In late 1989, Mohammad Azharuddin was not a probable contender for captaincy. Despite Ravi Shastri’s dream debut as Test captain, Dilip Vengsarkar had been replaced by Krishnamachari Srikkanth at the helm. Srikkanth had a woeful tour of Pakistan with bat, but he returned from the tour with the series drawn.
The selectors had made their mind up after the Pakistan tour: Srikkanth would be replaced. There was no question of recalling Vengsarkar or Kapil Dev. Shastri was mysteriously ignored, yet again.
So they decided on Azhar. Raj Singh Dungarpur was determined to give the 1990s side a new look. He approached Azhar, who was practising before the start of a domestic match. The words “Miyaan, captain banoge?” have become part of the Indian cricket folklore now.
After the torrid tour of West Indies in early 1989, Vengsarkar had come out in open criticism of Azhar. Azhar did not regain form immediately after that. In fact, when Sachin Tendulkar and Salil Ankola were handed out Test caps at Karachi, Azhar was supposed to sit out. It was only a last-minute finger injury to Raman Lamba that got Azhar a spot. He scored 35 in each innings, but more importantly, took 5 catches in the first innings.
Azhar clawed back into prominence. By the time Raj Singh approached Azhar, he had led in only four First-Class matches — twice each in Ranji Trophy and Duleep Trophy.
It did not work, at least to begin with. India went on to lose Test series in New Zealand, England, Australia, and South Africa, and could not beat Zimbabwe in the latter’s inaugural Test. Their only win in the first three years under Azhar came at home, against Sri Lanka, who were hardly a force in 1990.
The media called for Azhar’s head. The selectors were not too impressed either. What they chose to ignore was the fact that the Test against Sri Lanka was India’s only home Test between 1988-89 and 1992-93.
He might still have been replaced, had India found a rightful heir. However, with Shastri and Vengsarkar gone, Kapil’s career approaching an end, the once-hailed Sanjay Manjrekar fading out, and Sachin Tendulkar being too young, there was not an alternative to Azhar.
It was only fair Azhar got a chance to make amends. His batting form had also deserted him: his previous 9 Tests had yielded a mere 314 runs at 20.93. There was more than captaincy at stake. When the selectors appointed him captain for only the first Test, the message was loud and clear.
The first of the 6-ODI series, scheduled to be played at Motera, was abandoned without a ball being bowled: the players’ securities could not be guaranteed. Just over a month before the scheduled ODI, riots had broken out across India following the demolition of Babri Masjid.
In the next ODI at Jaipur, India batted well: Vinod Kambli scored a hundred on his birthday, putting up an unbroken 164 with schoolmate Tendulkar. But Alec Stewart and Neil Fairbrother, England’s finest ODI batsmen of the era, masterminded the chase.
India won the next ODI at Chandigarh, thanks to a calm 76 from Navjot Sidhu. The match had a pattern to it: when England batted, Azhar used his spinners brilliantly; between them, Anil Kumble and Venkatapathy Raju had figures of 19-0-65-1. England went in with four seamers, and their only spinner, Ian Salisbury, was milked for runs. In the first ODI, too, John Emburey had been expensive.
The difference in quality of spinners would hurt England throughout the series.
As BBC would point out later, “even before the squad gathered at Heathrow, the planning for the tour was nothing short of shambolic.” Indeed, England had left out Jack Russell, the finest wicketkeeper in the country by a distance, for Yorkshireman Richard Blakey. Poor Blakey never got to terms with the noisy crowd or Kumble: his glovework was ordinary, and he scored 7 from 4 innings, being bowled thrice and LBW once.
But that was not the worst selection quirk. David Gower was dropped in favour of, for some reason, Dermot Reeve. Gower was too old, was the opinion of tour cricket manager Keith Fletcher. Gower was 35 at this point, while the side was led by Graham Gooch, then 39. Also on the tour were Mike Gatting, 35, and Emburey, 40.
To make things worse, Emburey, Gatting, and Paul Jarvis were all returning to the England side after serving bans they were dished out as a result of the South African rebel tour. It was certainly not easy for them to get along with their teammates from the very onset.
