Many years I was asked at a quiz: What is the name of the elephant who came to the Oval as India were winning a Test and series in England for the first time? This was not an animal who wandered into a cricket ground to see how his countrymen were doing, but one that had been borrowed from the nearby Chessington Zoo by Indian fans celebrating the Ganesha festival. “Bella,” I said, and earned points for my team.
Fifty years ago — for that is when this happened — you could bring an elephant into a ground where an international match was taking place. Bella, who had been originally bought from a pet store in Birmingham, died in 1990, but did not rate a mention in the obituary section of Wisden, unlike Peter the cat at Lord’s (“whose ninth life ended in November 1964…”). But she will be remembered as the most unexpected spectator at India’s triumph. And somehow will be connected to the event through history.
The late Ajit Wadekar, India’s captain then, has spoken about how manager Hemu Adhikari saw the appearance of the elephant as a good omen on an auspicious day. Wadekar was fond of recalling how he went out to bat on his overnight score of 45 and was run out first ball. So much for luck and omens. But he did believe that Lord Ganesha had appeared that morning.
“It is no secret,” wrote Wadekar in his autobiography, “that I was fast asleep during India’s finest hour… it was Ken Barrington who was the first to congratulate me (‘It’s all over. The match is yours.’). There could not have been a better bearer of good news than the bluff and hearty former England batsman.”
The Observer reports…
The Observer wrote of the moment when Abid Ali cut Brian Luckhurst for the match-winning boundary thus: “Every Indian tourist, businessman, waiter and schoolboy in London seemed to be at the Oval. What follows is like one of Eisenstein’s crowd scenes. While the ball is still 50 yards from the boundary, massed Indians leap the barrier and charge. The England team sprint for the pavilion. The umpires gather up the stumps before they are lost to the marauders. Hot on the heels of the shock troops, a little Indian girl of not more than five years old lifts her even smaller brother over the fence, takes his hand and drags him to where the action is. In no time the Indian batsmen are being swept towards the pavilion on the shoulders of the crowd.”
Back in Mumbai, “there was dancing in the streets,” reported Wisden, “Revellers stopped and boarded buses to convey the news to commuters. In the homes, children garlanded the wireless sets…”
India had won the previous series in the West Indies for the first time, yet this win in England, against an outfit that could call themselves World champions (now that South Africa were banned for their policy of apartheid), was even more significant. England had been unbeaten for 26 Tests before this.
England saw the establishing of the great quartet of spinners, Erapalli Prasanna (who did not play a Test), Bishan Bedi, Srinivas Venkatraghavan and Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, who among them claimed 197 of the 244 wickets to fall on the tour.
Speaking to the hero of that India win, Chandrasekhar, has always been a pleasure and an education. “I can’t believe that 50 years have passed,” he said, the smile never too far from his tone. His figures are stamped on Indian fans of a certain vintage: 18.1-3-38-6. In fact, he had his hand in another dismissal too. “Yes, John Jameson,” he recalled, “I deflected a straight drive from Luckhurst onto the stumps. It was a superb decision, a close one. The umpire was in the ideal position to judge.”
Till that Oval win India had lost nearly thrice as many Tests as they had won; after that, they won more Tests than they lost. So much has been written so often about that win and everything it meant to Indian cricket that it is in danger of having its excitement sucked out through repetition and becoming a stuffed version of a once thrilling animal in some sporting museum. But, amazingly, it endures. There have been other wins, but the first is always special.
“I remember that elephant, a baby elephant I think it was,” recalled Chandrasekhar.
Whether the current Indian team in England know of the elephant or not, they will have at least one member of that 1971 team to celebrate with on August 24 on the eve of the third Test in Leeds. Sunil Gavaskar. Possibly Farokh Engineer too. They too might agree it happened just the other day, and you don’t need to have the memory of an elephant to recall the details.
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