Ruling in the Raj: Recalling the last time England won in India

David Gower's raw squad triumphed on the 1984-85 tour despite a backdrop of political turmoil and murder

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The Independent Online

Nothing could have prepared England for the events of late 1984 in India. In the circumstances, it was remarkable that their tour proceeded. That they should then win in both the Test series, after going behind, and the one-day internationals, seemed miraculous.

Almost 30 years later, England are still waiting for their subsequent victories in the country in both formats. Quite how the improbable triumph happened remains difficult to explain even at this distance. Innocence was allied to a simple belief and refusal to be cowed and these were somehow converted into a couple of memorable, unrepeatable individual performances.

"Hardly any of us had been there before," said Graeme Fowler, one of the heroes, "so we didn't know what to expect. Experience can be a good thing but it has its negative side. You're braver when you're naive. We didn't know."

Five hours after their arrival in Delhi, before a net had been erected or a ball bowled, the Prime Minister of India, Mrs Indira Gandhi, was assassinated. A rescheduled tour resumed a fortnight later after the squad had sought temporary refuge in Sri Lanka.

On the eve of the first Test in Bombay (now Mumbai), the British Deputy High Commissioner in the city, Percy Norris, who had been entertaining the team at an Embassy function only hours before, was shot dead in his car on his way to the office. Although nobody's heart was in it, the match went ahead. England were defeated, helped neither by their state of mind nor some breathtakingly poor umpiring decisions.

Yet a week later they returned to Delhi and won one of their most famous victories on the fifth afternoon, taking the last six of their opponents' second innings wickets for 28 after lunch and knocking off the runs with eight overs left. A month after that in Madras (now Chennai), Fowler joined Tim Robinson in a partnership of 178 for the first wicket and Mike Gatting in one of 241 for the second.

They are still two of three highest stands by England in India and Fowler (201) and Gatting (207) remain the only two double centurions in the same Test innings for England. But the man of the match was Neil Foster who found an atypical sub-continental pitch much to his liking, harvested bounce and movement and had match figures of 11 for 163.

In between, England won four of the five one-dayers against a side who were then world champions. Its like has not been seen again since and on most of the trips since has not looked like being seen. The whole tour of 1984-85 was defined and overshadowed by the unrelated murders of Mrs Gandhi and Mr Norris. It was when maximum security began.

"We hadn't got down for breakfast on the first morning when we heard about the Prime Minister," said Fowler, who had earned his selection after standing tall in the face of the West Indies 5-0 blackwash the previous summer. "There was a gym on the top of the hotel I recall and from there we could see fires across the city with schools and petrol stations going up.

"We had no idea what was happening really but we came to a consensus, not through any formal meetings but just by chatting that if we couldn't play any cricket there we might as well go somewhere we could."

The call-the-whole-thing-off brigade was swiftly in full swing, not least among members of the attendant press corps. Tony Brown, the manager on his first England tour, was uncertain at first what to do.

"He flew off the handle now and again and at one point started throwing our passports at us," said Fowler, for the last 16 years estimable coach at Durham University. "He calmed down pretty quickly but thank god for our captain, David Gower, who had been to India before and handled all situations brilliantly."

Eventually, the squad stayed for the funeral of Gandhi before finding refuge in Colombo whence they travelled on the private jet of the Sri Lankan prime minister who was attending the ceremony. There they stayed for 10 days and peace once more descended on the squad. Not for long.

They had been back in India a fortnight and on their arrival in Bombay were invited to the High Commission. In those days, this was more or less a standing invitation and Percy Norris was a cricket lover.

"I remember talking to him for ages about Accrington Stanley of all things," said Fowler. "And the following morning he was killed. We played the Test but there was a kind of feeling around about whether we should be doing it. But it was just some muttering, we never sat down and analysed it."

England felt they were badly done to by the umpires, who gave considerable assistance to Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, the 18-year-old leg spinner. It was only his second Test and when he took 12 wickets it seemed a dazzling career lay in store.

Instead, England worked him out and he played only seven more Tests, his last at only 20. But for that match in Bombay, England were unquestionably aggrieved, the world against them.

"In the second innings I pushed outside off stump and the ball hit me on the knee," said Fowler. "Everybody appealed and the umpire gave it not out. India's captain, Sunil Gavaskar, with a grand gesture, took a handkerchief out of his pocket, walked up to Siva, put his arm around him and dried his eyes.

"I watched this, thinking 'you've got to be kidding.' Anyway he bowled the same ball a couple of overs later, same direction, same impact, same appeal.

"This time I was given out. Tim Robinson got a worse one still. Somehow it didn't really affect us because we had come out thinking we could beat them and that it was just shit umpiring."

Come Delhi, England had a magnificent start before their spinners, Pat Pocock and Phil Edmonds exercised control. Robinson made an obdurate 160 and India failed to hold out on the last day. Fowler had taken ill but was summoned to the ground, where he travelled alone by tuk-tuk, and made 29 before returning to his bed.

The match at Calcutta (now Kolkata), the only one with full houses, was ruined by smog and rain before came Fowler's finest hour in Madras. India had been bowled out, largely by Foster in his first match of the rubber and conditions eased.

Fowler played mostly from the crease bringing his bat down in front of his pad, eschewing the sweep if only because the shot was not in his armoury. He batted for almost 10 hours having cut both his knees while fielding. The cuts had gone septic and the bandages were stuck to his flannels at the end of each session.

"At the end of the day I had shorts on with fresh bandages round both my knees," he said. "I looked like a naughty schoolboy, Just William in India."

The last Test was a high scoring draw. Fowler made 69 in England's 417, putting on 156 with Robinson. It was one of the more bizarre Test statistics that Fowler never played another Test. His form dipped badly the following season and Graham Gooch came back from a three-year ban, imposed for his dalliance with Apartheid South Africa. Fowler was overlooked and finished the summer in Lancashire Seconds. It was established that he had a broken neck, first sustained in a car crash years previously and aggravated during fielding practice. By the time his neck and his form were both repaired, England had moved on.

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"I suppose that innings in Madras is the one I'm remembered for if anything," he said, "though I like to think the hundred at Lord's against West Indies had a bit going for it. But that tour of India so many things happened, little ones as well as big ones.

"Wherever you went you had to have security but one of my pleasures was to get out of the hotel and see the world. If we had a net in the morning with the afternoon off I would always go out, always.

"In Bangalore a plain clothes police officer came out with me. He was wearing a dark blue dhoti with a big black belt wrapped round it with a gun in it, so I guess he wasn't so plain clothed after all.

"If I walked in a certain direction and couldn't find anything I wanted to see I would just turn round and retrace my steps to avoid getting lost. I looked here and there, couldn't see anything, turned round and behind me was the policemen with about 500 people following him. They recognised me and when I went to walk back they just parted like the red sea and followed me back to the hotel. I'm very glad that policeman was there."