(On the occasion of the 132nd birthday of test cricket, I look back at the first test I watched live on television.)
It was the days when I had just got initiated into this game called cricket, the days when the names of Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev (G R Vishwanath was my favourite though) were beginning to become familiar when we played street cricket.
I had listened to some radio commentary earlier with some friends, when Pakistan toured India, and to our delight, India won. But the concept of watching cricket on television (and live cricket at that), was still not even a thought in our minds. It was the days when television was not an assumed appliance in all households, at least not whereabouts I lived, this town called Tiruchirapalli, in the heartland of Tamil Nadu.
School closed for Christmas on Friday, 18 December, ‘81 and was scheduled to re-open on Monday, 4 January ‘82. The plan for the fortnight was the usual – play cricket on the streets until we get dirty and tired, come home to wash and eat, repeat process until the sun decides its time to stop. Then sit outside the house of one of us and talk about what we played until it was dinner time. Except that my dad had a surprise in store for me.
It was Sunday evening, and we had just had our dinner. Then my dad said to me, ‘I am going to Kumbakonam on Tuesday. Do you want to come with me?’ I was wondering why I should go to Kumbakonam of all places. Yes, a couple of my uncles lived there, but the children of one were much older than me and those of the other, mere tots. So what will I do there? ‘Raju uncle [the older uncle] has a television at home and you can watch the England-India test match there.’ Ah, now he was talking.
On the evening of Tuesday, 22nd December, I was packed and all set to travel the 150 kilometres that separated me and a live test match on television. The uncomfortable bus journey barely registered as we reached Raju mama’s home at some nine in the night.
The third test match of the series was due to begin the next day. I remembered reading about India’s victory in the first test. I recalled how I felt Madan Lal was the better bowler in the England second innings because he conceded only 23 runs in 12 overs while Kapil Dev was profligate in giving away 70 runs in 13.2 overs, and they took five wickets each. The difference between dismissing David Gower and Graham Dilley had not sunk in yet. I also remembered the drawn second test for Krish Srikkanth’s first test half century (65 off 88 balls – a rapid-fire innings for those days, especially for that series) and Gavaskar’s monumental if dreadfully slow (even for those days, even for that series) 172.
I woke up on the morning of Wednesday 23 December 1981, bright and eager. My first test of live cricket on television, and I was justifiably excited. Morning coffee, bath, dressing up, brunch, all done by 9.30 am, well in time for the 10 o’clock start.
It didn’t strike me then, but later years made me reflect on it, it seemed like I was not the only one who was excited with the prospect of the test match. Raju uncle’s son, Ashok, much older to me, was also enjoying his Christmas vacation, so he was also all set to watch the game. Ashok’s grandfather also was a cricket freak and he was with us as well. So were a couple of uncle’s assistants (uncle was a lawyer), for whom, I suspect, it was a way to be at work but not work.
So, the clock slowly crawled to 10, and Doordarshan brought cricket to the drawing room. Keith Fletcher won the toss and, expectedly, chose to bat first. Graham Gooch and Geoffrey Boycott were the openers. The little cricket I knew then told me that Gooch was the more watchable of the two. But on that monumental day, there wasn’t much to separate the two. How I wish by that I meant Boycott played aggressively! But no, Gooch decided to emulate his senior partner and ground his way to 71 runs of 176 balls. But even then he outscored his partner, the score being 132 when he got out. Who should succeed him but the Boycott-clone Chris Tavaré, and between the two of them they batted the day out, England finishing on a rather pedestrian 190 for 1, Boycott having inched along to 86 with Tavaré on a relatively quick 25.
It wasn’t a great day of cricket in terms of the action, but for me it was still exciting. Of course, I had a sinking feeling that India won’t be able to win this test. But this was the 1980s, so a draw was still good enough, and I fancied our chances on that front.
Day 2 was relatively breath-taking. Boycott got out soon after reaching his century, and I guess even the English must have felt relieved to see him go, making as he did 105 in 285 balls. But what followed next was even more exciting for me. That stylist, David Gower made his way to the crease, and I was looking forward to some exciting stroke-play from him. But he lasting only three deliveries, falling leg before to Madan Lal. If it was a dodgy decision, Doordarshan didn’t explain overmuch. But two wickets on the same score had me salivating. And I knew Fletcher, who walked in next, was on a second wind, and hence should not be difficult to dislodge. However, it was the featherbed called the Kotla, and Fletcher stayed. Tavaré played perhaps the most aggressive innings of his life as he ended the day with 133 (his maiden test century), having made 108 runs on this day alone – he must’ve gone to confessional that night. With Fletcher making 51 off 107 and then Ian Botham coming in and taking the bowlers on with a frightening innings of 47 not out, England finished the day on a comfortable 428 for 4.
The next day was December 25 and was thus the rest day. It was the longest day of my life until then. Sure the cricket was not riveting, but when there is no cricket, what do you do? I was in a new city, I had no friends, I had no books. It was worse than watching Boycott bat. But, like with all things good or bad, the day got over.
The third day made for good viewing because England kind of collapsed, losing five wickets for 17 runs, Tavaré ending on 149, a career-best as it turned out in the ultimate analysis. To protect Bob Willis from the frightening pace of Madan Lal, Fletcher very kindly declared at 476 for 9. Time for India to bat. Srikkanth started with a boundary, but flattered to deceive, falling for 6 off just four deliveries. Dilip Vengsarkar struggled to 8 off 43 before perishing to Derek Underwood. Gavaskar was marching serenely albeit slowly at the other end when his brother-in-law Vishwanath joined him at 41 for 2. And Vishy was class itself. He lost Gavaskar at 89, but that didn’t deter him as Sandeep Patil joined him. The two were comfortably established as India closed the day on 172 for 3, Vishy on 67 and Patil on 30. Draw was already loudly written on top of this test match.
Day 4 did not start very comfortably for India. Patil perished after adding just a single to his tally, Kirti Azad made a quick 16 and departed, Vishy reached a classy hundred and decided enough’s enough, and Kapil Dev went for 16, out to his all-rounder opponent Botham. At 254 for 7, India was even in danger of being asked to follow on. This was when Syed Kirmani joined a young Ravi Shastri. Neither of them were mugs with the bat, but they weren’t great batsmen either. Shastri was in his early days, and his batting skills hadn’t come to the fore just yet, and Kirmani was but a useful scrapper lower down the order. But today was their day. It wasn’t pretty cricket, but they hung on and took India to 376 for 7 at close, behind England by 100, but close enough to ensure a draw. Shastri not out 48 and Kirmani on a more belligerent 67.
Kirmani fell early on day 5 when that perennial bits-and-pieces man of Indian cricket, Madan Lal joined Shastri with India still 94 runs adrift of England. But the two carried on from where Kirmani left off, and took the score past England’s, before, at 486, Shastri fell to the gentle medium pace of Gooch, seven agonising runs short of what would have been his maiden test century. Immediately afterwards, Madan Lal also fell to Gooch and India ended at 487, a first innings lead of 11. Gooch finished with flattering figures of two for 12 off 8.1 overs. There was just about 90 minutes of play left in the test match, and Gooch and Boycott indulged in some batting practice, stroking 72 off 19 overs (with Gavaskar and Srikkanth turning their arms over as well) before the umpires decided to pull the stumps.
Thus it was, my first test match. Utterly unforgettable, utterly forgettable. Poignantly summed up by who the man of the match was: Christopher James Tavaré. After such a debut, why do I still follow test cricket, you may ask. Well… ask yourself that question too.