Jarvis’ selection defied logic as well. While Gatting and Emburey had impressive careers before the ban, Jarvis had taken 40 wickets at 29 the previous summer. Let alone in England, he did not feature in the top three for Yorkshire.
Fairbrother, an ODI specialist, had played only 7 Tests till then, the last being in 1990. His numbers read 64 runs at 8. He played the first two Tests here, and was dropped after he scored 134 from 4 innings including a gutsy 83 at Chepauk.
Additionally, it should be mentioned here that though the twin tour to India and Sri Lanka commenced in January, the entire touring party (including support staff) was announced on September 10.
A matter of choices
By the time India reached Eden Gardens for the first Charms Cup Test, Azhar and coach-cum-manager Ajit Wadekar had a plan in place. They fell back on the 1970s formula of three spinners.
Kumble had been in and out of the Test side, but had impressed all and sundry in South Africa with 18 wickets at 26. Fletcher, who served as scout for the English team during India’s tour of South Africa, wrote in his report: “I didn’t see him turn a single ball from leg to off. I don’t believe we will have much problem with him.”
Raju, senior to Kumble, had come to terms with his role as second spinner of the side; the third of the pack was Rajesh Chauhan of Madhya Pradesh, yet to play a Test but one who could turn the ball the proverbial mile.
Of the seamers, Manoj Prabhakar opened batting; and then, there was Kapil, the greatest all-rounder in the history of the country. Javagal Srinath, the quickest bowler in the country, was left out. Test caps were handed out to Chauhan and Kambli.
Also making his debut was Srinivas Venkataraghavan, the first former Indian Test cricketer to officiate in a Test.
In contrast, Gooch went in with four fast bowlers in Devon Malcolm, Jarvis, Chris Lewis, and debutant Paul Taylor. He left out Emburey, his senior spinner, and Phil Tufnell, who, despite his inconsistency, could probably have made a difference on what Wisden called a “dry, brown but firm wicket”.
Instead, he picked Salisbury, who had been drafted in as reinforcement (for nobody, really). Salisbury had been bowling in the England nets, and was not doing too poorly, but it did not seem remotely likely that he would be picked ahead of Emburey or Tufnell.
Bowling combination was one of the two factors that decided the series on its first day. The other, of course, was the fact that Azhar chose the day to light up his favourite ground.
A cautious start
Gooch looked visibly ill as he walked out at the toss. He could not afford to miss the Test, not only because it was his 100th Test, but also because Michael Atherton was down with food-poisoning.
Azhar won the crucial toss. It was a windy Calcutta morning, and to be fair, England’s four seamers did well in the first hour. However, Sidhu and Prabhakar batted for 101 minutes, adding 49 before the former chased at one outside off. Taylor, who had been slanting the ball across the right-handers all morning, was rewarded for persistence with his maiden Test wicket.
Kambli flashed for a while outside off, living dangerously. Gooch offered him a cordon of slips and gullies. Seven fielders manned the arc between first slip and cover. Just like Sidhu, Kambli edged one to second slip, this time off Jarvis.
Tendulkar started with a gorgeous on-the-rise off-drive off Jarvis, but slowed down after that. Gooch introduced Salisbury, and Prabhakar, after a gritty 46, tried to square-cut one that pitched on a length; Lewis took a sharp catch at first slip.
India were 93 for 3 after three hours of cricket when Azhar walked out. All three wickets had been slip catches.
Homecoming for Azhar
Azhar was no longer the shy youth who had lit up the same ground against the same team on Test debut. He was the senior man of the side. He had been forced to stonewall that day under instructions. This time there was no one to instruct him.
So, when Malcolm pitched one up, Azhar remained motionless; for a while it seemed he had forgotten that he had to bring his bat down. There was no movement of the front foot; if anything, the back foot moved to off, ever so slightly; and down came the bat.
The timing was immaculate. Robin Smith at mid-off did not stand a chance. India’s hundred had taken them 42.3 overs.
Gooch probably missed out on a trick at this point. Instead of going for the kill, he resorted to a semi-defensive field. Memories of Lord’s 1990 were probably playing on his mind.
To his credit, Salisbury bowled accurately, despite his limitations. However, doing that allowed Azhar to settle down. Then, when he decided he had his eye in, Azhar opened up; and the inevitable happened.
