England's 1984-85 tour of India was never going to be easy. Thrashed 5-0 at home by the West Indies in the summer of 84, and unable to defeat the Sri Lankans in a supposedly easy one-off test at Lord's, confidence was understandably low as the plane departed for Asia. A plane that did not contain Ian Botham (opted out) and Graham Gooch and John Emburey (South African rebel tour bans). Without these key players, and with a struggling skipper at the helm - David Gower had a W0 D3 L6 record as captain - expectations were unsurprisingly low for England's hopes in the subcontinent.
Gower did make a key decision before the tour though; giving Mike Gatting the vice-captaincy. Gatting had never truly established himself in the test side, his average at the time of 23.83 in his 30 tests and no test centuries to boot, was hardly inspiring, and in his last England outing he had feebly padded-up twice at Lord's to Malcolm Marshall. It turned out to be a wise move by Gower though, providing Gatting with security in the side that would pay dividends in a big way during a purple patch in his career that would bring him an average of 72.37 in his next 13 tests, before he took over the captaincy from Gower himself in 1986.
Botham's spot in the line-up had been earmarked for Kent all-rounder Chris Cowdrey. After a productive county summer of 951 runs for Kent, Gower had backed the case for his close friend in the selection meeting, though as many found out in subsequent years, Ian Terrence Botham was a hard act to follow. The batting line-up had some question marks hanging over it: opener Graeme Fowler was averaging a touch under 30 in his 16 tests, although encouragingly he had played well in Pakistan earlier in the year; Tim Robinson, like Cowdrey, would be making his test debut; Allan Lamb had enjoyed a successful home series against the West Indians, but had scored just 78 runs in five innings on his previous subcontinental tour to Pakistan. The bowling would be heavily reliant on the experienced spinners Pat Pocock and Phil Edmonds. As far as the opening test was concerned, England's pace selections were Norman Cowans, who had struggled to live up to his early promise, and Richard Ellison, playing in only his third test.
If England were a side on the decline - 12 tests without a win since August 1983 - then India were not exactly flourishing either. In fact, the last time they had experienced the joy of winning a test match was way back in November 1981, against England in Mumbai, a run of 31 tests without a win. They still had their superstars however; captain Sunil Gavaskar was the leading run scorer in test cricket with a whopping average of 52.23; Kapil Dev was averaging slightly more with the bat (29.47) than the ball (28.10), a key indicator of a class all-rounder in any era; Mohinder Amarnath and Dilip Vengsarkar provided the batting with experience and runs aplenty. The bowling looked a little weaker on paper. Medium pacer Chetan Sharma had only two test caps, leg-spinner Laxman Sivaramakrishnan only one. Off-spinner Shivlal Yadav was averaging 38.70 with the ball and had one five-wicket haul to his name in his 19 tests prior to the England tour.
No sooner had England landed in India then the whole tour was cast into doubt due to political and religious upheaval in the country on an unimaginable scale. On October 31, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her own Sikh bodyguards and within hours the country was thrown into turmoil. Hindus throughout India sought revenge on Sikhs, who were blamed fully for the assassination, leading to thousands of deaths in anti-Sikh riots in the days following Gandhi's death. England's tour was inevitably cast into doubt. On November 2, the Daily Express reported that the tour was close to collapse, as all matches scheduled during the 12-day mourning period were obviously postponed. The secretary of the Test and County Cricket Board, Donald Carr, and tour manager Tony Brown got to work, in an attempt to save the tour, get England some practice matches, and appease the players, who were naturally anxious about their own safety. After a tense 48 hours, the tour was given the green light to recommence after the period of mourning, on November 12. The itinerary was adjusted, so that the first test would be pushed back two days, allowing England to get three practice matches in before facing India. It was far from ideal, but at least the tour could soon begin in earnest. Sri Lanka came to the rescue in the meantime, allowing England to play two matches in Colombo (although the second was rain affected) during the unrest.
When the cricket did get underway in India, England's opening match provided vital batting practice against an Indian Board Presidents XI. Fowler (28), Robinson (81), Gower (82), Gatting (36), Vic Marks (66) and Ellison (83 not out) all spent a useful period of time in the middle during England's 444/8 declared, and although the game petered out to a draw, at least the players were out on the field after a period of disruption. The second match however was a wake-up call; an Indian Under-25s team easily beat the tourists by an innings and 59 runs. England's 216 all out was bad enough first time round, but when the Indians replied with 392/6 declared (a certain Mohammed Azharuddin scoring 151), the second innings collapse to 117 all out was shocking. Worryingly Sivaramakrishnan took 4/27 running through England's middle order in the process. The seeds of doubt before the first test had been sewn.
