When more was just fine...

South Africa has every reason to feel peeved. As the top two Test nations, India should be playing a 4 to 5-Test series in South Africa rather than an after-thought 2-Test tango. Currently, South Africa is ranked no.1 in Tests followed by India. Was this much-awaited tour truncated to enable BCCI to stage a home series against lowly West Indies (ranked no. 6) to celebrate Sachin Tendulkar’s 200th and farewell Test?

India’s star batsman Polly Umrigar batting against Surrey at The Oval on the 1959 tour of England. The Surrey cricketers are wicketkeeper Roy Swetman and slip fielder Ken Barrington. The match was held before the fifth and final Test at the London venue. Pic/Getty Images

Never in SA or India
However, India and South Africa have never played a 5-Test series, home or away. From 1992-93 till now, they have played 10 Test series. The inaugural one was in South Africa where they were engaged in a 4-Test series and the home team won 1-0. The other nine were either 2 or 3-Test series. In all, South Africa have won five series (three in South Africa and two in India), India have won two (both in India) with the last three series drawn (one in South Africa and two in India).

Wankhede Stadium groundstaff roll the wicket during the India vs Australia Test match of the 1979-80 series. Pic/Getty Images

India and South Africa have never been engaged in a single 5-Test series although India has played:
>> Eight 5 or more Test series (including one 6-Test series) against England from 1951-52 to 1984-85.
>> Six 5 or more Test series (including one 6 Test series) against Australia from 1947-48 to 1991-92).
>> Eleven 5 or more Test series (including two 6-Test series) against the West Indies from1948-49 to 2001-02).
>> One 5-Test series against New Zealand, in 1955-56.
>> Six 5 or more Test series (including two 6-Test series) against Pakistan from1952-53 to 1986-87.

Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Bishan Singh Bedi celebrate a Test victory on the 1977-78 tour of Australia. Pic/MiD DAY Archives

Interestingly, India has not played a 5-Test series since 2001-02 home or away. In the new millennium, 5-Test series have become less frequent and is becoming an endangered species. Why? Due to the introduction of one-day internationals (ODI) in the 1970s, Test series have shrunk apart from the Ashes. Test matches have lost their mojo, their spectator appeal.

Sunil Gavaskar plays a leg side shot during his century in the sixth Test against Australia in the 1979-80 series at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. The wicketkeeper is Kevin Wright. Pic/Getty Images

The last time South Africa played a 5-Test series against England was in 2004-05 and against Australia way back in 1967-68. The Twenty20 internationals and the inroads made by the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the Big Bash League among other money spinners, have made Test matches appear less spectator-friendly. Apart from in England and in Australia, hardly a few thousand turn up to watch Test cricket every day. The Tendulkar farewell Tests last month were of course, exceptional, when every Indian went gaga with “Sachin, Sachiiin” chants.

July 28, 1959. Freddie Trueman of England bowls out S P Gupte of India during their match at Old Trafford. Pic/Central Press/ Getty Images

Another reason for this significant shrinkage of duration of Test series is the emergence of more Test-playing countries; Sri Lanka in 1981-82, Zimbabwe in 1992-93 and Bangladesh in 2000-01. Till the 1980s, there were only seven countries involved in Test cricket; England, Australia, South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand, India and Pakistan.

Also, South Africa played only England, Australia and New Zealand till 1970 and was barred from Test cricket for two decades from 1970 to 1991. Thus, there were virtually only six nations playing each other regularly till 1980. Now there are 10. They have to share tours unless it is England against Australia. Also, room has to be made for ODIs and cash-creating T20 internationals. Still, a 2-Test series between top-ranking India and South Africa is an insult. BCCI should see to it that a major cricket-playing nation should not be snubbed. South Africans have high regards for India.

When I had met the great South African fast bowler Peter Pollock in the Sydney press box in 1972, he told me that his major ambition was to play Test cricket in India. Those were pre-Nelson Mandela days and his country was boycotted from playing Test cricket because of apartheid. Peter also informed me that he and some of his white colleagues had protested against the hateful apartheid regime in his country during a first-class match in South Africa, but nothing came of it and his ambition to play in India was not realized, he had the satisfaction of playing alongside Sunil Gavaskar, Bishan Singh Bedi and Farokh Engineer when the World XI captained by the great Garry Sobers toured Australia in 1971-72. It must have been very rewarding for him that his son Shaun played and captained South Africa against India.

Let me recall the first ever 5-Test series India played. It was against Don Bradman’s Invincibles 66 years ago. India lost 0-4 but provided glorious batting by Vijay Hazare and Vinoo Mankad. The term “Mankaded” was coined in 1947 when spinning legend Mankad ran out Bill Brown before delivering the ball.

India’s first ever 5-Test series was against Don Bradman’s Invincibles 66 years ago. India lost 0-4 but provided glorious batting by Vijay Hazare and Vinoo Mankad

Bradman insisted that it was not an unsporting act. Mankad went on to hit centuries in the third and fifth Tests in Melbourne. In the Adelaide Test, Hazare became the first Indian to register centuries in both innings (116 and 145), and that too against the terrifying pace of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller.

Let’s have a look at other 5 or 6-Test series India was involved in. India hosted the West Indies for the first time in 1947-48. The series was highlighted by the great Everton Weekes scoring 128, 194, 162, 101 and 90 in successive Test innings. Came the fifth and final Test in Bombay (now Mumbai) with West Indies leading 1-0 and it was a thriller. Needing 361 runs to win in 395 minutes, India just fell six runs short with two wickets remaining. To waste time, the Windies wicketkeeper Clyde Walcott walked casually to the boundary line as the home crowd booed.

