england india ahmedabad, england india first test, alastair cook, david gower
England players stand in a huddle before the start of a training session at The Sardar Patel Stadium at Motera. -Photo by AFP

LONDON: Margaret Thatcher was still Britain's Prime Minister and Alastair Cook barely a month old when England last won a Test series in India.

Such is the size of the challenge confronting Cook, who in Ahmedabad on Thursday will begin his quest to become the first England skipper to oversee a Test series win in India since fellow left-handed batsman David Gower led the team to a 2-1 triumph back in the 1984/85 season.

England have won just one of their last 12 Tests in India, where they've often struggled on the spin-friendly pitches.

But what was going on the field turned out to be the least of the difficulties confronting Gower's squad in India.

Just hours after their arrival, the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated. England then sought temporary refuge in Sri Lanka.

But a fortnight after Gandhi's death, British Deputy High Commissioner Percy Norris, was shot dead on his way to work not long after hosting the squad at an Embassy function ahead of the first Test in Bombay (now Mumbai).

England lost that match by eight wickets yet, just over a week later, they levelled the series with victory by the same margin in Delhi.

A month later in Madras (now Chennai), Graeme Fowler (201) and Mike Gatting (207) became the only England batsmen to make double centuries in the same Test innings. Seamer Neil Foster, in arguably the best display of an injury-marred career, took 11 wickets in a nine-wicket win.

Yet off-field events almost saw the tour abandoned.

“We hadn't got down for breakfast on the first morning when we heard about the Prime Minister,” recalled Fowler in an interview this month with Britain's Independent newspaper.

When the squad returned to India, Fowler found himself chatting to Norris just hours before the diplomat's death.

“I remember talking to him for ages about Accrington Stanley (Fowler's home town football club) of all things,” said the Lancashire left-hander, whose entire 21-Test career coincided with three-year bans imposed on the England 'rebels' who toured South Africa in 1982 and who never played Test cricket again after his triumphs in India.

“And the following morning he was killed. We played the Test but there was a kind of feeling around about whether we should be doing it. But it was just some muttering, we never sat down and analysed it.

“Thank god for our captain, David Gower, who had been to India before and handled all situations brilliantly.”

Both Fowler and Foster have urged England to adopt a positive attitude to the experience of touring India, where the passion for cricket is unsurpassed.

“India was a fascinating country to tour,” Foster told the BBC.

“It was certainly the best tour I went on from an individual point of view. If you get the mentality that it will be a tough tour, then you will struggle.”

The former Essex paceman added: “Conditions vary depending on what part of the country you are in -- it could be really hot and humid down south but quite fresh in the mornings up north.

“If it doesn't spin much, you have to be prepared to bowl your overs as a pace bowler.

“You could be looking at two days in the field so fitness is very much an issue. And you've got to be prepared to pitch it up.”

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