As Team India prepares to take on the mighty Kangaroos in their own land on Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on the Boxing Day, it may be interesting to go down memory lane and remember our two remarkable victories at this historic venue.
In all, India has played nine Tests at the MCG, won only two, lost six - all by staggering margins - and drew one. Surprisingly, the two triumphs for India came in two successive Tests - in 1977-78 and 1980-81. On both occasions, India was considered a rank outsider.
The 1977-78 side was led by left-arm spinner Bishan Singh Bedi. His opposite number was Bob Simpson, who had been asked to come out of retirement after ten years by the then Australian Cricket Board as most of the top players - Ian Chappell, Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh, Doug Walters and many others - had joined Kerry Packer's "circus", World Series Cricket.
But India certainly did not boast of a strong side. While the bowling continued to be in the hands of the famous spin triumvirate of Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, the batting revolved around Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath. Though Australia fielded a relatively young and inexperienced side, the Kangaroos did not lack in competitive spirit and fighting ability. Besides Simpson, there was Jeff Thomson, the fastest bowler in the world at the time, in Australia's ranks.
It was a five-Test series and keeping the Indian batsmen's traditional weakness against pace bowling in mind, Australia always preferred to rely on brutal pace to tame Gavaskar and company. So much so, India was trailing 2-0 when the third Test began in Melbourne on December 30, 1977.
Bedi won the toss and decided to bat first on a pitch more conducive to spinners than speedsters. But India lost the openers Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan without a run on the board. Gavaskar was smartly taken by wicketkeeper Steve Rixon after he nicked a short-pitched delivery from Thomson. Chauhan was consumed by Wayne Clark.
Mohinder Amarnath (72), Gundappa Viswanath (59), Ashok Mankad (44), Dilip Vengsarkar (37) and Syed Kirmani (29) rescued the team and India posted a fairly respectable 256 in 69.2 overs.
The middle-order, particularly Amarnath, who had scored 90 and 100 in the previous Test in Perth, and Viswanath, who had been unable to convert his sweet 30s and 40s in bigger scores, handled Thomson and other quickies with aplomb. While Amarnath played some full-blooded hooks, Viswanath executed his favourite square-cuts and square-drives before falling to Thomson.
Thomson and Clark finished with 3 for 78 and 4 for 73 respectively.
Australia was expected to reply with a massive score but leggie Chandrasekhar had other ideas. He severely tested the Aussie batsmen, who did not seem to have any clue to his googlies, flippers and fastish leg-spinners. Only Simpson (65) and Gary Cosier (67) offered some resistance. Australia managed to score only 213 as Chandrasekhar claimed 6 for 52 in 14.1 overs.
Enjoying a slender 43-run lead, and riding on Gavaskar's 118, his third century in as many Tests, India scored 343 runs in the second innings. Viswanath scored 54 (the second of his record six Test fifties on a trot), Amarnath (41) and Mankad (38). While Thomson went wicketless, Clark again dismissed four batsmen.
The hosts required to score 387 in the fourth innings to win the Test and wrap up the rubber. But Chandra again bowled magnificently and sent Australia packing for a paltry 164 with yet another 6-wicket haul in the Test. India won by 222 runs and Chandrasekhar was declared Man of the Match.
If the 1980-81 Indian side, led by Gavaskar, was a slightly better one, the Australian team was quite formidable with the return of the Packer prodigals like skipper Greg Chappell, Lillee, Walters, Marsh and Len Pascoe. It was a three-Test series. India had suffered a heavy defeat in the first Test in Sydney and managed to draw the second in Adelaide.
On February 7, 1981, Chappell won a good toss and asked India to bat on a wicket with uneven and unpredictable bounce. Australia decided to rest fast bowler Rodney Hogg and included leggie Jim Higgs to accompany an already established offie in Bruce Yardley. Pretty soon Lillee and Pascoe created mayhem in the Indian batting line-up as the wickets began to fall like nine pins.
Gavaskar went for 10, Chauhan 0, Vengsarkar 12, Sandeep Patil 23, Yashpal Sharma 4 and Kapil Dev 5. The only saving grace was the 'little master' Viswanath, who stood tall amid ruins and played a jewel of an innings under truly trying circumstances. Though a bit cautious, he did not miss any opportunity to play his eye-catching shots all round the wicket.