The 1951-52 tour of England to India was memorable as India under Hazare achieved her first ever Test victory after playing 24 Tests in 20 years. Trailing 0-1, the fifth Test in Madras (now Chennai) was dominated by Vinoo Mankad taking 8-55 and 4-53 and Pankaj Roy and Polly Umrigar hitting centuries. India won by an innings to tie the series 1-all. India played her only 5-Test series in England in 1959 and was whitewashed 0-5. The only consolation for India was 20 year-old Abbas Ali Baig scoring a century in his Test debut.

India took her revenge by winning the next series against England in 1961-62. After the first three Tests were drawn, India comfortably won the last two at Calcutta and Madras, thanks to Salim Durani capturing 18 British scalps (5-47, 3-66; 6-105, 4-72). It was their first rubber against England and third against any country. In between, India defeated New Zealand 2-0 in a 5-Test series in 1955-56.

The 1951-52 tour of England to India was memorable as India under Hazare achieved her first ever Test victory after playing 24 Tests in 20 years

In the first Test in Hyderabad India declared at 4 for 498, Umrigar (223) hitting the first double century for India. India won the second Test in Bombay by an innings with Vinoo Mankad also registering 223. India also won the final Test in Madras by an innings, Mankad (231) and Pankaj Roy (173) adding 413 runs for the first wicket, a record then.

The 5-Test series against the West Indies in the Caribbean in1970-71 can well be called the Sunil Gavaskar series. He made his debut in the second Test in Trinidad and scored 65 and 67 not out. He followed with 116 and 64 not out in Guyana, 1 and 117 not out in Barbados, and 124 and 220 in the fifth and final Test in Trinidad. India won the second Test by 7 wickets as also the series 1-0. It was their first series win against the mighty Windies. The spin trio of Bishan Bedi, Prasanna and S Venkataraghavan were also behind this epic victory.

Another 5-Test series against the West Indies in 1974-75 was a thriller, the Windies winning the first two Tests comfortably in Bangalore and Delhi. In his second Test in Delhi, the legendary Viv Richards hammered an unbeaten 192 with 20 fours and six sixes. But India hit back winning the next two Tests in Calcutta and Madras. In Madras off-spinner EAS Prasanna captured 5-70 and 4-41. Now to the fifth and final Test in Bombay played on the newly inaugurated Wankhede Stadium. West Indies won the Test and the roller-coaster series 3-2, the hero being skipper Clive Lloyd with an unbeaten 242.

India’s tour of Australia in 1977-78 under Bishan Bedi provided equally spine-tingling drama, India narrowly losing 2-3. Australia (weakened by loss of top players to World Series Cricket) won the Brisbane Test by 16 runs and the Perth Test by two wickets.

India’s tour of Australia in 1977-78 under Bishan Bedi provided equally spine-tingling drama, India narrowly losing 2-3

India levelled the series by comfortably winning the Melbourne Test by 222 runs and the Sydney Test by an innings. Now to the nail-biting decider in Adelaide: India needed an imposing 493 to win the Test and the series, but managed 445 and lost by 47 runs. This was among the most exciting 5-Test series ever. Bedi became the hero of the Aussie crowd who chanted “Baidi, Baidi” non-stop.

India’s first 6-Test series was against the West Indies in 1978-79. Master batsman Gavaskar followed his 205 and 73 in the first Test in Bombay with a 0 in Bangalore, 107 & 182 not out in Calcutta and 120 in Delhi. All these Tests were drawn, so was the sixth Test. But India won the fourth Test in Madras by 3 wickets, thanks to an elegant century by G R Viswanath and effective bowling by Kapil Dev and Venkataraghavan. It was India’s first home rubber against the Windies.

The following year, India surprised Australia 2-0 in a 6-Test series in India. The home team won the third Test in Kanpur by 153 runs and the sixth Test by an innings at Wankhede Stadium in Bombay by an innings. It was India’s first ever series win against Australia. Gavaskar’s 22nd Test century placed him level with English legends Wally Hammond and Colin Cowdrey; only Australia’s Don Bradman (29) and West Indian Garry Sobers (26) had scored more Test hundreds.

On a roll now, India vanquished Pakistan 2-0 in another 6-Test series three months later. In the third Test in Bombay India gained her first win against Pakistan since November 1952. India also won the fifth Test in Madras by 10 wickets. The heroes were Kapil Dev (4-90 and 7-56) and Gavaskar hitting his 23rd Test century.

But Pakistan had her revenge in the 1982-83 series in Pakistan. They thrashed India by big margins in the second, third and fourth Tests in Karachi, Faisalabad and Hyderabad to win the series 3-0. In the Hyderabad Test, Mudassar Nazar (231) and Javed Miandad (280) added 451 runs for the third wicket and skipper Imran Khan took 6-35 and 2-45.

As shown above, many of the 5- or 6-Test series provided nail-biting finishes. A 2-Test series, as between South Africa and India starting on Wednesday, would lack the oomph and drama of a proper contest between two top-ranked nations. One of the most topsy-turvy Test series was between India and South Africa in India in 2007-08 when the home team’s batting went from sublime to ridiculous.

In the first Test in Chennai India totalled 627 after being 1 for 481 at one stage. Virender Sehwag struck 42 fours and five sixes in his 319, of which 257 came in one day. A week later in Ahmedabad, India was shot out for 76, the express quickie Dale Steyn capturing 5 for 23 and lost by an innings. But India hit back in the third and final Test in Kanpur to win by eight wickets and the series was tied 1-all. Will the Test series starting on Wednesday in South Africa be just as riveting and roller-coaster like?

Kersi Meher-Homji is an Indian cricket historian based in Sydney, Australia

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