1986 India tour of England: when the bowlers led India to a series victory
Chetan Sharma, Dilip Vengsarkar and other heroes of the tour recall how it all came together in a rare overseas success
It had been barely two weeks since Chetan Sharma had faltered at the finishing line in Sharjah’s oppressive heat.
On the final ball of the Austral-Asia Cup final on 18 April 1986, Javed Miandad hit the shot that reverberated around the subcontinent. The last-ball six was to haunt Sharma; it certainly dogged him as he moved on to a tour of England.
Before heading to England, the medium pacer underwent training with his coach Desh Prem Azad in Chandigarh. The mentor worked on Sharma’s outswinger, but, more importantly, he was keen to ensure that his special ward did not lose his way.
Sharma was just 20. The weight of a soul-crushing loss to Pakistan was heavy. Azad decided to travel with Sharma.
The significance of the tour was considerable for Indian cricket too. India had won only four out of 52 Tests since the start of the decade. Moreover, under Kapil Dev’s leadership, the side had not won any of its 20 Test matches.
The achievements in limited-overs cricket—the 1983 World Cup and the 1985 World Championship of Cricket—had brought joy but this was a team which often found it tough to bowl the opposition out. With home Test series’ against Australia and Pakistan imminent, ahead of the 1987 World Cup, the Indian cricket board wanted India to wrap up their commitments in England earlier than usual.
However, rain delays dominated the first three weeks of the tour. Sharma, though, was already offering a glimpse of the havoc he was set to wreak in the Test matches. Under Azad’s watchful eyes, the medium pacer proved to be the best bowler in the warm-up games.
“I had to erase the incident from memory and replace it with positive memories, my coach would tell me daily. I earned my confidence back in the matches against counties," Sharma says.
India did not have positive memories of playing against England. More than a year earlier, in the winter of 1984-85, the English side had come from behind to defeat the Sunil Gavaskar-led side at home. Under Dev’s captaincy, though, the Indian squad was encouraged to believe that England was theirs for the taking.
Medium pacers who could exploit the swing-friendly conditions were assigned to take charge. This meant that the top wicket-taker in the 1984-85 series, L. Sivaramakrishnan, was not part of the team. The protagonists instead were Dev and Roger Binny, who took the new ball; Sharma was the first change.
“I wanted the new ball but I was still young and the captain handled me well. The batsmen would usually score 275-300 runs but our bowling had been weak. This time, Kapil Dev was not alone," says Sharma.
Maninder Singh recalls that the team’s outlook had changed too. “Kapil urged us to play to win...We gelled really well and I felt happy within the group. The atmosphere was absolutely fabulous, electrifying. That got me going. There was a buzz on the ground," says the left-arm spinner.
The turmoil engulfing English cricket would have helped. David Gower’s captaincy was hanging by a thread, while Ian Botham had been suspended for admitting to cannabis use in a newspaper column.
England chose just five specialist batsmen for Lord’s despite the battering they had received in the West Indies just months ago. Gower was unlikely to survive a sixth successive Test defeat. He did not.
The first three days suggested the match was headed for a draw, with Sharma’s five-wicket haul and Dilip Vengsarkar’s third Test century at Lord’s (the first foreigner to achieve this) allowing India a lead.
But Day 4 set the tone for the series. England were destroyed early by Dev, who dismissed the top three batsmen, and Maninder Singh stepped up to sweep the tail. The left-arm spinner, who finished the series with 12 wickets at 15.58 runs, was not out of place in the cold English conditions.
“Our coach used to train us on hard turf wickets. I understood the need to flight (the ball)," reminisces Singh.
A target of 134 was chased down, and Dev grew bullish. “We were on a rampage. England were unsettled, and we capitalized. They even changed the captain," Dev recalls over the phone.
But things were going to change for India as well. Before the second Test at Leeds, Sharma suffered a back spasm that ruled him out of the match. The team management called up Madan Lal.
According to Dev, this decision opened a Pandora’s box. Manoj Prabhakar, who was also handy with the bat, had expected to be drafted in place of Sharma.
“Manoj Prabhakar was unhappy. I was looking for more depth and experience in bowling. Madan Lal was already playing in England, so he came and delivered. I would have been criticized if he had failed," recalls Dev.
India won by 279 runs in Leeds. For the only time in their history, India had won two Tests on a tour of England.
Although it was the bowlers who annihilated the hosts, Vengsarkar set the gold standard by scoring another century.
“The Leeds hundred was special because it was a low-scoring game. The pitch could not be differentiated from the ground. My skills came to the fore as I watched the ball very closely. We had won in 1971, but it was more about the way we won in 1986. Our bowling dominated England," Vengsarkar says over the phone.
India could have gone on to win 3-0 in Birmingham but they failed to push the initiative on the final day. However, the match will be remembered for the wicket-taking abilities of Sharma. To this day, he remains the only Indian to have taken 10 wickets in a Test in England.
For once, Dev was not the top wicket-taker for India in a series abroad. “This must have happened for the first time," claims Sharma.
Thirty-two years on, Dev has only kind words for his team. “Chetan was extraordinary, Vengsarkar, exceptional. It was a team of good experience and gifted youngsters. You don’t always need a big set of talented players; it was the question of the right combination. The bowlers deserved more credit."
That summer, India could do little wrong, though they had the reputation of performing poorly on away tours. As India return to England this summer, having suffered overwhelming defeats on their previous two visits, perhaps the memory of 1986 can spark a turnaround.
The bowling resources at Virat Kohli’s disposal give hope to Dev and those who played under him 32 years ago.