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Memories of another Melbourne Test

V Gangadhar | January 02, 2004

India lost the third Test in Melbourne in the current series after having been in a great position on Day 1. But V Gangadhar remembers another Test at the famous venue where India turned it around after having been on the back foot for the most part. That was also the last time India won a Test match on Australian soil, until Adelaide last month.

Call me lucky. Over the years, as a cricket nut, I have been at the finish of some of the most thrilling Test matches, courtesy radio commentary. On a December morning in 1960, my lunch remained uneaten as Australia and the West Indies played out the first-ever tied Test. The ABC ball-to-ball running commentary on the unbelievable happenings at the 'Gabba in Brisbane raised goosepimples as Conrad Hunte ran the last Australian batsman out and, for a moment, no one knew who had won the match!

I was again by the side of the radio when England batsman Colin Cowdrey, injured and able to use only the right hand, in the company of offspinner David Allen, played out a ferocious last over from West Indian fast bowler Wesley Hall and ensured a draw in the second Test at Lord's in 1963. The West Indies under Frank Worrell won the series 3-1, but that last over remains unforgettable.

A paanwalla in Bombay's Ballard Estate offered me a seat in his shop, where a small transistor blared out the running commentary in the India versus Australia Test match in Madras in 1986. Offspinner Greg Matthews had last man Maninder Singh lbw and, believe it or not, there was yet another tied Test match whose finish I did not miss.

But in between my luck ran out on a chilly morning in February 1981 when India played Australia in the third Test match at Melbourne.

No one expected India to win. On the last morning, Australia, set to score 142 runs to win the match, needed only a handful with eight wickets remaining. The Melbourne wicket was helping the bowlers, but India were without offspinner Shivlal Yadav, who had a fractured toe. The previous evening the hosts had lost opener John Dyson and skipper Greg Chappell for a first-ball duck. But there was enough batting to come.

But Australia lost the match by 59 runs and I missed listening to the commentary because I was on a train to my office. Almost everyone was carrying a transistor, but I had none! I kept asking others the score. Some replied, others shooed me away in their excitement.

Things were happening in Melbourne. Yes, things always happened at Melbourne when India played Australia. During the first ever tour of Australia, playing a strong Victoria state, India lost three wickets for no runs (Mankad, Hazare and Rangnekar). A grim-looking skipper Lala Amarnath strode in, thrashed the Victorian attack all over the park, and remained unbeaten with 228 while India scored 403. The ancient ones in Melbourne still talk of that innings!

The 1981 Test match had its own moments of drama. G R Vishwanath batted as only as he can, scoring 114 in India's first innings score of 237. Australia replied strongly with 417, Allan Border hitting a gritty 124 and veteran Doug Walters scoring a brisk 78. Spinners Dilip Doshi and Shivlal Yadav sent down 84 overs between them capturing five wickets for 209 runs while Karsan Ghavri and Sandeep Patil claimed two each. The match seemed lost.

True to tradition, India's second innings was a different story. Skipper Sunil Gavaskar and his partner Chetan Chauhan were cool and confident and the runs began to flow. The century partnership arrived and the Australian bowlers did not look like taking any wickets.

When the stand reached 165, the drama began. Dennis Lillee was the bowler. Gavaskar was rapped on the pads, there was a huge appeal, and the umpire raised his finger. Gavaskar looked at the umpire disbelievingly and indicated his bat to convey the message that he had played the ball.

Lillee, always the showman, ran down the pitch and ordered Gavaskar to walk. Words were exchanged. Gavaskar, furious, did walk, but indicated to Chauhan to leave the crease and return to the pavilion as well! What was going on, everyone wondered.

Disgusted with the overall umpiring standards on the tour and this decision in particular, the captain wanted to walk away with his partner. It would have amounted to conceding the Test match to the Australians, something that had never happened before.

The patient Chauhan talked urgently to the captain and signalled to the pavilion. The team manager, Wing Commander Durrani, trooped to the ground. As the disbelieving Australians watched, he persuaded the captain to return to the pavilion and allow the game to continue.

After things had cooled down, Gavaskar, while maintaining that he had played the ball and hence was not out, apologised for his actions. Dennis Lillee in his book Over and Out claimed that Gavaskar had not played the ball at all and was clearly out.

Anyway, in an action-packed match, this incident stood out. But there was more drama on the field. After losing Chauhan for 85, India were all out for 324. Yadav, whose fractured toe was encased in plaster, volunteered to bat and was ready with his pads on. Kapil Dev injured his ankle badly and hobbled along and it was doubtful if he could bowl when Australia batted again, needing only 142 to win.

What hurt the Indians more was the attitude of some people who were present at a private party that the Indians attended that night. Rude comments were made about their cricketing ability. It was like the nightmarish reception at the Indian high commission in London on the evening of the 1974 Lord's Test after the Indians were bowled out for 42. Everyone, including the high commissioner, was rude to the players!

So the Indians had something to prove. Though they had lost Dyson and Chappell, the hosts were expected to win comfortably. Kapil was on pain killers, Yadav could not field or bowl. But Dilip Doshi kept one end going (two for 33 in 22 overs) and Kapil used the helpful wicket to devastating effect. Bowling off a shortened run, he moved the ball both ways and cut it off the pitch to finish with five wickets for 28 runs in 16.4 overs. His victims? Bruce Yardley, Allan Border, Rodney Marsh, Dennis Lillee and Jim Higgs.

India achieved a remarkable victory. Though I was not at the finish I celebrated with the rest of the nation. Greg Chappell gave way to Kim Hughes as the captain. But to this day, the Melbourne Test is remembered for Gavaskar's action in walking away with his partner Chetan Chauhan, ready to give the match away to the opposition!

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