Madras curry, monkey running off with breakfast, Gatting’s reverse sweep, or Nadkarni’s maidens, David Frith shares his wide range of experiences during England’s past Test tours of India
Comparisons across more than a century of English cricket tours of India show dramatically just how much the world has changed. Tours before the Second World War, to a pre-Partition India when the community structure was very different, were absorbing and exciting experiences for the English tourists. India was little westernised then.
Referring to the cricketers’ speedy acclimatisation during their expedition through India and Burma in 1902-03, Cecil Headlam had this to say in his rare book on the Oxford University Authentics’ tour: “Your stomach ceases to resent the new dishes and the new meal-times, though it happily continues to appreciate the curries of Madras and the new fish; the pomfret of Bombay, and the seer, the topsi-muchli of Calcutta. Your ear is no longer puzzled and irritated by the many new languages, from Urdu to Tamil, from the chee-chee of the Eurasian to the new slang of the Anglo-Indian.”
He goes on: “As to the natives themselves, the impression remains of a very weakly and very patient people living in a poverty-stricken squalor which they seem to enjoy as much as they enjoy anything.” The observations are sharp, and some aspects would offend some modern readers.
But Headlam was simply doing his best to convey the unique nature of early 20th Century India to his readers in England. And when it came to the cricketers’ enjoyment of the tour, he describes agreeable accommodation and stimulating sightseeing between matches. There was further “sport” in hunting expeditions, notably in Kashmir. Their cricket was played against Hindu teams, Parsee teams, and administrative combinations composed mainly of British militia and civil servants. In Bombay they played on the Gymkhana ground.
For the Englishmen (only one of whom, Simpson-Hayward, went on to play Test cricket) it was the adventure of a lifetime. Headlam’s book, a copy of which now would be worth £250, inspired further cricket tours as a result of its exotic scene-setting.
It was not until 1932 that India was considered strong enough to be awarded Test status. Late the following year the first home Tests were played against a depleted England team, who wore pith helmets on the field of play and were led by the notorious DR Jardine, only a few months after the fiery Bodyline campaign in Australia. India’s batsmen took a pounding from his fast bowlers, Nichols and Clark.
We leap 18 years to the England (MCC) tour of 1951-52. How different was the structure now. England’s touring Test team was virtually a Second XI: no Hutton or Compton or May or Bedser or Laker. Either they hadn’t read Headlam’s book or they preferred to put their feet up in readiness for India’s tour of England next summer. It was an historic series. At Kanpur, England won the fourth Test, and India then won their first-ever Test match when England were drubbed by an innings at the Chepauk ground, Madras. Pankaj Roy and Polly Umriger made hundreds; Vinoo Mankad took 12 wickets. And it was from this tour that India’s reputation as the most difficult of territories was sealed.
Again, the finer details have been recorded in a book: tour manager Geoffrey Howard’s memoirs, published in 2001. With the help of a local liaison officer, Narayan Karmarker, the charming Howard arranged everything. It’s unlikely that Alastair Cook’s current England team, with its huge support crew, will experience some of the odd happenings of their predecessors of 61 years ago. For instance, when Jack Robertson and Roy Tattersall turned their backs for a moment, a monkey ran off with their breakfast. They also noticed a vulture sitting on the window-sill.
Lizards were among the creatures sharing the players’ rooms, and the flies were a nuisance. For all problems, Howard recalled, the suggested cure seemed to be penicillin.
George Duckworth, the old Lancashire and England wicketkeeper, was everyone’s father figure. He knew the ropes, and his advice saw the players through: “Eat egg and chips, because they’ve got to cook it. Drink as much whisky as you can, because it kills the bugs. And if you want to score any runs, don’t get hit on the pads.” How times have changed.
