When Siva's flame lit up Bombay: Revisiting the remarkable story of England's 1984 tour of India

As if the two assassinations at the start of the tour were not enough to get along with, between the second and third Tests, the Bhopal gas tragedy happened

Anindya Dutta December 03, 2020 11:19:50 IST
When Siva's flame lit up Bombay: Revisiting the remarkable story of England's 1984 tour of India

File image of Laxman Sivaramakrishnan from the 1984 tour. Image via Twitter

In 'Nostalgia Drive', Anindya Dutta celebrates a significant victory in Indian cricket which occurred in that corresponding month in history.

***

When David Gower stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at Delhi’s Palam airport on the 31 October 1984, it was with mixed feelings.

A tour of India had never been an easy proposition for English sides, and to make matters worse, his team was hardly at full strength — Ian Botham had opted out of the tour, and Graham Gooch and John Emburey were both serving bans for South African rebel tours. Mike Gatting, the vice-captain, had been in and out of the team for about seven years, but had never really fulfilled his obvious potential with an average of 23.83 in his 30 Tests. Gower himself had now led the side nine times and was yet to win a Test match.

Balanced against all this and England’s dubious record run of 12 Tests without a win since August 1983, was the fact that its opposition was India. The hosts came in with an even less laudable record of going winless in thirty-one attempts since November 1981. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev had been alternating as captains for the past three years thanks to the randomness of India’s selection process. Neither had succeeded in stitching together a victory. India’s last win had come at the very ground where the two sides would meet in four weeks for the first Test of the series — Bombay’s Wankhede stadium.

But what Gower could not have known, was that in just six hours’ time, cricket would be the farthest thing from the minds of his relatively young and inexperienced side.

When Sivas flame lit up Bombay Revisiting the remarkable story of Englands 1984 tour of India

File image of Kapil Dev from the 1984 tour. Image via Twitter

India Descends into Chaos

The English team had checked into their hotels in the middle of the night and just woken up after a truncated night’s sleep, when news broke that just a few miles away from their hotel, Indira Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister, had been assassinated by her own bodyguards.

Vic Marks, on his last tour with the team, and moonlighting with BBC Test Match Special’s understaffed team, would recall that morning in an article in The Guardian almost two decades later: ‘It was surreal. We weren't exactly imprisoned, but we could see riots and unrest and smoke going up in the middle of Delhi. Images come back [to me] of the manager Tony Brown brandishing Allan Lamb's passport at a team meeting, challenging him to take it if he really wanted to go home.’

On the outside, David Gower was his usual unflappable self. Inside, the concerns grew. Would the tour be cancelled? If not, as captain how could he ensure the safety of his team? Eventually, after staying put in the hotel for a week, once the rioting had died down, the team left for Sri Lanka on a hastily put together ten-day tour while the Indian government fought to get the country back to a semblance of normalcy.

On their return, only one practice match was possible. A rattled English performance in the match brought forth a scathing comment from Indian selector and former Test batsman Ambar Roy: ‘It’s difficult to recall a weaker England side coming to India. I appreciate their problems now that they’ve lost that great pair of bowlers Bob Willis and Ian Botham. But I can’t see them getting India out twice in a Test match.’ That ill timed statement would prove prescient, if just for one match.

But more drama awaited before the first Test could be played.

Two nights before the Test match, the team was invited to the Bombay residence of Britain’s Deputy High Commissioner to India — Percy Norris, an avid cricket fan. The players had a lovely evening with Norris and his family. The next morning Norris was dead — assassinated on his way to work by two assailants.

Gower tells me: ’We were in shock and preparing to pack for our imminent departure from India. Surely, the tour could not now go on? But it did. An investigation had apparently revealed that the assassination was an isolated act and there was no obvious danger to the team. The following morning we were being driven the short distance between the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Wankhede stadium through streets lined with gun wielding army personnel. To our surprise, when we arrived, the stands were beginning to fill up.’

While there may have been no danger to the team, it was hard to shake off the fear and insecurity. Vic Marks tells this (now) amusing story of a British photographer deciding to check out the security at the ground before play started that first morning: ‘Graham Morris, the photographer, decided to test the security system at Bombay on the first day of a Test no one expected to start. Wearing a jacket crammed with hardware he asked a gateman in his best Irish accent: "Excuse me, I'm from the IRA could you direct me towards the England dressing room please?" The official politely obliged.’

