian innings, full of confidence after his heroic exploits in Australia. However, he did not last long at the wicket as Imran Khan, opening the bowling for Pakistan, straightaway trapped him in front of the wicket with a huge in-swinger. Gavaskar had, in his book “One Day Wonders” remarked that this showed what a great leveller the game of cricket was, as the Champions of Champions could not even open his account in the next match he played!
Something similar happened when England, the recently anointed world champions, took on Ireland at Lord’s, the Mecca of cricket, in the Test match that commenced on July 24. Joe Root-led England side could be pardoned for thinking that that they would have an easy outing against their neighbours, who had not even qualified to take part in the World Cup championship, that the former had won for the first time ever, a fortnight ago. Except for Kevin O’Brien, Ireland did not even have any cricketer whose name was familiar to the followers of game around the world. Further, they had no bowler worth the name who could be expected to rein in the mighty England batting machine led by skipper Root, himself one of the leading batsmen in the world, and comprising of world cup stars Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy, besides other accomplished willow wielders as Rory Burns, Chris Woakes and Moeen Ali. Hence Root would not have had any hesitation in opting to bat after winning the toss when the match started last Wednesday.
However, a gentlemen by the name Tim Murtagh had different ideas. A medium-pace bowler, well into his late thirties, reared on the tough grind of county cricket in Middlesex that helped to sharpen his prowess in moving and swinging the cricket ball, Murtagh had qualified to turn out for Ireland in 2012. Though he could boast of only two Test appearances prior to the present encounter at Lord's, he showed his capacity for destruction in a spell of hostile bowling during which he removed from the crease Burns, Bairstow, Woakes and Ali, reducing the hosts from a near comfortable position of 36 for one to a ruinous 43 runs for the loss of seven wickets in a span of 25 balls. He was well supported in this regard by the debutant young Mark Adair, who chipped in with the vital wickets of Root and Joe Denly.
How was it that English batsmen, brought up on wickets where cricket balls do all sorts of tricks in the air and off the wicket, were clueless against a bowler, who would not have made to their playing eleven. After all, Murtagh chose to represent Ireland only because he was certain that he would not get an opportunity for playing Test cricket wearing English cap. Was it just a happenstance, a rare phenomenon that can happen to any major side occasionally? Or was it due to overconfidence in their superiority which made them adopt a blinkered approach, underestimating a crafty and shrewd opponent? Or does this reflect yet again the glorious uncertainties of the game? It could be any of these or a combination of all three, but one can say with confidence that amongst team sports, there is a greater propensity for such happenings to take place on a cricket field.
Something similar had happened to another Indian player in the aftermath of the World Cup triumph of 1983. Mohinder Amaranth had taken the cricket world by storm after his return to international cricket in 1982-83, with his brilliant performances with the bat during the tours that India undertook to Pakistan and West Indies. Displaying an amount of physical courage that had seldom been witnessed in cricketing arena before or after, he held together the Indian batting during the 10 Test matches played in these tours, scoring more than 1,000 runs. He continued his good form into the World Cup and played a crucial role in semifinals and finals and was chosen as the Man of Match in both these games.
When the cricket season commenced in 1983-84, Indian cricket fans expected Mohinder to score tons of runs. However, he suddenly lost his form and performed so badly that he found it difficult to even get off the mark. During the series against the touring West Indies his contributions with the bat in the three Test matches that he played were 0, 0, 1, 0, 0 and 0, which worked out to a total of one run in six completed innings. A far cry indeed from the champion batsman who withstood the thunderbolts delivered by the most feared quartet of fast bowlers and the masters of swing bowling in their own dens. It is to Mohinder’s lasting credit that he got over this crisis of confidence by the time the next cricket season started and made yet another comeback to the national squad.
England also made a similar comeback in the recent Test match when they bundled out Ireland for a paltry total of 38 runs in the second innings to register a 143-run win. Set to score 182 runs in the last innings to win the match, Ireland batting crumbled when confronted with pace-bowling duo of Stuart Broad and Woakes, who made excellent use of the overcast conditions to dismiss their opponents for the seventh lowest total ever in the annals of Test cricket. Ireland will be disappointed at this rapid turnaround in fortunes but they can take solace from the fact that they came out of the contest with their heads held high.
But the biggest surprise in the Lord's Test was not the bowling of Murtagh or the astonishing comeback by England. It was scripted by Jack Leach, the no:11 batsman of England who narrowly missed scoring a century after coming out as nightwatchman in their second innings. Leach, who was in the playing eleven as an off spinner had scored only 42 runs in 12 completed innings in first-class cricket during this season. However, he surprised one and all when he was asked to open the batting of England in their second knock, by playing a superb innings of 92, which helped England to reach a total score of 303 in the second innings. This performance deservedly won him the Man of the Match award.
In the final analysis, this match had all the ingredients that makes purists say that Test cricket is the most demanding and enchanting version of the game. The glorious uncertainties that makes this game so fascinating was in full display during this match, where the difference between the victor and the vanquished lay in the lack of experience of the latter at this level. Cricket is all set to witness more gripping contests when the Ashes series commences early next month as the clash between the the reigning world champion and fighters from Down Under for the oldest trophy in the history of the game is certain to set the Thames on fire. Thus, Ireland’s first ever Test match in England has served as the perfect curtain-raiser for an enthralling season filled with more captivating contests that would delight the lovers of the longer duration version of the game.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)