The crowd gathers around for the presentation at the end of the match
The crowd gathers around for the presentation at the end of the match
What was it like to be at The Oval the day India won their first series in England? For a 13-year-old English fan, it was bliss to be alive
August 24th, 1971 and the fifth day of the third and final Test of the England v India series marked my first visit to the Kennington Oval, my first Test match, and my first trip to London. The invitation came out of the blue from my grandfather. He rang from a phone box at the ground, towards the end of a fourth day in which I'd sat glued to the television with a friend, watching with growing alarm as Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, he with the hand withered by childhood polio, skittled England for 101.
"Come up tomorrow and bring a chum." My grandfather was like that. Another time, when I was eight, he'd woken me at the crack of dawn to tell me we were catching the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe for the day. My first trip abroad, made more memorable, as he knew it would be, by being unheralded.
The only hitch this time was that my friend, off on a family holiday the next day, couldn't join me. It would have been disloyal to find a substitute, so I would have to go solo. This presented a hurdle. I handed the receiver to my mother and negotiations took place. They were lengthy but when she finally put the phone down, just as my bowling hero John Snow trapped Sunil Gavaskar lbw in his second over, I was given the green light. I slept little that night.
Jacket and tie was the uniform, but like me, a few were dressed in what my grandfather insisted on calling "windcheaters and slacks". Skeins of blue cigarette smoke hung over us in the still air
On the Tuesday, as I travelled on the dusty train up from the coast to the smoke with my sandwiches in my bag (an army surplus gasmask case) and my "emergency money" in my pocket, I listened intently to men in linen jackets and regimental ties talk bullishly of England polishing off the "little" Indians. "They've never won a Test here, you know, and that's after 19 attempts." "Snow'll do for them - they don't like the quick stuff." "We'll be back home in time for early supper, you'll see."
I knew enough to fear that this blithe dismissal of the tourists' chances was shallow-rooted in the tired ground of imperial entitlement and Fred Trueman, rather than the way things were now. After all, hadn't Gavaskar and Engineer shown a distinct liking for the "quick stuff" in the first Test, at Lord's? And wasn't it England who were the more grateful for the rain that fell on the fifth day? But what did I know? Surely, these men with their hampers and their shooting sticks and binoculars knew more than I did? I said nothing and soon the air of confident authority that pervaded my shared compartment had snuffed out any doubts I'd woken with that morning and allowed my cricketing patriotism to trump my obsessive but embryonic knowledge of the game. By the time we pulled into the awe-inspiring vastness of Victoria station, I was as sure as my fellow travellers that I was to witness an England victory.
I had just turned 13, a teenager yet to be engulfed by hormonal changes and the studied cynicism they would bring, and I felt nothing save the pure, febrile enthusiasm of youth. My excitement built steadily, and as I got on the underground and the men from the train were joined by a host of Indian supporters, it was clear that it was an excitement that was shared. Everyone it seemed, was going to "the cricket".
124 for 4: Sardesai is caught by Knott off Underwood
© Getty Images
124 for 4: Sardesai is caught by Knott off Underwood © Getty Images
As we rose to the surface from the depth of South London on the interminable escalator at The Oval and our communal goal neared, while the men from the train fell silent, eyes front, resolutely fixed on the back of the man on the step above, the Indian supporters continued their animated conversations and all round, expectation reached a humming pitch.
And then we were out onto the Harleyford Road, under a flat white sky with just a hint of a thin, watery sun. No wind, though, and no sign of the rain that had wiped out the whole of the Friday and bedevilled the summer.
I was to meet my grandfather outside the Hobbs Gates at 10.30 on the dot and he was reassuringly there, tickets in hand. With him was with his friend Harold, who later told me he and Len had been "pals" ever since they were 14 years old and had joined the News of the World as office boys on the same day in 1916.
I found I didn't care a fig that England had lost; I just felt incredibly, disbelievingly, happy to be there
As we made our way through the throng milling in orderly fashion behind the looming pavilion, Harold nudged me discreetly and gestured towards a spruce elderly gentleman in dark suit, white shirt and tie talking purposefully to an equally smartly turned out younger man in a Surrey blazer. "See over there, that's Percy Fender and Micky Stewart." I'd heard vaguely of both of them and asked for more detail, which pleased Harold, giving him as it did the opportunity to tell me of the great Surrey side of the '50s and the fact that prior to joining the "brown caps", PGH Fender had played for my home side, Sussex, "before the Great War". History was everywhere.
The past held its fascination but as we took our seats on the open terrace of the Laker Stand, my own presence in the here and now left no room for it. I was at The Oval. It was a Test match: my sense of fulfilment pretty well complete even before a ball had been bowled. To the right of us was the famous gasometer, and to the left the towering bulk of the pale red-brick pavilion. Before us, the vast open expanses of the pitch. It was perfect. And so green. Odd to be so taken by this, but then, in those black-and-white TV days, my Test ground outfields came in various shades of grey.
We settled three rows in from the boundary amidst quietly murmuring ranks of men, mostly. Jacket and tie was the uniform, but like me, a few were dressed in what my grandfather insisted on calling "windcheaters and slacks". Skeins of blue cigarette smoke hung over us in the still air. As soon as we were seated, Harold added to them with a filtered Rothmans; Len with one of his untipped Piccadillys. Our fellow spectators were for the most part white, but over on the opposite side of the ground and down on the benches at the Vauxhall Road End, the crowd was almost exclusively Indian, the majority from the East but a number from the West. A muted hubbub drifted across to us before subsiding, as first the umpires and then Ray Illingworth and his team took the field to respectful clapping from all quarters. When Ajit Wadekar and Dilip Sardesai came down the steps, there was a burst of cheers before complete silence fell as play commenced.