Viswanath added 49 valuable runs with Kirmani (25) for the seventh wicket, 26 with Karsan Ghavri (0) for the eighth and 40 with Shivlal Yadav (20 not out) before he was ninth out (dismissed by Yardley) after scoring 114 in 274 minutes and off 222 balls. Each of his 11 hits to the fence, and many others besides, were truly top class. It was Viswanath at his vintage best against a very hostile pace attack on a helping wicket on the opening day of a crucial Test.
India made 237 in 84 overs. Lillee, who finished with 4 for 65, hailed Viswanath's chanceless century as "one of the finest innings against quality fast bowling and under pressure." It was Pascoe, however, who had amazing figures for a speed merchant: 22-11-29-3.
Australia responded with a huge total of 419 thanks to Allan Border (124), Walters (78) and Chappell (76). The trio blunted the left-armer Dilip Doshi and offie Yadav and treated medium-pacers Kapil Dev and Ghavri with disdain. But, to be fair to our bowlers, it must be mentioned that Kapil had pulled a thigh muscle and Doshi and Yadav had a fractured instep and a broken toe respectively.
A lead of 182 was always going to be very crucial on a mysterious wicket; and Australia were clearly on the driving seat. But the Indian batsmen, led by opener Gavaskar (70) and Chauhan (85), played with lot of guts and application against Lillee and Pascoe.
Just when Gavaskar appeared all set to score his only hundred of the series, and India on the road to recovery, umpire Rex Whitehead gave him out LBW off a Lillee delivery. Whitehead had officiated in all the three Tests and the Indians were not happy with many of his decisions. Gavaskar waved his bat towards Whitehead, indicating that he had edged the ball, but the Aussie remained unmoved.
Lillee had the temerity to go close to Gavaskar from his bowling mark and point out where the ball had actually hit the maestro on his pad. A reluctant, even furious Gavaskar left the crease and urged Chauhan to follow him to the pavilion as if he were in a mood to forfeit the game. Chauhan had no other option but to obey his captain's command. The 1982 edition of Wisden described the ugly event as "a dreadful scene", adding that "such bizarre incident... brought controversy over the umpiring to a head."
Chauhan had almost left the ground along with Gavaskar but for the timely intervention of the Indian manager, Wing Commander S.K. Durrani, India would surely have conceded the Test, which it eventually went on to win spectacularly against all odds.
The openers added 165. Then the middle-order took over. Vengsarkar (41), Patil (36) and Viswanath (30) kept up the momentum and India scored 324, leaving Australia a target of just 143 runs to win the Test and the series. Time was never a question as about an hour's play on the fourth day and the entire fifth day's play was left.
The injured Kapil Dev did not even bowl in the dying moments of the penultimate day. But Ghavri and Doshi did and removed three Aussie batsmen in a jiffy.
It was, of course, Ghavri who drew the first blood when he got rid of John Dyson (3) and Chappell (0) in successive balls. While Dyson was held behind the stumps, Chappell was deceived by a long-hop and was bowled neck and crop. When Graeme Wood was stumped by Kirmani off Doshi, the hosts were precariously placed at 18 for 3 at the draw of stumps.
The fifth day belonged to Kapil Dev and Doshi, who braved their injuries and dealt telling blows and did not stop till the hosts were bundled out for 83, leaving India triumphant by 59 runs.
Kapil Dev, who had taken pain-killing injections, bowled unchanged and took five of the seven wickets that Australia lost on the final day. His figures, 16.4-4-28-5, told their own story. Irrespective of his acute pain, Doshi gave Kapil Dev wonderful support and finished with 2 for 33 in 22 overs.
It was one of the greatest come-from-behind Test victories against a very powerful team. Viswanath was adjudged Man of the Match for rescuing India in the nick of time.
Though Melbourne has not been Team India's lucky grounds, Anil Kumble and his boys can derive inspiration from the two rare wins their predecessors had achieved at the MCG in spite being underdogs.