Down memory lane: Reliving India's first-ever Test win with C.D. Gopinath

"I got the ball signed by my teammates...but it has been almost 70 years since, you know...the signatures have all worn off,” Gopinath says as a smile lights up his face. February 10 is the 69th anniversary of India's first-ever Test win.

C.D. Gopinath is the only surviving member of the Indian team that beat England in 1952 for its first-ever Test win.   -  K. PICHUMANI

It's a warm February morning in Chennai. Coimbatarao Gopinath is sitting in a small garden in his daughter’s house in Adyar where he is engaged in a conversation about India’s first-ever Test win. It is a history lesson that recounts in vivid detail the great deeds by a team that, on February 10, 1952, upended the opposition after 24 matches and 20 years of trying.

A coffee table has been laid for us. Sunlight reflects off Gopinath’s face as he keeps saying how it is bright enough outside. The only person not bothered by the glare and the awkward humidity is the 90-year-old himself, who is sitting on one side of the table, in trousers and shirt and with his spectacles on.

“A few years ago, somebody from England rang me up. They wanted to bring a production crew here [to Chennai] to make a documentary on that [1952 Test match [in Madras],” says Gopinath.

WATCH: CD Gopinath, the only surviving member of India's first-ever Test win in 1952  against England in Chennai, relives the historic moment.


“So, I said, ‘Surely you are not going to come to India to work on just one Test match! What’s the scope of the documentary?’ The person said, ‘We regard the 1952 win as a turning point in Indian cricket.’ I asked them who are the others you are going to interview... He said, ‘There is nobody else left from that team. You are the only one. I said that’s great because in that case, I can say anything I want and there will be no contradictions!” Gopinath says, laughing.

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Gopinath started playing cricket once he turned 17. “No one believes me when I tell them that I started that late.” He had played hockey, football and tennis before, but never cricket. As a boarding student at Madras Christian College in Tambaram, Gopinath took up a BSc course in physics. One of the most important things he remembers about his time in college is “how all the college team cricketers including the captain were in my hall... One day, the captain asked me to come to the nets and handed me the keeping gloves. That’s how it all started. So, I didn’t get picked because I was good enough, but because nobody else could keep wickets! Then, it so happened that our opener was getting out for single-digit scores, so one day my captain asked me to open the innings. I was terrified at first! But they insisted, so I went and ended up making 70 runs (laughs)! That was my foray into competitive cricket.”

An electric scoreboard donated by Sport And Pastime helped the spectators a great deal at the Chepauk cricket Ground where the final Test between England and India on February 06, 1952.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT


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Life as an international cricketer taught Gopinath a few things that were to help him tune out the clamour as his career progressed. The first was that he would never be the sort of person who would be affected by the parochial mentality that seemed to have permeated all walks of life including cricket. “If you look at it honestly, in those days, we had great cricketers. But frankly, what I gathered was we never played as a team,” he says in almost a vain, nostalgic voice. “Before the British came in, our country comprised several small pockets. For instance, what is common between a person from Punjab and a person from Kerala? Nothing. They don’t wear the same kind of dress, don’t eat the same food, don’t speak the same language...don’t even think on similar lines. We could never imagine ‘this is our country.’ The mindset, of course, changed as the years went by... But right after our independence, we were vulnerable to regional or parochial views... I was called a Madrasi, which is borderline saying why are you playing cricket... We didn’t get together as a team or as a country. What I love to see now is we play as one nation. In many areas, we continue to be divided, but sports seems to have brought us together. I could not imagine a player like M. S. Dhoni captaining the team in the 1950s or 1960s.”

C.D. Gopinath celebrating the 69th anniversary of India's first-ever Test win by cutting a cake at his residence in Chennai.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT/Col. Vembu Shankar


From time to time though, Gopinath still thinks about that Test. Usually, what comes to mind during those moments is his performance with the bat and the winning catch. India batted first and made 457/9 declared. Gopinath was No. 8 and by the time he went in to bat, India had already amassed 320. “The captain (Vijay Hazare) very clearly told me that, ‘I am planning to declare soon. Go there and score as fast as you can.’ Polly Umrigar was at the crease. When I got out, I had made only 35 runs. It contained seven fours, and I was delighted because my favourite shots were the cover drive and square cut, and every time I hit a four playing those strokes, my home crowd erupted. Umrigar and I had a partnership of 93... In forcing the pace, I got out. But I was okay with it because I was following my captain’s instructions.

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“By then, Umrigar had moved to his seventies, so the captain couldn’t declare because he was waiting for him to get to his 100. Umrigar’s innings just went on and on, and I said to myself: “Why did I play like that!” (Laughs.) I could’ve taken my time like Umrigar, made a few more runs had I known that declaration was not around the corner. So, I was disappointed. That said, it didn’t matter in the end because we won the match and that’s what we all cherish now.”

