It was September 22, 1986. If Chennai had four seasons, it’d have been a nice pleasant autumn day. But since Chennai has only one season, it was just another hot and humid day. It was the fifth and final day of the first test between India and Australia. The previous day ended with Australia still batting at 170 with the loss of five wickets. With a lead then of 347, one expected the Aussies to continue batting for a session or two to build a lead of over 400 before they contemplated a declaration. So, a dreary draw was the anticipated outcome of the match. A crowd of just 10,000, a modest turnout at Chepauk by any standards, showed up to watch the proceedings.
Things, however, changed as the fifth day’s play began. Allan Border, the Aussie captain, decided to add some spice to the proceedings by pressing an outcome, which in his mind was the only one – a win for Australia. Australia declared their innings at their overnight score of 170 for 5, setting a challenging target of 348 for India to win. The probability of an Indian win at that stage seemed a fantasy. But, when Srikkanth in his usual flamboyant style got off to a quick start and later Sunil Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath put up a solid partnership reaching 150 runs with the loss of just one wicket, hope started swelling. So did the crowds at Chepauk. Elsewhere, Indians started looking for excuses to settle in front of a television set to get a glimpse of the live action.
By the time the last 20 mandatory overs started, India was sailing comfortably with less than a run a ball required and seven wickets in hand. It appeared that the top order came with a resolve to win as desired by the Indian captain, Kapil Dev. With a solid knock of 90 from Gavaskar, a steady 51 from Amarnath and a stylish 42 from Azharuddin, things were going as per plan for India. And then all of a sudden, two quick wickets to the wily off-spinner Greg Matthews put India in a spot of bother. In walked Ravi Shastri, who was in an infallible zone in that period. With a mature head on his young shoulders, he was touted as the next big thing of Indian cricket. He sized up the situation and even as wickets were falling at the other end, kept his cool and batted sensibly as the situation demanded.
Cut to the last over, India needed just 4 runs to win. And Aussies just a wicket. Shastri by now was batting with Maninder Singh, who was the last man in for India. Matthews, who had a golden run in the innings so far, was pressed into action for the final over. With Shastri on strike, India was just one stroke away from an epic win. Shastri defended the first ball and scrambled to take two runs off the second ball. We were now just 2 runs away and Aussies a wicket away without giving a run, for a win.
Now, what Shastri did with the next ball would become a matter of intense debate for days, months and years together. He played a cricketing shot and took off for a single, thereby giving tailender Maninder the strike. That brought the scores at level. One run in the next 3 balls would have given India a historic win. A wicket off the next 3 balls would tie the match. And that’s what happened. Maninder successfully defended the fourth ball but in the next ball, got wrapped on his pads and umpire Vikram Raju lifted the dreaded finger to give him out. Even as Maninder stood his ground trying to indicate that it was bat and pad, it was all over. History was made as the match ended in a tie, only for the second time in cricketing test annals.
After the match, I remember the heated discussions in homes, offices, colleges, local trains, in the media and so on. The crux being: ‘Did Ravi Shastri do the right thing by taking that single? Instead, should he not have kept the strike and gone for the winning two runs?’ Shastri himself defended his move vehemently saying that by taking that single, he ensured India “did not lose”.
For the Aussies, the result came as a huge relief. After declaring with an intention to win, had they lost the match they’d have been roasted back home. A tie was an acceptable middle path. For the Indians, though the tie result was not a defeat in the technical sense, it was an opportunity to win that was lost. This tied test match, which we could have won, remained a demon that was not exorcised. Well, till last week.
Indians like me who belong to the Doordarshan generation have been used to attaching priority to ‘Not losing’ instead of ‘Winning’. And that is not without reason. Who can forget the agony we went through when we lost to West Indies by 38 runs chasing a paltry score of 120 at the Bridgetown Test in March 1997? Or for that matter, the collective depression the country went through after the narrow 16-run defeat to Pakistan at Chepauk in January 1999.
Even on the last day of the Gabba test, the resounding sentiment among a majority of Indians was, I guess, even if we draw the match we’ll still be able to retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy. So, it was such a revelation to see the current generation of cricketers like Rishabh Pant, Shubman Gill and Washington Sundar not being satisfied with a ‘Draw’ result and going for a win. And what a win it turned out to be.
And the win at Gabba came close on the heels of a well-fought draw in the previous test at Sydney, which in itself was not expected. For Ravi Shastri, who happens to be the coach for the Indian team, the win at Brisbane must have brought closure to the Chepauk test tie. By egging the team to be fearless and go for the win instead of settling for a draw and finally achieving the same in a test after being down and out, Shastri has managed to have the last laugh.
Much has been talked and written about the historic Indian win at the Gabba. Suffice it to say that this one win has managed to exorcise the demons of that ‘Tied Test Match’ of 1986 against the Aussies. Wait a minute. In one stroke, the Gabba win has managed to exorcise wholesale all those demons of the narrow misses of the Indian team thus far in test cricket. Period.
Anand Kumar RS is a management professional by week and avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business, and films.