Among other differences and difficulties, some matches were played on unfamiliar coir matting stretched over the turf. And the fashion for formal receptions was dinner suits, which the English cricketers found unbearable in the heat. “We were there to maintain the reputation of the British in India,” recalled manager Howard. And yet England did themselves no favours. In an age when their team was still divided into the amateurs (cricketers who were [allegedly] unpaid) and the professionals, the captain and his fellow amateurs travelled in an air-conditioned carriage on the long train journey from Lahore to Bahawalpur, while the pros roughed it in second-class. At the end of their marathon ride, Allan Watkins (hero of the Delhi Test with a marathon 137 not out which left him very stiff) was covered in red dust, his small eyes peering out as he gave his skipper an “earful”. Tours then were for tough men.
Although England’s visits to India were not as frequent as India might have wished, in the early 1960s there were two in three seasons. Ted Dexter led the first, when Ken Barrington (594 runs) and Vijay Manjrekar (586) set new series records. This 1961-62 rubber went to India 2-0, and two years later, with England again sending a below-strength team, the host nation must have been expecting a similar result. But MJK Smith’s side contained some fighters. Never was British grit needed more than in the opening encounter at the Corporation Stadium in Madras. There, on the second day, almost every English cricketer was suffering some form of stomach upset, or virus as it would be termed today, or “Delhi belly” in the popular phrase of the time. In the hotel rooms and at the ground, players were rendered helpless and unable to bat. It therefore fell to Brian Bolus and Barrington to stay in, regardless of any attempts at run-making. This led to Bapu Nadkarni’s extraordinary spell of 21 consecutive maidens, 131 balls without a run scored off him. He finished with freaky figures of 32-27-5-0, but England avoided the follow-on and eventually forced a draw.
It set the tone for the series. All five Tests were drawn. The stricken England cricketers were relieved to get back home. That was almost half-a-century ago, and tours of India in recent years have been anticipated with excitement, for the hotels are first-rate, the means of travel much smoother, and the itinerary tighter, even though that means fewer exotic places visited. In fact we are led to believe that touring cricketers today are less interested in seeing historic sights. They certainly don’t go tiger-shooting like some of their predecessors. Many an old cricketer’s autobiography features pictures of him sitting beside slaughtered tigers and deer. Today’s superstar is more likely to shoot the poker table.
My own experiences of cricket in India feature no great hardships. The Madras Test of 1984-85 – played after a tense suspension following the assassination of Indira Gandhi – was not just lifted by double-centuries by Graeme Fowler and Mike Gatting, and Neil Foster’s 11 wickets (his sweat-soaked trousers stuck to his legs). The oddest memory is of a polite enquiry by a young local after Gatting had played the new stroke, the reverse sweep. I explained it to the spectator, who told his friend, who passed it along the row, from where the explanation flowed into neighbouring rows, until it seemed that the whole Chidambaram Stadium was whispering “Reverse sweep!”
The most difficult time was when stories had to be filed at the end of play. This was done by handing one’s typed sheets to a telex operator. The problem was that about twenty journalists were thrusting their stories all at once at only four or five operators. This time it was my own trouser legs which were stuck to my legs.
World Cup 1987 had me watching the semi-final at the Wankhede Stadium, where Graham Gooch literally swept England to victory over India; then, in my room in the Taj Hotel, with the enchanting Gateway to India visible outside (innocent vision against the later horror of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack), I watched Australia win the other semi. Now I had to book a flight to Calcutta for the final.
The airline official looked across his desk at me and offered a 5.30 morning flight. I protested. He stared at me. “Don’t you wish to go?” I hadn’t noticed the twinkle in his eye. “Oh, all right then, I’ll try to get to the airport in time,” I replied lamely. Then he reached into a drawer. “I do have this other flight, if you prefer. It leaves at 9.30.” Much relieved, I forgave him the tease and grabbed at the offer.
There was a further problem when I tried cashing a traveller’s cheque. My bank apparently traded in South Africa, which was still the forbidden land. More panic, more sweating. Fortunately this snag was overcome with a backstreet currency trader. I was on my way.
And I wish I was on my way now to Ahmedabad to enjoy the sights, sounds and aromas of an Indian Test match. However, here in England I have a cosy armchair and a television set cued to the cricket channel . . . and I have my memories.