Salisbury tossed one up. There was a mid-wicket. There was a wide mid-on, not very far from mid-wicket. There was no way one could bisect those two men, playing against the turn, but Azhar made it look like the easiest shot in the world.
Taylor bowled one across Azhar. The Hyderabadi responded with what seemed to be another prod. Eden Gardens had their hearts in their mouths, for they had seen three men succumbing to edges outside off that morning.
But this was Azhar, that too at his best. The one-hundred-thousand-strong crowd went ballistic as the ball teased the cover fielder on its way to the fence.
Azhar caught up with Sachin. His 25 had taken him 52 balls, but Gooch read the signs, for he was too experienced to have missed them.
He tossed the ball to Graeme Hick, and gave him an extra man inside the ring on off. Mid-off, cover, extra-cover, point, silly-point, and a slip; all he asked of Hick was a line outside off.
Hick obliged, but bowled marginally short. The square-cut bisected point and extra-cover to the fence.
Gooch alternated the pacers at the other end. The trademark flicks were unleashed, one after the other. Square-leg fielders ran their hearts out, fine-legs flung themselves full-length on the turf, but to no avail.
Tendulkar, meanwhile, played the perfect foil, rotating the strikes, allowing his captain to go on rampage.
Back-foot drives (they did not call them ‘punches’ back in the early 1990s) crashed on to the fence. Lewis had his moment of glory when a bouncer hit Azhar on the helmet as he took his eyes off the ball, but that was all England could come up with.
Taylor was driven down the ground, twice in quick succession, both past the rope. Taylor held back the length; Azhar rocked back and caressed it, ever so tenderly, past extra-cover.
When Salisbury tossed one up, or at least it seemed so. Azhar came forward before he realised he would not reach the ball. He did not make an effort to shift his balance; he simply used those steely wrists to whip it past first slip in an almost impossible stroke.
They pitched up. He drove. They bounced. He pulled. They bowled outside off. He cut. As Wisden reported, “this was a masterpiece of uninhibited strokeplay matched with watchful defence.”
The pair added 51 in 16 overs before tea. After the interval, the second fifty of the stand took 10 overs. Azhar had scored 73 of the hundred.
Tendulkar brought up his fifty (his first at home) but fell immediately, edging one to slip off Malcolm. Pravin Amre, who had scored a hundred on Test debut at Kingsmead earlier that season, walked out.
Azhar reached 102 off a mere 114 balls, with a ferocious cut to the point boundary off Lewis. India had scored a mere 154 during his stay at the crease.
He ended the day on 114. India were 263 for 4. The momentum had shifted.
The onslaught continues
Jarvis snared Amre early the morning after, but Kapil decided to keep his head down. Eight seasons ago he had been dropped for a Test at the same ground for an “irresponsible shot”. This time there would be no encore.
Kapil batted for an uncharacteristic 50-ball 13 without a single four before he became Hick’s first wicket. He had played second fiddle, helping Azhar add 68 for the sixth wicket.
In between, Azhar remained unfazed. When Malcolm pitched short, Azhar pulled him with disdain over a leaping short mid-wicket. Jarvis was punished with a severe cut before he found a thick edge; it raced past second slip for four.
He was particularly harsh on Salisbury. The hapless leg-spinner did everything he could, sticking to an off-stump line, but he was no match for the genius that was Azhar. Despite an army of fielders on off, Azhar seemed to be finding gaps with ridiculous ease.
Azhar’s 150 came up in 155 balls. Salisbury gifted him with a full-toss, and an almost grateful Azhar dispatched it over the mid-wicket fence. Lewis beat the outside edge once, but was cut past backward-point for yet another dazzling boundary.
He finally fell off Hick, trying to flick one past mid-wicket but not being able to keep it on the ground. His 182 had taken him 197 balls, and had lasted almost five-and-a-half hours. India had scored a mere 269 during his stay at the crease.
Eden Gardens rose to its feet to see their captain, their hero off, for seldom had they seen an innings of such quality with a career at peril.
India reached 371, losing their last 5 wickets for 29. Kiran More grafted out a 61-ball 4 not out. Hick finished with 3 for 19 and 4 catches.