The fact that neither an Irish accent nor a mention of the IRA (a group most Indians would never have heard of) were likely to register with a Bombay policeman was neither here nor there.

The Advent of Siva

Gower continues: ‘I was the captain and there was a match to focus on once we got to the ground, but none of us could shake off the effect of the events that had gone on around us from the day we landed at Delhi. Yet there was a job to be done, and we got down to it.’ Marks adds: ‘[Despite all that had gone on outside], on the field under Gower's usually calm leadership the side were patient.’

England won the toss and chose to bat first, always a good idea on an Indian pitch, even one as lifeless as the groundsmen in the 1980s were notoriously famous for preparing.

England’s opening pair in the absence of the much experienced Graeme Gooch, was Graeme Fowler and Tim Robinson. Fowler had been in the team for a while but no captain before had shown the faith in his abilities that Gower did. Robinson was making his debut. Together the pair had taken England to 46, and other than Shivlal Yadav, Gavaskar had already tried every other bowler in an attempt at getting a breakthrough. Then he threw the ball to Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, recalled for what would only be his second Test match, his first a couple of years before, an eminently forgettable outing.

When Sivas flame lit up Bombay Revisiting the remarkable story of Englands 1984 tour of India

File image of Laxman Sivaramakrishnan from the 1984 tour. Image via Twitter

Gower recalls seeing the new bowler for the first time: ‘Siva was this wiry little boy with supple wrists who we had never heard of, much less seen. Today, you would have an analyst who would dig up a video of him bowling somewhere and you would at least know what to expect. Back then, we had no idea what he was going to bowl. When you face a new wrist spinner, it always takes time to get used to his style before batsmen can sort him out. We had faced the same problem in Pakistan when Abdul Qadir ran through us the first time we played him.’

Fowler was caught and bowled by Siva becoming the spinner’s his first victim in Test cricket. Vic Marks recalls the England opener telling him 'he felt a pang of relief upon his dismissal since he was now out of the firing line.’ Tim Robinson edged a viciously spinning leg break to Kirmani behind the stumps, and Mike Gatting perished in identical fashion to Fowler, unable to read the well flighted googly from Siva.

Kapil Dev, who had two years before managed the dubious distinction of becoming David Gower’s only victim in Test cricket off a long hop that Gower humorously described to me as ‘a delivery that would today be outlawed,’ had his revenge by knocking back the stumps of the English captain on this occasion. England was 78 for 4 and Gower’s worst nightmare was beginning to unfold.

The semi-respectable 195 that England managed before being all out was largely due to some rearguard action from wicketkeeper Paul Downton and spinner Phil Edmonds, both handy with the long handle. Siva came back to wrap up the tail, and when he led the team back to the pavilion, the young leg spinner’s figures read 6 for 64.

India started disastrously and had been reduced to 156 for 5 when Kapil Dev was dismissed. Things were looking up for England and the smiles were coming back to the faces after weeks of stress. Sadly, this happy state of affairs was not fated to last. Ravi Shastri settled down to score a typically dour 142, stitching together an innings that lasted six-and-a-half hours, and in the company of Syed Kirmani who contributed 102 in a stay that was only an hour shorter, took the game away from England. When Gavaskar declared at 465 for 8, England faced an uphill battle.

Sure enough, in the second innings the pitch was beginning to turn even more as surfaces in India are wont to do towards the latter half of a Test match. But two men who their captain had put such faith on, would provide the first glimpse of what they were capable of. Graeme Fowler dug his heels in to score a dogged 55 in a stay of almost four hours at the crease. Gatting, who in his previous 30-Tests had managed a high score of 81, displayed great skill and resolve in knocking up the first century of his career.

By the time he had been dismissed for 136 by Siva, Mike Gatting’s career had turned the corner. A man who had come into the series as a confirmed underperformed at the highest level of the sport, would strike up an average of 72.37 over the next 13 Test matches. This would be the Test match, and indeed the series that would be the making of Mike Gatting.

