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    England's tumultuous 1984-85 tour of India: Death, disaster, and redemption
England's tumultuous 1984-85 tour of India: Death, disaster, and redemption
The England team that toured India in 1984-85 was short of star names and experience. BBC Sport

England's tumultuous 1984-85 tour of India: Death, disaster, and redemption

Peter Baxter had just fallen asleep when he was abruptly awoken by the loud ringing of the phone next to his head in his Delhi hotel room.

Despite having arrived in the city only a few hours earlier, Baxter, Test Match Special's producer, was already in India to cover the England men's team's tour of the country.

As he answered the phone and listened to the voice on the other end, he knew it was the beginning of a challenging assignment for him and his team.

The tour started on Halloween, 31 October 1984, and lasted until early February the following year.

During those three months, India experienced political assassinations, sectarian turmoil, and an industrial disaster that was comparable to Chornobyl in terms of loss of life and lasting ecological damage.

Despite the turmoil, the tour continued as planned, visiting 16 venues, playing 12 first-class matches (including five Test matches) and six one-day internationals (ODIs) across India and Sri Lanka.

On several occasions, it seemed like the tour would be cancelled, but it was eventually able to proceed. In the end, a young and inexperienced England team, led by David Gower, achieved something that no other England team had done before, and only one has managed since: they came from behind to win a Test series in India.

England's form leading up to the tour was inconsistent, at best. In a home Test series, they were thrashed 5-0 by the mighty West Indies. They were missing key players, including Graham Gooch, Bob Woolmer and John Lever, who were still banned after defying a sports ban to tour apartheid South Africa in 1982.

Although India could not match the depth of the West Indies at that time, they were a formidable side to beat in their conditions. Three years ago, England's first-choice team suffered a 1-0 series defeat during a six-Test tour. The team's top scorer, the now-banned Gooch, remains unchanged.

Ian Botham was not banned from the tour of India, but he chose to opt out.

The previous winter in New Zealand, tabloid editors had dispatched reporters to follow Botham, hoping to uncover salacious stories that could dominate the front pages. Botham was a superstar, and stories about him, especially scurrilous ones, sold papers. To avoid a similar situation in India, Botham decided to take a break from cricket.

Without him and the rebel tourists, England had to select a group of young, mostly untested players, including Richard Ellison, Chris Cowdrey, Neil Foster, Tim Robinson, Norman Cowans, and Vic Marks. They were joined by two experienced spinners, Pat Pocock and Phil Edmonds, as well as familiar faces Graeme Fowler and Allan Lamb. The leadership group consisted of captain Gower, who was laid-back, and his previously underperforming vice-captain Mike Gatting.

The squad arrived in India with little hope and no expectations.

The team was soundly asleep when news began to spread that Indira Gandhi, India's Prime Minister, had been shot by her Sikh bodyguards.

Baxter was the only one awake.

Prakash Wakankar, now part of the Test Match Special commentary team, was celebrating his 21st birthday over lunch in a Pune restaurant when he first became aware of the trouble.

The owner, a Sikh gentleman, approached the diners and announced that they had to leave as he was shutting down due to news of Mrs Gandhi's shooting and the potential for riots.

During three days of violence, nearly 3,000 Sikhs were killed by Hindu mobs as violence spread across the country from the capital.

In the late morning, the England players were heading to breakfast at the team hotel and receiving updates.

"Gandhi was shot only about two miles from where the hotel was and fires were billowing up. Our imaginations started to wander and think, well, what's going on here?" remembers Marks.

The British High Commission advised people not to leave their hotels, but after a few days of lockdown, the tour group was getting restless.

The team requested a meeting with manager, Tony Brown, who had a reputation for being forceful. This was a tense moment. During the meeting, Allan Lamb strongly expressed his opinion that the team should leave instead of staying.

Brown, who was in charge of the team's passports, held up Lamb's passport and said, 'Here it is. You can take it and go home if you want to.'

The tour continued without any disruptions, although the location was changed, as no one was willing to be the first to leave.

