Patel picked up six for 38 in the England first innings of the third (pink ball) Test at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Motera, on February 24, 2021. This represented an amazing cricketing statistic repeated after almost exactly 50 years, in encounters between the two countries. A statistic that went largely unnoticed in the chaos of cascading wickets and two-day Test matches in the ongoing India vs England series.
Up in the commentary box during the 4th Test match, Sunil Gavaskar celebrated 50 years since his iconic Test debut in the West Indies in the spring of 1971. A debut series that yielded a monumental 774 runs for the Little Master. A series that had the image of a 21-year-old would-be batting great, taking on the West Indian fast bowlers in a white Panama cap, indelibly stamped on it. A series that was part of an unforgettable twin tour to the West Indies and England, that brought India their first overseas series wins in both these countries. And with it for the first time, came the belief that we were good enough to win against the big guns of cricket in their own backyards.
The Class Of Chandra
Just as Gavaskar had made the West Indies series his own, the second leg of that twin tour when India took on England at home, will be similarly remembered for the match-winning performance of an unassuming spin wizard called Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, who helped to snatch a defining series win for his country in the third Test at the Oval that year.
Bowling one of the most iconic spells in the history of Test cricket on August 23, 1971, Chandrasekhar made a typically green seaming English wicket look like a Chennai square turner and for a little over two hours, made the ball talk as he knocked over a dazed England side for a mere 101.
Chandrasekhar had a hand in seven of those dismissals, beginning the slide with the run out of the dangerous John Jameson who’d scored a punishing 81 in the first innings, as he palmed a drive onto the stumps at the non- striker’s end. The rest is history and when Chandrasekhar trapped the England No 11 John Price plumb in front, he had picked up an unforgettable 6 for 38, absolutely identical figures to Axar Patel’s, in English conditions and left his team a target of 174 to chase in the fourth innings.
Axar Patel, left, and Rishabh Pant, pose with the trophy. AP Photo
And Chandrasekhar had taken just 18.1 overs to Axar Patel’s 21.4 overs, to achieve that feat, as India romped home to a famous victory by four wickets with contributions from skipper Ajit Wadekar, Dilip Sardesai, Gundappa Vishwanath and Farokh Engineer. “He almost hypnotised their batsman,” Wadekar was to say later. He would win Wisden's 'Best Bowling of the Century' award in 2002 for that iconic spell.
Besting The Odds
With his trademark curly hair, droopy moustache, omnipresent smile and shirt sleeves firmly buttoned down to camouflage a badly withered right arm struck by Polio when he was just five years old, the unassuming Chandra as he is still fondly known to the cricketing community, probably had no business to play sport at any level with his disability, let alone playing Test cricket for India.
Yet, he overcame all that with sheer willpower to emerge as one of the greatest leg spin googly bowlers of all time. Often operating at near medium pace, Chandrasekhar once bowled a bouncer to the West Indian fast bowler Charlie Griffith that hit him on the head! India‘s greatest match winner of that era, he perhaps also remains the only Test Match bowler with more wickets to his name than runs. In a glittering, 16-year career in the Indian cricket team, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar played 58 Test matches and finished with 242 wickets to his name.
That year, Chandra had been left out of the first leg of the tour in the West Indies and had made the tour party to England only because the selectors felt that England batsmen were vulnerable to wrist spinners. He had a point to prove and did that in the most emphatic manner possible, aided in no small measure by the sublime catching of Eknath Solkar at bat-pad. Never before and never after, have a clutch of great spinners had such peerless catching support from forward short leg, as they hunted in combination.
In many ways, 1971 marked a turning point for Indian cricket and Chandra inspired a generation of cricketers with his magnificent performances. Along with Bedi, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan, he formed a most formidable spin quartet that won many matches for India in the 1960s and ‘70s.
On 18 Jan 2021, now 75 years old, Chandrasekhar suffered a mild stroke at home at Bangalore, while watching the Test match at Gabba and had to be hospitalised. Cricket fans all over the world, especially the ones fortunate enough to have seen him play, prayed and wished him a quick and full recovery.
For they would always remain indebted to Chandrasekhar for the hours of pleasure that his sterling bowling performances gave them. And for the self-belief that his match-winning performances instilled into Indian cricket.
The journey of what the Axar Patels of today have achieved, actually began 50 years ago with these men. Which is why the incredible coincidence of two identical bowling figures of 6 for 38, achieved against the same opponents, 50 years apart, is of the utmost significance and needs to be cherished and celebrated.
(The writer is a former first-class cricketer and a retired Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force. Views personal)