Gopinath marvels at the ways teams celebrate wins today. When he sees players fall head over heels in jubilation, his mouth hits the floor. Gopinath and his team-mates were taught to not be too demonstrative, “never show our inner feelings to the rest of the world,” he says. “We won the match, went back to the dressing room, and everybody said, ‘Well done,’ and we all went back home! In those days, teams did not stay together. Each one was put up at somebody’s home; this applied to both India and the English players. We only met an hour and a half before the game at the ground. So, there was no question of strategy or celebration. I’ve been asked what our strategy was to beat England. I said, ‘We had no such thing [strategy].’ There were no coaches for batting, fielding or bowling. The captain decided everything.”

Fifteen minutes before the tea interval on the fourth day, Gopinath, the youngest member of the Indian team, took a catch offered by Brian Statham, one of England’s last pair of batsmen. Gopinath got to keep the ball as a souvenir. It finds a place at his home in Coonoor. “On the last day, I took the winning catch just in front of the MCC pavilion [of the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium]. Looking back, the first Test victory and to be part of that, no matter what role you played, was the highlight of my career. I got the ball signed by my teammates...but it has been almost 70 years since, you know...the signatures have all worn off,” he says as a smile lights up his face.

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Having spent time discussing the final day’s proceedings in Chepauk, Gopinath’s mind went back to his playing days as he reflected on what it meant to be on the other side of India’s approved history at the time. “Back then, we could only think in terms of our state. Tamil Nadu wanted Tamilians and Maharashtra Maharashtrians. Maharashtra was the dominant state at the time, so if they could pick the India XI from there, they would’ve done so.”

C.D. Gopinath's souvenir match ball from the 1952 Test win finds a place at his Coonoor residence.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT


The disappointment in his voice was palpable. One recognised what was behind it as he continued talking. “But now, every nook and corner of the country, irrespective of which strata of society they came from, produces cricketers. In Brisbane, a boy from a little village in Tamil Nadu, a chap from Hyderabad...all came together... I am so glad about it. See, in the past, we had lovely cricketers. We were naturally quick on our feet, unlike the English players. We had enough grey matter to cope with difficult situations, but we never played as a unit. When I went to England in 1952, I was the only chap who did not speak Hindi. It was a big handicap because we spent six months there and I was told in no uncertain terms, “You better learn Hindi!” I refused at that time... Now I laugh about it because 60-70 years later, we are still fighting similar political battles. We were different people picked up to go as a team. We weren’t a ‘team.’ Particularly, South India was in a bad position...”

Gopinath recalled how his run-scoring abilities against Commonwealth teams in those days not only helped him get noticed but also made everyone more open to the idea that a player may not hail from the dominant states but could still play for the country. “The first time I got picked was for an unofficial Test against the Commonwealth team in Kanpur. I was nowhere in the picture at the time. But I had been selected for the all-India combined universities team to play against the Commonwealth team in Kolkata. I made 93 there.

Divecha, Mushtaq Ali, C.D. Gopinath and Phadkar having catch practice during the fifth Test match between India and England in Madras played from February 06 to 10, 1952.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES


“Then they came to Madras to play against the governor’s XI... I made 85 runs but wasn’t in the Test reckoning. But a lot of scribes would travel with the English team... Even George Duckworth, the manager of the Commonwealth team, used to write a weekly column for Sport & Pastime. He wrote, after watching me in Kolkata and Madras, that I was the ‘best exponent of square cut in India.’ I remember one English journalist said, ‘We understand so long as he is in Madras, he has no chance of getting picked for India. We suggest he moves to Bombay to get picked!’ So, you can imagine just how parochial the perception was. Some friends of mine said, ‘Why don’t you move to Mumbai?’”

This was a radical idea in those days and Gopinath refused to move. He wanted to not only broaden the outlook of his countrymen but also change the fate of a culture that had to either adapt or be left behind. By beating England in Chennai – then Madras – Gopinath says the team had finally become more visionary than didactic. “In those days, we didn’t have great expectations going into a Test match. We would often say that a draw was a great result for us. So, we were undoubtedly the underdogs. We didn’t have the courage and confidence to say, ‘We would beat these people,’ particularly England because they had been playing the game for close to 100 years. We had learnt the sport from them...

“In 1952, when we won that Test match in Madras, it was a great surprise even to us. Hence, the victory was so much more exciting and sweet. Probably for the first time we believed that we could beat a side that’s stronger than us. It ushered in a new way of thinking.”

It has been a long day and a longer discussion. But Gopinath is a picture of serenity, as if that Test win 69 years ago were still alive, but deep within his bones and muscles. Perhaps as a defence against the smothering effects of modern-day cricket, the private person inside Gopinath preserves that win by telling stories. Stories that will be passed along. Stories of a win that has embraced its quiet, self-effacing role and continues to live on.

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