The greatest chase: How the West Indies vs India Port of Spain 1976 match changed modern cricket

·10-min read

In 'Nostalgia Drive', Anindya Dutta celebrates a significant victory in Indian cricket which occurred in that corresponding month in history.

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Thirteen Tests, four wins, seven losses: It was not quite the start to his captaincy that Clive Lloyd had hoped for when his young team prevailed over Tiger Pataudi's India in the winter of 1974-75. Yet, barely 18 months later, as the West Indies prepared to host the same opponents at home, the team's confidence was at its lowest in years.

The past couple of months had been brutal, both physically and mentally. Landing on Australian shores with a young confident team, the Windies had limped off the aircraft barely weeks later, a physically bruised and mentally battered bunch of stragglers. Responsible for their physical woes had been the brutal pace duo of Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee. The mental disintegration was thanks to an Australian summer of racist taunts and abuse off the field, and abject failures on it. There had been positives, not least of which was the arrival of young fast bowler Michael Holding, but the 1-5 series result, even Lloyd had to admit, was not an unfair reflection of their performance.

India Arrives in the West Indies

It had been a significant moment in India's cricketing history when, just weeks earlier, Bishan Bedi walked out for the toss at Wellington as Indian captain. Replacing his mentor and hero Tiger Pataudi, Bedi had become the first Indian spinner to captain the side since Ghulam Ahmed two decades earlier. The series in New Zealand ended in a respectable 1-1 draw, Bedi himself picking up 22 wickets at 13.18. The action now moved on to the Caribbean.

It is a long trip from New Zealand to the West Indies. For the Indians, it involved 62 hours of travel in economy class, with long stopovers. The eternally optimistic Indian fans rated their team's chances on the basis of the 1971 series victory. Bedi's team however was much more realistic about the challenges that faced them.

The series in 1971 they knew, had been won on the back of a single victory, India's only success in 14 attempts in the Caribbean. This time, awaiting them was a far stronger West Indies team, smarting from humiliation, and out to redeem itself on all comers. What the Indians did not know however, was that they were fated to be a part of a major inflexion point in the history of cricket, no less impactful than the first Ashes Test, the Bodyline series or the first tied Test.

In fact, when the team was embarrassed in the first Test and folded up in a territory match in two-and-a-half days right after, the fickle fans back in India had already written off the series. Memories of Port of Spain 1971 and the motorcades into the city for the victorious team seemed like a fanciful dream.

The current lineup of Roy Fredericks, Lawrence Rowe, Vivian Richards, Alvin Kallicharran, Clive Lloyd, Deryck Murray, Brendan Julien and Michael Holding would walk into most teams in the world of their day. So losing to such a team was not a matter of shame, but nonetheless it hurt Indian players and fans alike.

The second Test at Queen's Park Oval was drawn and then the teams came to Port of Spain, India's happy hunting ground, for the third Test.

The Most Famous Declaration in Cricket

A perusal of the first innings scorecard makes it abundantly clear that at Trinidad in 1976, Tiger Pataudi's Spin Quartet strategy was still paying dividends even if he had been replaced as captain by first Wadekar and then Bedi. The medium pacers €" Madan Lal, Mohinder Amarnath and Eknath Solkar together bowled all of 20 overs while Bedi, Chandra and Venkat sent down 90. Chandra picked up six wickets for his efforts, and Bedi four.

But for a magnificent 177 from Vivian Issac Richards, Lloyd would have regretted the decision to bat first on winning the toss. With 23 fours and two sixes, Richards accounted for nearly half the West Indies total. Five of his hapless colleagues scraped together an aggregate of two. It was as if the Antiguan was wielding his willow on another galaxy in a parallel universe where unplayable Indian spinners didn't exist.

West Indies ended the first day at 320 for 5, Chandra picking up all the wickets to fall. The next morning Bedi wrapped up the rest to bowl the hosts out for 359.

When the visitors walked out to bat, much to Lloyd's surprise, it would not be his three spinners €" off-spinner Albert Padmore, leg-spinner Imtiaz Ali, or left-arm spinner Raphick Jumadeen who ran through the Indian batting on a relatively spin friendly track. Instead, the wrecker-in-chief was young speedster Michael Holding. Andy Roberts, the most experienced of the West Indies fast bowlers had been left out as Lloyd (not unreasonably), banked on spin to deliver the goods.

After five consecutive 50s (and three 100s), Sunil Gavaskar finally failed at Port-of-Spain, scoring only 26. The law of averages had at last caught up with him. Though eight Indians went into double figures, none made it to 50. Michael Holding notched up figures of 6 for 65, bowling India out for 228, short by 131 runs.

The West Indies second innings started much like the first, with three batsmen back in the hut pretty quickly. Kallicharran scored a brilliant century and West Indies reached 271 for 6, a lead of 403. At that stage, having seen Holding's performance in the first innings and with three spinners at his disposal on a deteriorating surface, Lloyd felt confident declaring the innings closed.