The final warm-up match allowed England's batsmen to recover some confidence, their 458/3 declared against the West Zone included centuries for Fowler, Robinson and Gatting. On a belter of a pitch, West Zone replied with 393/7, Vengsarkar scoring 200 not out, although Edmonds 4/99 provided England with some encouragement ahead of the test series. None of this impressed Amber Roy very much though. India's Calcutta based selector, slated England stating: "It's difficult to recall a weaker England side coming to India. I appreciate their problems now that they've lost that great pair of bowlers Bob Willis and Ian Botham. But I can't see them getting India out twice in a Test match." Harsh, but if we're being totally honest, not a million miles from the truth at the time.
On the eve of the first test there was yet more upheaval. Perry Norris, the British Deputy High Commissioner was shot dead, only half a mile away from the Wankhede Stadium, Bombay (the location of the first test) and just hours after entertaining the England team. The players were understandably rocked by this latest development, and many were reluctant to play the following day. Brown clicked into gear again though, and after liaising with both the TCCB and Foreign Office, it was agreed that the first test would be played as scheduled. England's preparation for the opening test were chaotic to say the least, and soon things were about to get a lot harder, this time on the pitch though.
Gower won what looked like an important toss, choosing to bat, and thus hopefully ensuring that England did not have to bat last on the wicket. Fowler and Robinson started confidently, taking the score up to 46 before Sivaramakrishnan arrived. A loose shot off a full toss by Fowler led to the young leg-spinner claiming a caught and bowled chance, and Robinson soon followed, given out caught behind sweeping, although Robinson made his feelings clear that he felt he hadn't touched it. Gatting and Gower attempted a slow recovery, before Gatting was again caught and bowled by Sivaramakrishnan, and when Gower dragged a pull shot on to his stumps from Kapil Dev, England were teetering at 78/4. Before you could say "here we go again," England had slumped to 114/7, as Dev's claimed his 250th test wicket (Lamb for 9), Sivaramakrishnan bowled Ellison (1), and Cowdrey (13) gave Yadav his first wicket in the game. Fortunately, the Middlesex pair of Downton and Edmonds staged a spirited comeback towards the end of day one, putting on a stand of 61 before Shastri dismissed Edmonds for 48 priceless runs. England closed day one on 190/8, and in a poor position having won the toss. The press however were very understanding about the turbulent nature of the tour so far, citing the Norris incident as one of the many reasons for a poor opening day. England team manager Brown distanced himself from such excuses: "I am sure one or two England batsmen would admit to getting out because of poor technique. They would not link their downfall with yesterday's sad events." England would need as many runs as the tail could muster on day two. Unfortunately Sivaramakrishnan had other ideas.
Only five runs were added to England's overnight score, as Sivaramakrishnan claimed both Pocock (8) and Cowans (0) immediately, leaving Downton stranded on 37. Sivaramakrishnan's 6/64 had gutted the England batting, and there was more of that to come second time up. India's reply, like England's, started steadily, albeit at a rapid pace (33 runs from 4 overs; 50 from 10; 100 off 19). Gavaskar and Gaekwad put on 47, before history in the match repeated itself, as both fell in quick succession. Cowans had Gavaskar caught behind (27), and Ellison ran out a dawdling Gaekwad (24), leaving the Indians on 59/2. Vengsarkar and Amarnath continued the Indian bludgeoning, before Cowans claimed his second wicket, Vengsarkar's 34 coming from just 27 balls. Amarnath and Sandeep Patil took the score up to 156, but when both batsmen were dismissed by Pocock and Edmonds respectively, at 156/5 England had a sniff. All five of India's top five had scored 20+ runs, though crucially none had gone on to make a telling score. Shastri and Kirmani certainly made up for this.
