Clayton Murzello: When Chandra ran through 'em
It's 40 years this week for India's first ever Test win in Australia when Chandra's 12 wickets made the 1977-78 Melbourne game memorable
Bhagwat Chandrasekhar with his captain Bishan Singh Bedi during the 1977-78 series in Australia. Pic/MID-DAY ARCHIVES
Forty Decembers ago, India began their charge to win its first ever Test in Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), where Bishan Singh Bedi's bunch of warriors demolished Bob Simpson's second-string outfit by 222 runs. It was a series to remember and it projected the fighting side of the Indian team. The visitors had lost the first two Tests at Brisbane and Perth.
The start at Melbourne was bad with both openers - Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan - back in the pavilion for no run on board. Mohinder Amarnath and Gundappa Viswanath steadied the ship with a third wicket partnership of 105. Jeff Thomson hit Mohinder on the left elbow and on the index finger of his right hand. He was dismissed for 72 and couldn't come in at one-drop in India's next innings.
A total of 256 is by no stretch of the imagination a trigger to win a Test, but India had a hero in Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, who picked up six wickets for Australia to be bowled out for 213 after Karsan Ghavri reduced Australia to 18 for two. Peter Toohey, who had scored three half centuries in four innings before walking in to bat, was dismissed for 14 by Bedi and if that was a key wicket, so was Simpson, whom Chandra dismissed for two. Simpson considered it "a poor shot to a bad ball." According to him, he should not have turned his bat that early; an error that caused a top edge which flew to Ashok Mankad at midwicket.
The rest of the batsmen proved easier to dislodge and with a 43-run lead, India had to bat far better than they did in the first innings to put pressure on the hosts, who had to bat last on a pitch where the ball kept low.
India managed to do that with the leading hand of Sunil Gavaskar, who notched up his fourth century in as many Tests. It was on this day that the Indians had to bat on a pitch which had damp spots, caused by rain water seeping in through the covers, which were pecked by seagulls looking for insects, as reported by the great writer Ray Robinson, in his dispatch for Sportsweek. "When Gavaskar resumed batting, he scarcely bothered to scrutinise the spots, much less tap them. Sunny said the southern end was damp for half an hour but the spots at the pavilion end caused no problems," wrote Robinson.
Simpson had no doubts over Gavaskar's greatness. He frowned on any comparisons with Geoff Boycott and wrote in World of Cricket Monthly: "I find comparisons a little odious, particularly when talking about a player of the quality of Gavaskar. He has his own personality, style and greatness and should be remembered for these."
Chandra hailed Gavaskar's hundred in The Winning Hand: "Once Gavaskar made his century, Australia were in real trouble. There was turn in the wicket by now and the additional incentive of the odd delivery tending to keep low." Faced with a daunting target of 387, Australia ended Day Four against the tide with 123 for eight. Chandra had claimed six out of those eight in 15 overs, which included three maidens and conceded only 32 runs.
The following morning, Bedi dismissed Wayne Clark and Thomson to give India their first Test win on Australian soil. The captain had claimed six in the match, but the ultimate bowling hero was Chandra. Robinson, forever right and always willing to shower appropriate praise on Australia's opponents, wrote: "Chandra's striking rate was a wicket for every 23 balls - worthy of bravos in Bangalore and many other places."
For the freak bowler, Melbourne 1977-78 was some kind of a fairytale. Ten years earlier, he had limped off amidst the vast expanse of the MCG with a left ankle injury. He played no further part in that 1967-68 series and had to return home. The next Test he figured in was at the Oval in 1971. Now, it was champagne time. Pizza time too. The MCG policemen discovered Chandra's love for pizza, so they promised him a pizza for every five-wicket haul. He was thus presented with two large pies by the Melbourne cops.
Chandra's man-of-the-match award was a medallion and 500 Australian dollars. That night, his captain Bedi paid a visit to his room and the two spoke about the high possibility of winning the series. They took a mighty step in that direction when India won the next Test at Sydney by an innings and two runs, but 47 runs came in the way of glory during the final Test at Adelaide.
Chandra claimed 28 wickets in the series, but the Australians also remember him for his batting. The quintessential No. 11 batsman had not scored a run before the final Test at Adelaide. And when he completed his second run in the first innings, he raised his bat like any batsman would do for a century. The crowd gave him a wholesome cheer. India couldn't have asked for a better start to 1978.
mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello. Send your feedback to email@example.com