A magician with the ball

S. DINAKAR

THE unpredictable Bhagwat Chandrasekhar was a predictable match-winner! Oh, these spin predators, they are a special breed.

Bhagwat Chandrasekhar with his wife at the awards function.-N. SRIDHARAN

Chandrasekhar was indeed a rare bird of prey. Swooping down on his hapless victims with vicious leg-breaks, venomous googlies, not to speak of the stinging flippers or the deadly top-spinners.

Never mind the full tosses or the long hops in between. When he got it right, the batsmen usually got it wrong!

At the Oval on August 23, 1971, the Karnataka leg-spinner was in a mean mood...and that meant England was in big trouble!

The Ajit Wadekar-led Indian side had shocked Gary Sobers' West Indies only months earlier in the Caribbean. England, captained by the wily Raymond Illingworth and unbeaten in 24 successive Tests, presented a formidable hurdle though.

Interestingly, Chandrasekhar had missed out on the Caribbean sunshine and the three-Test series in England was a comeback road to Test match glory for this genial champion.

The first two Tests, at Lord's and Old Trafford, had been drawn with the Chandra 'magic' failing to happen. The cricket caravan journeyed to Kennington Oval for the final Test, and the onus was on the leggie to provide the thrust.

However, Illingworth's men grabbed a 71-run lead in the first essay, and as England began its second innings, the prospect of an Indian victory was as bleak as the damp weather. But then, Chandra could strike anywhere, anytime.

In a wicked piece of bowling on day four, Chandrasekar - 18.1-3-38-6 - destroyed England, turned the match on its head and set up a series win. He consumed Luckhurst, Edrich, Fletcher in the top and middle-order and then made short work of the tail. England, that had made 355 in the first essay, was shot out for 101 in the second.

There was wonderful support for Chandra from the close-in fielders as well, with Eknath Solkar, Abid Ali, Srinivas Venkataraghavan and skipper Ajit Wadekar breathing down the batsmen's neck, waiting to snaffle half-chances.

And, of course, Bishan Bedi and Venkataraghavan, the other two elements of a high quality spin trio, played their parts, the latter, in particular, providing splendid support to Chandra in the second innings. The host was done in by the 'Indian rope trick'!

India, despite a few hiccups, knocked off the 173 runs required for the series victory on the final day, with four wickets to spare, and England had been conquered...on its own soil. A significant 'breakthrough' for Indian cricket.

The fact that Chandra's was a series-winning display away from home, in conditions not exactly conducive to spin bowling, and against a tough to beat English side, probably prompted Wisden to choose his six for 38 as the 'Best bowling performance of the century by an Indian.'