As India was  in the  official mourning period of 12 days, with no access to facilities for training or playing matches, England accepted the offer to leave the country on the Sri Lankan president's plane. They headed to Colombo for a hastily-arranged first-class fixture, followed by an ODI.

Although the cricket in Sri Lanka was uneventful, the detour brought the players and travelling press pack closer. The ODI was abandoned due to rain after 38 overs. As the outfield was waterlogged, Baxter conducted his post-match interview with Gower in the team's changing room.

Within a week of departing for Sri Lanka, England found themselves back in India. The rearranged schedule included three first-class warm-up matches in just 12 days, with travel from Jaipur to Ahmedabad and then to Rajkot.

The second match was played against an Indian under-25 XI, which included two players who would dominate England's strategy in the upcoming Test matches. Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, an 18-year-old leg-spinner, took five wickets, while Mohammad Azharuddin scored 151 runs, leading the under-25s to an innings victory. Although both players were uncapped by India at the time, they would soon make their debut.

England then travelled to Mumbai to prepare for the first Test. The evening after they arrived in the city, Percy Norris, the British Deputy High Commissioner, entertained them.

The next day, the tour party assembled for a team photo only to receive the news of Norris' death.

While being driven to his office in a white Rover through the city's congested centre, two gunmen opened fire. The Revolutionary Organisation of Muslim Socialists claimed responsibility for the killing of Norris, alleging that he was a British spy with close ties to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and that India's former colonial rulers were still meddling in the country's politics.

The death of Indira Gandhi at the hands of two of her bodyguards, who were Sikhs, sparked riots and religion-based reprisals across the country. BBC Sport
The death of Indira Gandhi at the hands of two of her bodyguards, who were Sikhs, sparked riots and religion-based reprisals across the country. BBC Sport

Although there was no indication that the murder was connected to Gandhi's assassination, it once again put the tour in jeopardy.

The reason why England did not leave remains somewhat of a mystery. It is possible that the proximity of the first Test, scheduled to start the following day, played a role. However, Marks attributes the decision to another factor:

"We thought we'd be going home, that that would be it as far as this tour was concerned. But the powers-that-be thought otherwise."

The Test match proceeded as scheduled, marking the beginning of the series. England made a promising start, but Fowler was caught and bowled by Sivaramakrishnan, the mystery leg spinner who had troubled them 11 days prior and was now making his debut.

Marks noticed that the players' mindset was understandably affected by the recent turbulence and violence in the past few weeks and days.

Fowler's 'target practice' comment was not entirely a joke.

India dominated the match, bowling England out inexpensively. Thanks to hundreds from Ravi Shastri and wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani, India gained a lead of 270.

There was an important silver lining for England despite their eventual defeat. In his 54th Test match innings, Gatting finally made his first hundred. Despite averaging just over 24 going into the series, he was controversially selected, having frustrated England fans with unfulfilled promise.

Marks attributes Gatting's recent success to astute man management.

He explains that by making Gatting the vice-captain, he suddenly became the main man going in at three, which boosted his confidence. This innings cemented that.

It should be noted, however, that England was 1-0 down in India, and it is rare for teams to come back from such a deficit, especially a young, inexperienced, and traumatised one. Furthermore, in the first Test, Sivaramakrishnan took 12 wickets, with only Gatting appearing capable of withstanding his bowling.

Bhopal disaster in India. Supervisor
Bhopal disaster in India. Supervisor

Additionally, events off the pitch continued to overshadow the series. On the final day of the first Test, news emerged of a disaster unfolding in Bhopal, a city in central India.

The Union Carbide chemical plant, which produced the highly toxic gas methyl isocyanate, was leaking. The resulting deadly fog enveloped the city, and it soon became evident that India had experienced the most catastrophic industrial disaster in history.

The Indian government reports that around 3,500 people died within days of the leak, and campaigners estimate the death toll to be as high as 25,000, with over 15,000 deaths occurring in the years since.

Despite this tragedy, the tour continued. It is incongruous that the tour continued despite the tragedy.

Based on the pitch, it was expected that the second Test in Delhi would be a short match dominated by spin. India's captain, Sunil Gavaskar, even suggested that a journalist plan a trip to the nearby Taj Mahal for the fourth or fifth day. When India won the toss and chose to bat, English hearts sank.

