The sub-continental batsmen had to cope with swing, seam or bounce. The bowlers, spinners in particular, were often up against it in cold, blustery weather. Adapting to the conditions meant making big mental adjustments and subtle technical changes.
Winning Tests away from home represented the biggest challenge for India. More so in the initial and middle phase of its Test journey where exposure to foreign conditions was limited and the attack was heavily reliant on spin.
As India stands on the brink of its momentous 500th Test, it’s worth remembering the first occasion the side registered victories against some worthy opponents on their home soil. For, making history is never easy.
The attack-minded Tiger Pataudi, captain extraordinaire, did just that when he led his men to a five-wicket win over Graham Dowling’s New Zealand at Dunedin in 1968. It was a breakthrough moment for Indian cricket.
Erapalli Prasanna, that off-spinner with an incisive mind and a bag of tricks, turned the Test India’s way with his six for 94 in the Kiwi second innings. And India reached the target of 200 with stylish southpaw Ajit Wadekar contributing a priceless 71, that followed an innings of 80 in the first.
When India travelled to the West Indies in 1971, the quietly efficient Wadekar was the captain. The side faced a mighty home side that included the immortal Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Roy Fredericks and Clive Lloyd.
India’s spin greats Prasanna and Bishan Bedi, famous for flight, dip and turn, grabbed seven wickets between them in the West Indian first innings of the second Test at Port of Spain. Then, Dilip Sardesai’s fighting 112 was chiefly instrumental in India gaining a lead of 138.
Off-spinner S. Venkataraghavan bowled with exemplary control to grab five wickets when West Indies batted again. Salim Durani, that gifted but moody left-arm spinning all-rounder, prised out Sobers and Lloyd early with deliveries of deception. India chased down 124 losing just three wickets, with an emerging Sunil Gavaskar unbeaten on 67. India had achieved the impossible.
From the sunny Caribbean, Wadekar’s men moved to cold and wet England in the same year. Again history beckoned. India’s moment of glory arrived in the decider at The Oval. Adrift by 71 in the first innings, things were not looking good for the visitor.
Then Chandrasekhar, the unpredictable leg-spinner but a predictable match-winner, bowled his leg-spinners, googlies and top-spinners like the genius he was. England was shot out for 101 and Chandra, brilliantly supported by an expert close cordon that included the mercurial Eknath Solkar, finished with six for 38. India clinched the pursuit by four wickets.
Chandra was the toast again as India outplayed an Australian side without the Kerry Packer boys by 222 runs in the third Test in Melbourne for its first Test conquest down under, in 1977. Gavaskar made a fine 118 in the second innings, but then, it was Chandra’s identical six for 52 in either innings settled the issue.
It was a different era in 2004 when India overcame a huge psychological barrier — defeating Pakistan in Pakistan. The intrepid Virender Sehwag of astonishing bat speed and timing, set up the win with a brutal 309; the first triple hundred by an Indian in Tests.
In Inzamam-ul-Haq’s territory, Sehwag was ‘Sultan of Multan’. Sachin Tendulkar’s patient, unbeaten 194 proved invaluable too.
Then, the formidable Anil Kumble’s six-for of precision, turn and bounce nailed the game for India by a massive innings and 52 runs.
A Test win over South Africa in South Africa was always a daunting task. This was a side of well-organised batsmen, punishing all-rounders and fiery pacemen.
But when Rahul Dravid’s India took on South Africa at Wanderers in 2006, it was pace that won India the Test.
S. Sreesanth’s five for 40, of rhythm, exemplary wrist position, speed and picture-perfect outswing, meant a shell-shocked South Africa was bundled out for 84 in its first innings.
India, eventually, was home by 123 runs.
India now had the belief in all conditions. How things had changed!