Time compels us to move into the future. But sometimes the past is so brilliant that it forces us back to reflect on the glorious times that have gone by.
India’s 1977-78 tour of Australia is one such moment.
Five Tests, five results; eight tour games; yes, eight results… this was India playing to win every match that it played on the tour. Of course, the Tests lasted six days and the overs were eight balls not six. Bishen Singh Bedi led India to its first ever victories in Australia; victories because India managed to win two Tests Down Under – a feat that they haven’t managed, since.
“It was a different tour – the era of the Kerry Packer World Series was dawning. And that more than anything else, gave the series context. We wanted to play our best cricket, because we wanted to show that the originals were better than the pyjamas,” said Bedi. “We wanted to win every match. The thought of a draw never entered our mind. Not even once; not even during the tour games. In the lead-up to the first Test, we won every tour game (they had four) and beating an Australian state side isn’t easy.”
You can be sure that Bedi isn’t joking about this. Australia won the series 3-2 but they could have easily lost 5-0.
“The umpiring was atrocious. Things got so bad that at one point, (Bhagwat) Chandrasekhar bowled the batsman but he still continued to appeal. So when the umpire pointed at the stumps, Chandra said ‘I just wanted to make sure.’ I can never forget the look on the umpire’s face,” said the left-arm spinner.
Then the visitors decided to strike back – with Sunil Gavaskar opening the bowling attack. The little master didn’t get any wickets but he did help get the shine off the ball and that’s all the help the likes of Chandrasekhar needed.
The leg-spinner took 12 wickets for 104 runs in the two innings – identical figures of 6-52 in each innings – to seal the match for India. Bedi chipped in with six wickets and Karsan Ghavri took the remaining two.
Indeed, Australia has always been known for its quick pitches. But it was the Indian spinners led by Bedi who did all the wicket-taking. The left-arm spinner even had a ten-wicket haul at Perth among his 31 wickets for the series.
“In Australia, a finger spinner will never get as much purchase off the wicket. So what you have to do is use the breeze. Bowling into the wind brings so many variations into play that often the batsmen have a difficult time handling them. The Fremantle Doctor – the sea breeze that blows in from the coast – was what helped me immensely and for India’s young spinners, that will be an important trick to have up their sleeve.”
The fourth Test was a repeat. India’s bowling – mainly spin — and batting clicked and Australia meekly folded. India won by an innings and two runs. By now, the momentum was completely in India’s favour.
“I still remember the first telegram we received after winning our first ever Test in Australia was from Mrs Gandhi. It simply said: ‘Well done. Now win the series’. She was an avid follower of the game and as such it was no surprise,” said Bedi. “So when the fifth Test dawned, we were ready to go all out.”
In the fourth innings, India were set a victory target of 493 runs in the fourth innings. They could have easily shut shop and played for a draw but instead, they went for a win. Mohinder Amarnath hit 86, Gundappa Viswanath scored 73, Dilip Vengsarkar weighed in with 78, Syed Kirmani got 51 and all the other top batsmen chipped in.
But India stopped just 47 agonizing runs short of a historic win. Australia won the series 3-2. Not a soul complained. To this day, it remains the third highest score made by a side batting last in a Test match and India’s highest fourth innings ever.
The tour also set the trend for India’s next two visits Down Under. In 1980-81, India drew the series in Australia for the first time. In 1985-86, all the three Tests ended as draws but the visitors held the upper hand in all the matches and India were robbed of a series win by the elements. This is why the heroics of 1977-78 that still evoke memories to warm the soul, it was the start of a special phase for Indian cricket — one in which they knew no fear.
“It was the kind of series that you want to always play in. Mohinder Amarnath and Sunil Gavaskar were in great touch as were the rest of the batsmen. It helped that we played a lot of tour matches and by the end the conditions weren’t really a factor,” said Bedi. “We had a good time off the pitch, received some good press and fought hard on the ground. Isn’t that what cricket is all about? The rest of it… is just talk.”