Notwithstanding how harshly history may judge him in hindsight, Lloyd's confidence was backed by sound logic. After all, India had never chased more than 256 in the fourth innings in 44-years of playing Test cricket. What was more was that no team since Bradman's Invincibles in 1948, had chased a total of 400 or more to win a Test match.

The Greatest Chase

Saving the Test was the intent at this stage, winning not even an option, given that history was firmly against the visitors. What they were banking on was that Sunil Gavaskar, Anshuman Gaekwad, Mohinder Amarnath, Gundappa Viswanath, Brijesh Patel, Eknath Solkar and Syed Kirmani together made up a long batting line-up. Gavaskar would write later: "I was confident that we could save the game because the wicket was still good; but the thought of winning never entered my mind."

The little Indian opener was in magnificent touch when the chase started, the first innings debacle all but forgotten. Port of Spain was where Gavaskar had been thrust into the realm of greatness in his debut series five years before. On his favourite ground, faced with a mammoth total, back against the wall, he reacted as geniuses are wont to €" treating the bowlers, including Holding, with undisguised disdain, while attacking relentlessly. Giving him company after Gaekwad fell was Mohinder Amarnath, solid in impeccable defence, imperious in his hooks and drives through covers. India finished Day 4 at 134 for 1. The West Indian captain was concerned, but not worried.

On Day Five, Gavaskar looked less confident than the previous afternoon, but scraped through to a century before being dismissed by Jumadeen. In a bizarre turn of events, the umpire declared him caught behind despite a big gap between bat and ball, but it didn't matter, since the lightning quick Murray had stumped him in the meantime. Gavaskar had scored 102 in 245 minutes with 13 fours. India was 177 for 2, still 236 away from the target.

Brother-in-law Gundappa Vishwanath replaced Gavaskar. Much to the chagrin of the West Indians, he appeared in sublime touch as well. Mohinder rotated the strike while Viswanath attacked with authority. Lloyd tried everything including the part-time chinaman bowling of Roy Fredericks, but nothing seemed to work. Viswanath notched up his first overseas hundred with an exquisite cover-drive just after tea, and India looked well on track for a miracle.

And then it happened. Viswanath was run out for 112. He had batted for 220 minutes. India at that stage was 336 for 3, still 66 behind.

When the mandatory overs started, the visitors still needed 65. Amarnath now went on the offensive and with Brijesh Patel took India within 11 runs of the target before he was run-out, having scored 86 in 440 minutes. This was an innings that truly defined Mohinder Amarnath - the quintessential team man, and a batsman who you would pick every time in a crisis. Patel brought up the winning runs without further ado, pulling Jumadeen for a four.

Against all odds and defying history, India had pulled off the greatest chase of all.

Clive Lloyd walked back to the pavilion with his team, head down, shaking it from time to time in utter disbelief. The captain's speech in the dressing room would go into West Indian cricketing folklore: "Gentlemen, I gave you 400 runs to bowl at and you failed to bowl out the opposition. How many runs must I give you in future to make sure you get the wickets?"

For India, it was a huge moment. Journalist Mudar Patherya would say, "This was the moment that India grew up." Gavaskar who had been a part of both Trinidad 1971 and Oval 1971 triumphs, would call this "India's greatest Test victory".

The Aftermath: A two-decade West Indian dominance of world cricket

This had indeed been the greatest chase of all, drawing favourable parallels with the effort of the Invincibles. But the unexpected consequences of this victory would be era defining. It would change the way cricket was played in the following decades.

The West Indians had been battered by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in the previous series. The Indian Spin Quartet (or triumvirate in this case) had the measure of them in this Test and had been an effective strategy for a decade at that point. These two facts together made Clive Lloyd decide that he needed to do something different to change the trajectory of West Indian cricket.

When the West Indies fielded their team in the fourth Test at Sabina Park, Wayne Daniel and Vanburn Holder were drafted in to join Holding and Julien. The Indians were battered with bouncers and beamers from the foursome. Bodyline was invoked, Holding asked to deliberately injure the Indian batsmen by aiming for their body, and Bedi had to declare both innings closed, at 306 for 6 and at 97 for 5. West Indies ran away with a 10 wicket victory.

The Spin Quartet idea had been adapted to a Pace Quartet strategy by Clive Lloyd.

For the next two decades, injury, destruction and devastation would be wrought upon hapless batsmen the world over by a pace foursome whose members would change, but the intent and execution would be unrelenting.

Hospitals would be on standby when the West Indies played a Test match. Facing up to a Caribbean fast bowler would be no less dangerous to body and life than falling off a speeding motorcycle. The helmet would be invented.

Test cricket would never be the same again. This then was the inflexion point, those six fateful days at Trinidad in April 1976, when a brilliant strategy was born from the depths of despair brought on by India's Greatest Chase.

Anindya Dutta is a cricket columnist and author of four bestselling books. His latest, Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling won India's Cricket Book of the Year award for 2019.

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