How England won in India's garden

Bob Willis tells Robin Scott-Elliot about being part of the only team from these shores to have won a Test at Eden Gardens, back in 1977

This was not a different era, this was a different world. The final morning of the second Test of the 1977 series between India and England opened with victory for the tourists all but certain, and it seemed equally certain the finale would not be long in coming. To witness the last rites, close to 100,000 hustled into Eden Gardens. Watching the great game in Calcutta was to step inside cricketing paradise, even if it came grimly framed in concrete and was at times fulminating, often in sharp contrast to the funereal pace of proceedings on show.

It is not only the city's name that has changed – those days are gone. The days when nearly half a million people would watch a Test match in India despite – and here's the frustration for supporters of Test cricket over shorter forms that obsess those that run the game in India today – the simple fact that Test cricket is much more of a spectacle today.

It was a mightily impressive victory for England, the only one they have earned on the ground where they meet India in the third Test that starts early on Wednesday, but little happened in a hurry. Runs came at two per over during the match; England's run-rate was 1.79 spanning 178 overs.

Today Eden Gardens can host considerably fewer and there may very well be less than one third of its glorious peak in attendance on Wednesday. What remains in situ is the history; this is one of cricket's iconic venues, once described as India's Coliseum because of the size, passion and, on occasions, volatility of the audience.

Since the ground staged its first Test – a draw with Douglas Jardine's England in 1934 – that audience has rioted on several occasions, including at the World Cup semi-final in 1996 when Sri Lanka had the temerity to beat the home side. As early as the 1960s there were riots inside the ground. "Scary, even for the home side," Sunil Gavaskar once said of playing there.

"A cauldron" is how Bob Willis puts it, a simmering combination of the heat of the crowd and the heat of the climate. Willis is one of only 11 Englishmen to have enjoyed victory at Eden Gardens in either Test or one-day cricket – they lost the World Cup final there in 1987, Mike Gatting's reverse sweep etc.

The 1976-77 tour of India is one England will struggle to ever better, not only for the sole victory in nine Tests in Calcutta. They won the opening Test in Delhi by an innings, left Calcutta as 10-wicket victors and won the third Test by 200 runs in Madras. The five-match series finished 3-1.

"The subcontinent is the most alien conditions an English cricketer can play in," says Willis. "As a seamer you are used to getting carry with the ball, seam movement and swing. You very rarely get any in the subcontinent. You have to change your mentality.

"You know you are not going to bowl a whole lot of overs but the India side in the 70s was much more vulnerable against seam bowling, even in their own conditions, than they are now."

There were other well-documented differences to touring India some three decades ago, with the constant worry of illness shadowing the players around much of the country.

"The food at the ground was always avoided," says Willis. "We used to eat luncheon meat and spam and corned beef out of cans on toast – the 12th man would cook it. Then we would fill up back at the hotel with dinner and breakfast."

The opening Test finished three days before Christmas – the second began on New Year's Day. The squad followed the tradition of a fancy dress party on Christmas Day – Christmas away from home was the norm – but Tony Greig, the captain, was adamant any celebrations must be muted. There was a series to win, he insisted.

Willis calls it "Greig's tour." This was the tall South African's peak as captain of England and it was also impressively revealing of his all-round abilities. At the crease the characteristic swash was buckled, runs were furrowed out with Boycottian pragmatism, and he relied on off-cutters rather than his usual seam. Most surprisingly for a man who has rarely struggled to antagonise opponents, he found high favour with the Calcutta crowd, of which some 100,000 assembled for each of the five days. "He made himself and the team popular with the crowd," says Willis. "He was mimicking other players and having fun with the crowd – they loved him."

Greig's first act was just about his only false call of the game. India won the toss and Bishan Bedi did not even need to look at the surface before deciding to bat. It was, Wisden recorded, "under-prepared and completely shorn of grass to hasten its disintegration".

"India have a history of trying to help their bowlers with pitch preparation but it doesn't always work for them – as we saw in Mumbai last week," says Willis. "There is a little bit of bounce early on in Calcutta and I was always encouraged to bowl as quickly as I could. The wicket wasn't helpful but a tall bowler with pace can get some bounce with the new ball."

Willis struck with the fourth ball to earn the key wicket of Sunil Gavaskar. The tourists' attack was well balanced, pace from Willis, swing from John Lever, who had enjoyed a spectacular debut in the first Test, seam from Chis Old, Derek Underwood's deadly brisk spin – delivered at a pace that Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann almost echoed last week – and Greig's mixed bag. India struggled. They were dismissed for 155, painfully gathered over 75 overs.

Willis claimed the defining figures, an immaculate looking 20-3-27-5.

England struggled initially too, slipping to 90 for 5. Greig, like Underwood struggling with illness, decided the pitch was utterly unreliable for a strokeplayer and so changed his spots. With doughty support from England's debutants, Derek Randall and Roger Tolchard, he dug in, deeper and deeper.

It was a captain's innings, 103 stretched over 434 minutes from 347 balls against Bedi, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar and the underrated Erapali Prasanna, left-arm, leg and off-spin respectively.

"Greig played magnificently in defensive mode," says Willis. "He was very unwell, he had a virus and really had to grit his teeth and get through that match-winning innings."

England reached 321 and it was to be nearly enough for an innings victory. Second time around India scored 181, the wickets shared between Underwood, Willis, Old and Greig.

It meant England, having disposed of the remaining three Indian wickets on that final morning, needed 16 for victory. They did not reach it unobserved.

"There and the MCG – we played in front of 84,000 once – those are crowd sizes you don't get anywhere else in the world," says Willis. "Those are pretty special occasions. The adulation from the local fans was something else – you would step outside the hotel in Calcutta and there would be two or three thousand people just waiting to get a glimpse of us. It is an extraordinary place to tour."

And an even more extraordinary one to win in.

 



India v England continues live on Sky Sports 1 HD on Wednesday as part of their year-round coverage.

Eden Gardens: England's record

Test Matches

1934 Draw

1952 Draw

1962 India won by 187 runs

1964 Draw

1973 India won by 28 runs

1977 England won by 10 wickets

1982 Draw

1984-85 Draw

1993 India won by 8 wickets

One-day games

1987 World Cup final lost to Australia by 7 runs

2002 India won by 22 runs

2011 India won by 95 runs

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