Even as Virat Kohli’s team, heady from the recent experience of its own “second eleven” defeating Australia in Australia, takes on Joe Root’s England at full strength, it is good to recognise the euphoria Gopinathandhis teammates must have felt back then.
While Welshman Alan Watkins was the leading scorer for England with 450 Test runs on the tour, and off spinner Roy Tattersall picked up 21 wickets, batting stylist Tom Graveney and fast bowling workhorse Brian Statham were to emerge afterwards as world class cricketers. For India, bespectacled Pankaj Roy (387 runs) top scored and left arm spinner Vinoo Mankad led the bowling with 34 wickets in the series.
The Madras Test was the fifth match of the rubber, with England going into that final Test with a 1-0 lead. Gopinath, a natural strokemaker and a prolific scorer in domestic cricket, had entered the Madras Test full of confidence after a brilliant 50 not out and a fighting 42 (going in at 77 for 6) on debut in the second Test at Bombay. He had batted at no. 8, followed by the great all-rounder Mankad at nine.
Despite amassing 485 for nine declared in the first innings and gaining a 29-run lead, India had been in danger of losing that Test, before a 71-run stand between Gopinath and Mankad (41) for the ninth wicket made the game safe for India as it reached 208 and set England a target of 238 in 100 minutes. “The captain, Vijay Hazare, must have been pleased with my effort. With the match totally safe, he unexpectedly threw me the new ball in the second innings, though I was in the side as a pure batsman. And to my great surprise, I actually had the opener Lowson caught at slip by Sohoni for my only Test wicket.”
How did Gopinath tackle the fast bowling of Ridgway and Statham, never having faced genuine pace in domestic cricket? “I was quite comfortable having already encountered similar bowling from touring the Commonwealth team in unofficial Tests a year earlier. I even hooked and cut short-pitched bowling successfully.” In fact, his square cut had been described as the best in India by George Duckworth, the visiting team’s manager in a newspaper column.
Batting first, England was restricted to 266 all out, thanks to an incisive spell of left arm spin by Mankad (8 for 55). In reply, India declared at 457 for 9, with Polly ‘Palm Tree Hitter’ Umrigar topscoring with an unbeaten 130, Pankaj Roy (111) and Dattu Phadkar (61) also making runs, while skipper Hazare and Lala Amarnath were dismissed early. While the tall and athletic Umrigar entertained the capacity crowd with his attacking strokeplay, Roy had been solid and fearless at the top. Receiving a hero’s welcome from his home crowd, Gopinath made a most pleasing 35 with seven boundaries in a partnership of 93 with Umrigar, but threw his wicket away looking for quick runs before the declaration. “The declaration was delayed a bit, and I missed what could have been another half century.”
In the second innings, with Mankad (4 for 53) and Ghulam Ahmed (4 for 77) engineering a collapse, it was all over for England at 183, when Gopinath caught Statham off Mankad on the boundary line to uproarious applause from the stands.
While there was much joy in the dressing room, with handshakes and backslapping all around, there was no uncorking of champagne bottles. The players collected their kit bags and went home, local boy Gopinath to his parental home, and the others to the guest accommodation where they had been billeted. Even the England players did so, for hotel stays were still a thing of the future. The BCCI was perhaps the poorest cricket body in the world then. Naturally, no bonus was announced for the India players who each had to be content with his match fee of Rs 250 — ‘smoke allowance’ as it was called.
It was the first milestone in Indian cricket, worthy of unrestrained celebration, but to put things in perspective, India was to lose a four Test series 0-3 while touring England in 1952, despite Mankad’s heroic 72 and 184 plus five for 196 in the famous “Mankad Test”.
It took 16 more years for India to win a series overseas – in New Zealand. Not before 1971 did India beat the West Indies and England on their soil. The last frontier, Australia, was only crossed in 2018.
The author is a cricket historian and former first-class cricketer