At the close of day two India were 268/6, Dev counterattacking with 42 from 57 balls, until Cowdrey's fourth delivery gave the Kent man his first test wicket. "England clinging on" was the apt Daily Express headline, and as day three got under way (after a rest day on the Friday), England knew quick wickets were the order of the day. Alas it transpired that day three would be one of frustration and leather chasing, as Shastri (142) and wicketkeeper Kirmani (102) both reached their highest test scores, putting on a match winning partnership of 235. To put the achievement into context, it was at the time the highest Indian 7th wicket partnership in test cricket (since surpassed by the 259* of Laxman and Dhoni against South Africa in 2010), to this day it remains the 6th best stand for the 7th wicket in test history, and in that match alone, the pair scored 40 more than England could muster between them first time round. Any lingering hope that England had was quashed by the partnership, leaving a tough and almost impossible battle to try an scrape a draw in the remaining two and a bit days.
After both batsmen were eventually shifted, India declared quickly on 465/8 - a lead of 270 - and soon England were on the back foot once more, as Dev trapped Robinson cheaply, leaving England 3/1. Fowler and Gatting made it to the close of play, their 50 partnership putting England on 57/1, still 213 in arrears. Realistically England needed a couple of batsmen to register big hundreds to stand any chance. It wasn't to be, but at least one man got a rather annoying monkey off his back on day four.
Finally, after 54 innings, Mike Gatting scored his first test century. Gatting admitted to feeling emotional as he reached his milestone: "I think there was a small tear there when I saw the three figures go up on the scoreboard," with Chairman of Selectors Peter May adding: "Let's hope it's the first of many." The Gatting moment proved to be a silver lining on a grey day for England; at close of play they were 228/7, needing a further 42 runs to make India bat again. It had started so well. Fowler and Gatting took their stand up to 135, before that man Sivaramakrishnan had Fowler adjudged lbw for 55, the first of a few dodgy umpiring decisions that went against England. Chris Lander, writing in the Daily Mirror, pointed this out in his summary of the day: "This hopeless position was forced upon them (England) by the wiles of India's teenage leg spinner Sivarama, and not lest by some downright weird umpiring." Be this as it may, Fowler and Gatting apart, England's top six again failed to fire.
England could manufacture some cracking batting collapses in the 80s, and soon 138/1 became 152/4, Gower and Lamb both failing again, but to somewhat dubious decisions this time round. Cowdrey stuck around for over an hour, but again fell to Yadav, and when Gatting's five hour knock of 136 was halted by Sivaramakrishnan, the jig was almost up. Richard Ellison neatly summed up England's struggles against India's spin attack, his 52-ball duck taking 50 painful minutes. England now needed a Headingley '81 style miracle. Just making India bat again was going to be hard enough.
After Sivaramakrishnan quickly dismissed Edmonds, England did at least make a fight of things on the final day. Downton and Pocock put on 62 for the 9th wicket, before Sivaramakrishnan struck again, Downton lbw for his highest test score of 62. Cowans came and went for a golden duck, leaving Pocock on an unbeaten 22, quite an achievement seeing as his batting average before the match was a paltry 5.56. Sivaramakrishnan had again taken six wickets in the England innings, his 6/117 giving him match figures of 12/181. England not being able to play spin; some things never change.
India did lose two wickets before reaching their small target of 48. Unusually Gower opened the bowling with Edmonds, and he soon had Gaekwad stumped for just a single. Then Gower brilliantly caught Gavaskar off of Cowans as India slumped to 7/2, but Vengsarkar and Amarnath saw India home for a comfortable eight-wicket victory. It looked like being a long hard winter ahead for the visitors, one in which their batsmen would have to contend with the trickery of Sivaramakrishnan, and the vagaries of India's umpires (to his credit Gavaskar after the match was quoted as saying: "I believe the Test captains must take the initiative and press cricket's governing bodies to at least try a system of neutral umpires."). Sport has never been predictable thankfully.
To the general astonishment of everyone, England picked the same starting XI for the second test and only went and won it, coincidentally by eight-wickets. From the third test onwards, Sivaramakrishnan was a completely changed man, taking only four more wickets at a shocking average of 100.50, allowing England to come from 1-0 down to win the series 2-1. But these are tales for another day. So as England prepare for the first test starting in Ahmedabad on Thursday, it is worth pointing out that even if England do slump to an innings and 212-run defeat, that not all will is lost. If this is the case, you'll probably get some strange looks if you declare England will come back to win the series 2-1, but you would have been declared mad too in 1984. And look how that turned out.