The home team scored a competitive 307 in their first innings. However, when England batted, the expected disintegration of the pitch did not occur. Instead, thanks to a masterful 160 by opener Robinson - his first Test hundred - the tourists secured a lead of 109.

Time was running out. By the end of the fourth day, India had a lead of 19 with only two wickets down, and their captain, the legendary Gavaskar, was still at the crease. By lunch on the fifth day, the lead had increased to over 90. A draw was looming, and England was getting frustrated at the potential missed opportunity.

Marks recalls a rather fractious scene. Gower, who is known for his relaxed demeanour , became visibly upset when he sensed a hint of resignation among the team. He expressed his frustration and urged everyone to push forward.

With the assistance of star Indian all-rounder Kapil Dev, they were able to achieve their goal, although Kapil was instructed to refrain from playing his signature attacking shots until the draw was secured. Unfortunately, these orders were ignored. Kapil hit Pocock for a six from one of the first deliveries he faced but unfortunately holed out to Lamb in the deep on the seventh, triggering a collapse.

With England only 125 to win in two hours, India lost their last six wickets for just 28 runs. If India had batted for another 20 minutes, they would have made the game safe. Instead, England reached their target in just 23.4 overs with eight wickets to spare.

England went from frustrated resignation at lunch to victory four hours later. The series was level at 1-1.

Bitter recriminations followed India's defeat, with responsibility placed squarely on Kapil's shoulders. Remarkably, India's greatest all-rounder was not only pilloried but also dropped from the next Test match in Kolkata.

England levelled the series from a seemingly hopeless position, while the Indian camp was tearing itself apart.

The third Test match was abysmal, played out on an unresponsive surface. Gavaskar opted to bat first. During breaks in play due to mist, fog, and drizzle, he kept England in the field until after lunch on the fourth day. The on-field action was so tedious that England spinner Edmonds resorted to reading a newspaper upside down in the outfield while the Indian batters ground away

The crowd was angry. They blamed Gavaskar for the lack of ambition and were infuriated that their hero Kapil had been omitted. They hurled fruit and insults at the Indian captain.

The game ended in a draw, so the teams headed south to reconvene in Chennai for the fourth Test with the series still level.

Following the debacle in Calcutta, India made changes by bringing back Kapil and calling up the dashing opener Krishnamachari Srikkanth to increase the tempo of their cricket. England also made a crucial change by replacing Ellison with tall Essex seamer Foster.

The result was the complete opposite of the torpor in Calcutta.

India batted first but quickly lost wickets to Foster and Cowens and were 45-3 at one stage. There was an Amarnath-Azharuddin partnership, but it was the 21st-century stuff.

Had India been spooked by the reaction to Kapil's dismissal? Had England got into their heads? Either way, they were bowled out for a sub-par 272 before the end of day one, with Foster taking 6-104.

Just how good the wicket was became apparent over the next two days as England amassed an eye-watering 652-7, thanks to double centuries from Fowler and Gatting. Never before in the history of the Test had two English players scored a double century in the same innings. Their partnership of 241 put England out of sight.

In the first three innings of the series, Sivaramakrishnan had taken 18 wickets. By the fourth Test, his figures were a miserable 1-145. England had solved the puzzle.

They took to the field with a first-innings lead of 380 and with plenty of time left in the game thanks to India's attacking approach, victory was only a matter of time.

England had levelled the series at 2-1 and was now within touching distance of an unprecedented victory.

However, with one match to play and India desperate for a series-clinching win, the pitch in Kanpur for the final Test was sure to play to the hosts' strengths.

The extent of the truth behind the rumour was unclear, but much to England's delight, the pitch was flat and favoured the batsmen.

Azharuddin scored another hundred, his third in successive Tests and fourth overall against England this winter, as India made 552-8. Despite a brief wobble when England lost their sixth wicket, still 68 runs short of avoiding the follow-on, a century partnership between Edmonds and Gower, playing a timely captain's knock, steered England to safety.

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