It was June 25, 1932. CK Nayudu led the Indian team on to the field at Lord’s in the inaugural Test against England and the babes of international cricket were on their way. However there was no storybook script with the match lost by 158 runs but as debutants the Indians came out with a lot of credit.
Over the last 80 years Indian cricket as only to be expected has had its share of ups and downs. Certainly there have been more valleys than hills in the graph particularly in the formative years and more so in the record abroad. Indian teams for various reasons took a long time to settle down into a cohesive unit and the result was one disaster after another in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s interspersed with the odd win.
Before the present generation brought up on round-the-year cricket gets the incorrect idea it must be stated that Test matches were few and far between in those days. It took almost 20 years for India to notch up her first Test victory but it was only the 25th match. Tests were played with greater frequency in the 50s and 60s yet India played her 100th Test only in July 1967.
Still there was no denying the fact that by 1970 Indian cricket’s overall record was quite dismal with only 15 victories to show in 116 Tests. Some of the setbacks were shocking. At Leeds in 1952 for example India lost their first four wickets without a run on the board – something quite negatively unique.
Two Tests later at Manchester, India were bowled out for 58 and 82 in a single day – a 'feat' that only Zimbabwe have managed to duplicate since. At Calcutta in January 1959 India were defeated by the West Indies by an innings and 336 runs – the second heaviest margin in Test history. In 1959 in England and in 1962 in the West Indies India lost all five Tests. In the period 1967-68 India lost seven successive Tests in England and Australia.
Whenever one discusses the history of Indian cricket the year 1971 has to stand out. This was the breakthrough year with historic series triumphs in West Indies and England and the emergence of Sunil Gavaskar. From then on there was a marked upswing in the country’s cricketing fortunes.
With his superb technique and unruffled temperament allied to his dedication, determination and concentration Gavaskar showed the way for others to follow. From now on there would be no meek surrender, not to the fastest of bowlers, not even while playing in alien wicket and weather conditions abroad.
A new breed of defiant or stroke playing batsmen cropped up and with vast improvement in the fielding standards and with a quartet of world class spin bowlers in Bedi, Chandra, Venkat and Prasanna Indian cricket at last started earning respect worldwide and the victories – both at home and abroad - became more frequent in the 70s.
The one lacuna remained in the area of fast bowling. But with the discovery of Kapil Dev towards the end of the 70s even this was bridged. Like Gavaskar before him, the tall and well built Kapil inspired a generation of fast bowlers and ere long the Indian attack wore a balanced attack. Various world records were set up and the victories became even more frequent. An Indian was the leading run getter and century maker in Tests while another was the highest wicket taker.
And of course over the last couple of decades Indian cricket’s flag bearer has been Sachin Tendulkar. For the first time an Indian was acknowledged as the best batsman in the world. It was about time! And finally in late 2009 India for the first time climbed to the top of the ICC Test rankings. They stayed at the top for almost two years before being toppled by England.
The twin debacles abroad in England and Australia has since seen the team fall to fourth. The ups and downs have continued but the Indian team is one that no opponent can take lightly. The batting continues to be strong, the bowling despite problems can hold its own in international cricket and fielding standards have risen considerably thanks to limited overs cricket.
As Indian Test cricket celebrates its 80th anniversary it is important not to forget the contributions made by the pioneers who were symbols of courage in adversity in Indian cricket’s early days in international cricket. It is never easy to represent a country in its formative years. The dice is heavily loaded against them and more often than not these players were up against far more experienced sides that had all time great cricketers in their ranks.
This is the time to remember not only the feats of the spin quartet, Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Kapil, Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and MS Dhoni but also the deeds of Nayudu, Lala Amarnath, Vijay Merchant, Mushtaq Ali, Vijay Hazare, Vinoo Mankad, Md Nissar, Amar Singh, Polly Umrigar, Vijay Manjrekar, Subash Gupte and MAK Pataudi.
One is confident that Indian cricket will go from strength to strength as it progresses towards the centenary.