How a horse and an elephant helped India to first Test win in England in 1971

Published September 2, 2021
Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (far L), pictured with fellow India spin greats Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan in this file photo. — AFP
Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (far L), pictured with fellow India spin greats Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan in this file photo. — AFP

When England and India met at the Oval for the fourth Test on Thursday, it was just over 50 years since India's triumph at the south London ground saw them to a first match and series win on English soil.

The story of how India fans borrowed Bella the elephant from Chessington Zoo and brought her to the Oval mid-match — something the 1971 team saw as a lucky omen as it coincided with the festival of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god — has gone down in cricket history.

But an animal of a different kind may have had a bigger influence on the game, according to India leg-spinner Bhagwat Chandrasekhar.

With a bowling arm withered by childhood polio, Chandra was a unique proposition and his superb 6-38 in the second innings left India with a target of 173, which they chased down with four wickets to spare.

“I was walking back to my run-up and Dilip Sardesai shouted 'Hey Chandra, bowl him 'Mill Reef',” said Chandrasekhar in a video message to an audience at London's Taj St James Court Hotel celebrating the 'Golden Jubilee' on Wednesday.

“There was a horse called Mill Reef in England, which was winning all the big races (including the 1971 Epsom Derby) and it had tremendous speed,” added Chandra, whose quicker ball deceived many a batsman in a career that yielded 242 wickets in 58 Tests.

“I had the idea of bowling my googly to John Edrich but then I thought 'Dilip Sardesai is a good student of the game'.”

'Freak bowler'

Chandrasekhar bowled Edrich, one of the mainstays of England's top order, for a duck.

“Before he could lift the bat, the ball hit the stumps,” added the 76-year-old, as he joyfully recalled Edrich's exit.

Farokh Engineer, India's wicketkeeper in 1971, was in no doubt of Chandrasekhar's quality.

“Chandra, with due respect I think he is the greatest spin bowler India has produced,” said Engineer, who also kept superbly to such outstanding spinners as Erapalli Prasanna, Bishan Bedi and Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan.

“But half the time, he didn't know which way the ball was going,” added Engineer, speaking in London with Indian cricket journalist Ashis Ray.

“He was a freak bowler. He was a polio victim, and hats off to him, he made his defect into a great asset.”

Engineer, 28 not out when Abid Ali hit the winning runs, had little time to enjoy the victory as the next day he was playing for English county Lancashire in Manchester.

“The motorways weren't as good in those days, I got home at about four o'clock in the morning (0300 GMT) and at 10:30am, I am striding out to open the innings with David Lloyd,” the now 83-year-old Engineer recalled.

“To my surprise, I got a standing ovation from the predominately English crowd.

“I thought 'this is real sportsmanship — I've just shafted their country the day before and hear they are giving me a standing ovation. I had a tear in my eye.”

England's John Jameson who made a fine 82 in the first innings, told the London audience of an event supported by the ICICI Bank, East African Foods and West Midlands India Partnership: “I am the only one here who has got a foot in both camps.

“I'm a Bombay-wala — I was born in Byculla,” added Jameson, who revealed he had rejected an approach to play for India as “my home was in England”.

Shastri 'inspired'

For India head coach Ravi Shastri, who later became a successful Test match all-rounder, the game was a key moment in his life.

“I was nine years old, listening to it on Test Match Special from the BBC on 9.74 metres wavelength on the 31 metre band,” Shastri said.

“I listened to every ball in that game [...] and of course Farokh, he is from my school, my college, we go a long way back.

“For a nine-year-old, it inspired me no end. One day when you play cricket you want to win a series in England. It happened for me as a player (1986) and as a coach (in 2007).”

And, with the current five-match series all square at 1-1, it could still happen again.

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