Then Kumble (match-figures of 6 for 126), Raju (6 for 119), and Chauhan (5 for 109) bowled England out for 163 and 286. Only Gatting (33 and 81) put up some resistance against India’s spin trio. If anything, Salisbury (who faced 271 balls in the Test) and Taylor (151 balls) showed more spunk than most top-order batsmen.
India chased down the target for the loss of 2 wickets, both wickets falling to Hick. A 25,000-strong crowd turned up to watch India chase 43 on the final morning, and celebrated with thunder-flashes and firecrackers once the target was achieved.
Ted Dexter, Chairman of England’s Selection Committee, attracted more ridicule to the touring party. The statement he issued remains one of the most curious in the history of the sport: “The players have quite reasonably talked about levels of pollution and how it has affected levels of performance. I’ve decided to commission an immediate report into pollution levels in Indian cities.”
Kamal Nath, Indian Forest and Environment Minister, responded cheekily: “In view of Mr Dexter’s unease, I’ve decided to commission a report into the effect of pollution levels upon the trajectories of India’s spinners.”
Azhar was appointed captain for the rest of the series. Mismanagement continued in the England camp. When Gooch had “dodgy prawns” and missed the second Test, a now-fit Atherton was not recalled. Instead, Smith opened with Alec Stewart, and Blakey was drafted in as wicketkeeper.
This was also the Test where Gatting dropped More: the chance was so straightforward that umpire RS Rathore had raised his finger before the ball reached Gatting. Though it did not have a real impact on the Test, the dropped chance made Gatting an easy target for the media.
And at Wankhede, they left out Jarvis, by far the most impressive of their seamers, drafting in Phil DeFreitas, woefully out of practice.
It did not help their cause that Air India was on strike, and they had to travel long stretches by train. Of course, the strike did not seem to affect India, who won the last two Tests by an innings. Things went from bad to worse for England, who lost several players due to illness, mostly due to delicate stomachs.
England’s series was aptly summed up by the fact that Hick topped both batting (315 runs at 52.50) and bowling (8 wickets at 25.25) charts — in both aggregate and average — as well as took most catches (5). Hick’s was a valiant effort in a team of men who seemed to give up hope with every passing hour in the series.
In contrast, six Indians averaged 49 or more in the series. Between them, Kumble, Raju, and Chauhan shared 46 wickets, while the 12 Kapil and Prabhakar took between them came at 21.67 apiece.
Tufnell’s statement “done the elephants, done the poverty, now might as well go home” might have been an outburst triggered by frustration, but it did not go down well with fans in both countries.
But even Tufnell paled into comparison with Dexter’s bizarre post-series statement to BBC: “There is a modern fashion for designer stubble and some people believe it to be very fashionable. But it is aggravating to others and we will be looking at the whole question of facial hair.”
The Lord could certainly have done better.
ECB even criticised tour manager Bob Bennett (different from the cricket manager, which was Fletcher) for, of all things, attending a press-conference in t-shirt and shorts. As one of the players commented, “at least we now know that we didn’t lose because we played terribly.”
Gooch’s marriage had not been at its most stable when the English team had left Heathrow. He now opted out of the Sri Lanka leg of the tour. Sri Lanka won the one-off Test at SSC by 5 wickets. Senior off-spinner Jayananda Warnaweera took 8 wickets with his off-breaks; another off-spinner, over a decade younger to Warnaweera, took 5. He went by the name of Muttiah Muralitharan.
India, on the other hand, went from strength to strength in the 1990s, especially at home. They beat Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka before defeating them 3-0 at home (all by innings). Under Azhar they did not lose a single series at home.
As for overseas performances, things did not look as good. Despite that, Azhar became the first Indian captain under whom India gained that aura of invincibility at home. And it all started that day in Calcutta.
India 371 (Manoj Prabhakar 46, Sachin Tendulkar 50, Mohammad Azharuddin 182; Devon Malcolm 3 for 67, Graeme Hick 3 for 19) and 82 for 2 beat England 163 (Anil Kumble 3 for 50, Venkatapathy Raju 3 for 39, Rajesh Chauhan) and 286 (Alec Stewart 49, Mike Gatting 81; Anil Kumble 3 for 76, Venkatapathy Raju 3 for 80) by 8 wickets.