Bella, an Indian elephant from Chessington Zoo, makes an appearance on the final day, as part of a celebration of the Indian festival of Ganesh Chaturthi
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Bella, an Indian elephant from Chessington Zoo, makes an appearance on the final day, as part of a celebration of the Indian festival of Ganesh Chaturthi © Getty Images
It was a silence born not merely of adherence to protocol but one freighted with palpable tension. And it was one swiftly broken in the first over of the day, when with no addition to the score, and people still finding their seats, Sardesai cut Derek Underwood straight to short-third man, and Wadekar was inches short as Basil D'Oliveira's throw smacked into Alan Knott's gloves. A shocked groan rippled round the ground, until it reached our stand and the pavilion, where vigorous applause held sway.
The rest of the morning's play moved at snail's pace but I was riveted. So too, if the fag butts rapidly accruing beneath their feet were anything to go by, were Len and Harold, and as the absence of extraneous chatter signalled, the rest of the crowd with them.
Illingworth and Underwood took on the bulk of the bowling, except for an accurate but innocuous six overs from my hero, in which he belied the "hostile" bit of the "Hostile Son of the Vicar" moniker given him by my local paper during his heroics in Australia the previous winter. Underwood had Sardesai brilliantly caught by Knott wide to his right. "Best keeper I've ever seen," pronounced Harold. "Better than Ames, better than Evans." Underwood had Eknath Solkar, a Sussex man, albeit mostly for the county's second team, caught and bowled soon after, but Farokh Engineer, after essaying a wild hack at his first ball, helped take the score to 146 for 5 at lunch. Twenty-seven to win. India on the verge of their first Test match victory in the home of their former colonial masters. And with it the series.
In a pub just up the Clapham Road from the ground, we sat outside under a darkening sky and Len bought me my first beer. A whole pint of pale ale, in a dimpled glass jug. "If anyone asks, tell 'em it's a shandy"
Harold and Len stayed in their seats during the interval, eating their pork pies and drinking two bottles of Mackeson's stout poured carefully into the half-pint pewter jugs Harold withdrew from his faded blue BOAC airline bag. I wolfed my sandwiches (sandwich spread with lemon curd for "dessert"), gulped my warm bottle of Corona orangeade, and then was given "two bob" by Len - it was years before he gave ground on the newfangled decimal currency thing - to go and get myself an ice cream and "have a bit of an explore".
I wandered round the threadbare concourse down to the Vauxhall Road End, through groups of expectant India followers: relaxed but serious-looking men in three-piece suits and bright orange turbans; clutches of youth without the headgear, dressed in Len's "windcheaters and slacks" and chatting excitedly. On the Archbishop Tenison side of the ground, the air was thrumming with imminent Indian triumph, but as I took my seat again, clutching my Mr Whippy ice cream, I still harboured hope that England would win. Snow would come back rejuvenated after lunch and, as the men on the train had prophesied, defy the sluggish pitch and blow the rest away.
But the men from the train, me, and as Wadekar observed later, Illingworth, were all wrong. Less than an hour after lunch, with India on 170, the England skipper had given up the ghost and handed the ball to Brian Luckhurst of all people. Luckhurst improbably had Viswanath caught Knott after a huge swing in search of the winning runs. This time, though, it was not a groan that rose from across the ground, but laughter. It was all but over, and shortly afterwards, when Abid Ali square-cut Luckhurst towards the rope and the ball was engulfed by jubilant supporters charging over the ground, it was.
Policemen hold back the crowd after India's win (no, that's not the author trying to sneak past between two of them)
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Policemen hold back the crowd after India's win (no, that's not the author trying to sneak past between two of them) © Getty Images
It took both sides some time to make their way through the celebrating throng. After standing with the rest of our terrace to decorously applaud, I was unleashed by a "Go on, then" from Len and ran to join the noisy elation massed round a huge Indian tricolour flag in front of the pavilion. Wadekar took his time before appearing on the balcony - he had apparently gone for a nap after lunch and had to be woken by Ken Barrington to tell him he'd won - but when he did, there was an eruption of pure, unbridled joy. I found I didn't care a fig that England had lost; I just felt incredibly, disbelievingly, happy to be there.
With the game over so early, as the men from the train made their way home, incredulous perhaps, to their early suppers, Len and Harold decided we should go and celebrate what Harold called "a historic day for the game".
In a pub just up the Clapham Road from the ground, we sat outside under a darkening sky among a group of West Indians and Len bought me my first beer. A whole pint of pale ale, in a dimpled glass jug. "If anyone asks, tell 'em it's a shandy." As I fought back the urge to spit my first sip straight back into the glass, Harold handed me a brown paper bag containing a copy of a hardback volume, Great Cricket Matches by Handasyde Buchanan. "Something to remember your first Test match by." I have never forgotten it, and on the train home as I read from my new book ("It's second-hand, but mint condition"), despite the slight nausea brought on by the pale ale, I thought that all in all, Tuesday August 24th, 1971 had been probably the best day of my life.
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