The English team celebrating its 4-0 series victory over India
Starting next month on July 9, India will play five Tests in England this summer. You have to be middle-aged or older to appreciate the significance of that sentence. I began following Test cricket when M.J.K. Smithís MCC side toured India in the winter of 1963-64 and fifty years later, this is the first time England has hosted India for a five Test series.
Smithís side played five Tests against an Indian team led by M.A.K. Pataudi. It was a tedious series between two second-rate teams. The MCC team was second-rate by design: in a cricketing world dominated by England, Australia and the West Indies, India wasnít a favoured destination so Ted Dexter, Englandís captain at the time, skipped the tour as did the teamís fast-bowling spearhead, Fred Trueman.
Ken Barrington played the first Test, John Edrich turned out for the last two and Colin Cowdrey scored a couple of hundreds in between. For India, Budhi Kunderan, standing in for Farokh Engineer, was the batting star. He scored two hundreds, the first of which was 192 in Madras, a score that stood as the top score for a wicket keeper for decades. I can still see the black-and-white photograph in Sports & Pastime: Kunderan stretching forward, bowled eight short of a double century by Fred Titmus, the last first-rate off-spinner England produced before Graeme Swann.
Vijay Manjrekar, M.L. Jaisimha, Bapu Nadkarni and Hanumant Singh (on debut) scored hundreds for us and the skipper managed a double in Delhi after a run of single-digit scores, but neither side had a bowling attack to speak of and there was never any danger of anything as radical as a result. In the second innings of the first Test, as England Ďchasedí in a kind of slow motion a target of 293, Pataudi bowled ten bowlers. Everyone had a go apart from Kunderan behind the wickets. It was that kind of contest.
I didnít care; we didnít lose the series and a drawn series, fifty years ago, was an honourable outcome, specially for an Indian team unused to winning. My main concern was to make sure that I filled up Essoís gleaming, spiral-bound cricket album with photographs of every player in both squads. The way it worked was that everytime you bought petrol from an Esso pump, you got a certain number of photographs so I made sure that my parents never filled up at Burmah Shell for the duration of the series.
That was half a century ago, which is a very ageing thought: youth, gentle reader, used to be the time used up watching Test matches. In that span, India has become better at beating England at home and has even won a couple of series in England, but try as I might, I canít find the materials to write a history of secular improvement against the old enemy.
This is galling in a way that it wouldnít be if I was trying to measure India against a consistently first rate side like, say, Australia, or the West Indies (till its recent terminal decline). India has never won a series against the Australians in Australia and while that hurts, it isnít shaming simply because the Australians have been measurably the better side in all the years weíve played them.
But England? England hasnít produced a single great batsman since Ken Barrington retired in 1968. Geoff Boycott was what Sunil Gavaskar would have been without the genius. Gower was wonderful, but he was never the fulcrum of his side in the way that a Gavaskar or Tendulkar or Dravid were, nor dominant enough to qualify as an immortal. With the exception of John Snow, Derek Underwood, Alan Knott, Tony Greig, Ian Botham, David Gower and Kevin Pietersen, English cricket has, for forty years and more, been staffed by joyless journeymen. This isnít even a controversial assertion: the guardians of English cricket sacked Kevin Pietersen, their most gifted batsmen, because he was, by their own admission, too exciting for their taste.
Frustratingly for India, English teams have always amounted to more than the sum of their parts: the glue of a grey professionalism made them harder to beat than their meagre skills warranted. They had a certain life-denying skill (best illustrated by the decision of Nasser Hussain to make Ashley Giles bowl left arm over the wicket, wide of the leg stump to thwart Tendulkar), a low-grade canniness that compensated for a near-complete absence of flair.
As if this werenít bad enough from an Indian point of view, in recent times, under Andy Flowerís watchful eye, England transcended this dour professionalism and produced a genuinely first-rate team, crammed with gifted players: Cook, Pietersen, Trott, Bell, Anderson, Broad and Swann to name a few. We had barely managed to haul ourselves up to the pinnacle of world cricket by winning the 2011 World Cup and making it to number one in the ICCís Test rankings, when we made the mistake of touring England in the after-glow of that World Cup triumph.
Itís been three years, but it still hurts to look at the scorelines of those Tests. India played four Tests in England that summer, which was an improvement on the three Test series India was generally fobbed off with, but we chose to mark our promotion to the main part of the English season by losing every Test by epic margins. We lost the first by just under two hundred runs, the second by more than three hundred runs and for the last two we upped our losing game and lost by an innings each time. The third, and I can barely bring myself to disinter the result, we lost by an innings and 242 runs.
Unbelievably, worse was to follow. It isnít nice to lose abroad but itís what we do; we donít travel well. Our cricketing psyche is founded on our ability to avenge foreign defeats at home. So when Cook and Co. came to India in 2012, we looked to our spinners and the dustbowls they bowled in for home advantage and a little payback. This time the English beat us at home: 2-1 over another four Test series.
So here I am, fifty years after M.J.K. Smith, about to immerse myself in Indiaís first five Test series in England. It would be nice to think that India has been promoted to a full series because India is a great cricketing power, but it isnít true. The reason we have been give five matches has everything to do with the fact that the BCCI runs world cricket with the English Cricket Board and Cricket Australia as its principal enablers. For most cricket boards an Indian tour is now the difference between bankruptcy and solvency; even for a relatively prosperous board like the ECB, an Indian tour is a great commercial prize.
As a fan, this leaves me in a peculiar place. Given that the BCCI is cricketís 800 lb gorilla, I canít invoke that sense of injury that was such a solace when India was genuinely marginal to concerns of the Anglo-Australian axis that ruled world cricket. Five Tests in the prime part of the English season would have been a prize once; now, given our recent history against England, it seems like just two more Tests to lose.
Iím reduced to hoping that the savaging the English team suffered at the hands of Australia in the last Ashes series has left it demoralized in the long-ish term. Their sacking of Pietersen is another good omen. With Andy Flower gone, thereís hope that the English might revert to type and pick a genuinely hopeless team, full of doughty Yorkshiremen and sturdy county pros. Fifty years after my initiation into Test cricket, Iím gripped by a sudden nostalgia for M.J.K Smith and his Middling Men.