David Gower is his usual fair and well nuanced self when I ask him about this: ’Can I take some credit for Mike’s remarkable turnaround from this inflexion point in his career? Perhaps, because I showed faith in him and a few of the other players like Fowler and Lamb that captains before me had perhaps not done. But to be fair, neither the fact the selectors and I had given Mike the responsibility of vice-captaincy, nor that he was one of the few experienced batsmen who England depended on at this time, was lost on him. What he achieved from here, on the tour and beyond, is entirely his credit.’

When Sivas flame lit up Bombay Revisiting the remarkable story of Englands 1984 tour of India

File image of Sunil Gavaskar from the 1984 tour. Image via Twitter

Back at the Wankhede, in the end the challenge for England of facing up to the spin trio — Siva, Shastri and Yadav in the second innings was a daunting one. Siva picked up another 6 wickets for 117 giving him match figures of 12 for 181 at 15.08 apiece. Left to reach a modest target of 48, India won the match despite losing both openers with the team total at 7.

With 12 wickets in the match, in Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, India appeared to have found the next Subhash Gupte. When the leggie took 7 wickets at an average of 20 in the second Test at Delhi (although it could not prevent England from roaring back to level the series 1-1), it appeared to be confirmation of the fact. Chris Lander, writing in the Daily Mirror would say: ‘This hopeless position was forced upon them (England) by the wiles of India’s teenage leg-spinner Sivarama.’

Sadly, as has happened often in the history of Indian cricket, the brilliance of the flame of talent would be short-lived, and this series with 23-wickets, would be the pinnacle of Sivaramakrishnan’s strange Test career. In the rest of the series, England had the measure of the leg spinner. The man who had 19 wickets at an average of 18 from the first two Tests, took only four more in the remaining matches, each victim gleaned at an average cost of 100.5. Three years later Siva’s career was over. The flame that had burned brightly over a period of two weeks in 1984 had been brutally extinguished. The numbers reflected the story — 26 career victims at 44.03.

Before the final Test, India’s national airline Air India would put up the catchy billboard in Madras that entreated divine intervention, with a play on the young bowler’s name — ‘Siva Rama Krishna, give us a break at Chepauk’. The Gods alas were otherwise engaged.

For David Gower and his team, however, the turnaround in fortunes was truly remarkable. As if the two assassinations at the start of the tour were not enough to get along with, between the second and third Tests, the Bhopal gas tragedy happened, and it was to eventually impact 5,00,000 people. But dealing with these multiple external events they had no control over, and displaying tremendous character, the team came together under a calm, unflappable captain displaying immense faith in his boys. They demonstrated grit and determination that none had expected when they left the shores of England.

As Vic Marks reminisced about that tour, ‘David Gower's side were not one of the best to leave these shores. But they were a united side. Somehow the tour party refused to be weighed down by the mayhem around them and all the ensuing insecurities, or by the odd bit of dodgy umpiring or the occasional very basic hotel. The dreaded siege mentality, the greatest pitfall for all tourists, was avoided.’

For India, the takeaway was vastly different.

By the time the teams had come to Calcutta for the third Test, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev had had a fallout. Gower described it to me as ‘turmoil in the Indian dressing room.’ The result was that Kapil Dev was dropped from the Calcutta Test match accused of playing a rash shot at Delhi that gave England the chance to pull off what Gower admits was an ‘unexpected victory.’ The city of Calcutta turned against one of their favoured sons — Sunil Gavaskar, who they assumed was in the wrong in this instance, a charge Gavaskar denies to this day. Banners of ‘No Kapil, no Test’ were displayed all over the stadium, rotten fruits and vegetables thrown at the Indian captain. A furious Gavaskar swore never to plat at Calcutta, and the two teams played out what Gower apologised to me for (I had mentioned I was at the ground on all days of the match) being ‘one of the most boring Test matches of all time.’ The after effects would continue to dog India throughout the series. It was only a year later when India were reconfirmed as the most powerful force in the limited overs format in Australia and an elated team drove around the MCG in Ravi Shatri’s new Audi that a semblance of self-belief would re-emerge in the Indian cricketing firmament.

Today, 1984 may remain one of the most forgettable years in the history of modern India, but for those five joyous days at the Wankhede, the future of Indian spin appeared secure in the supple wrists of 19-year-old Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, who shone like a beacon of hope for a beleaguered nation.

Anindya Dutta is a cricket columnist and author of four bestselling books. His latest, Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling won India’s Cricket Book of the Year award for 2019 and is long-listed for the MCC Book of the Year.

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