Non-stop cricket in the summer of 1971
India played cricket on 68 of the 76 days they spent in England during the 1971 tour
On the morning of 26 June, Essex reduced the touring Indians to three runs for four wickets—all four batsmen out for a duck. The Indians recovered to post 164, but Essex eventually won the match by six wickets.
It was just the Indians’ second match, and it would remain the only loss they suffered during that English tour. During the tour, the Indians played 19 games of cricket, three of them five-day Tests against England and the rest three-day first-class matches against county teams. They won seven of those games—one, memorably, a Test—drew 11 and lost one.
That’s an impressive record by any standards. But something else about that tour might be even more impressive: Between 23 June-7 September, the Indians played cricket nearly every single day. The exceptions were 21 July, 3 and 4 August, 18 and 31 August. Seventy-six days of touring, and just five days off from cricket. Think of that.
Well, actually they had three more days off—25 July, 8 August and 22 August. Those three were the “rest days" during each of the Tests. That’s right, a day off after three days of a Test, a custom that has long gone the way of the dinosaur.
But, in 1971, Tests had them. Anyway, here’s what I’m getting at: Take away those three rest days and those other five days off—and on that 1971 English tour, the Indians were playing cricket without break.
Of course, the team rotated its players. For example, take Ajit Wadekar, the captain, and Sunil Gavaskar, the new superstar in Indian cricket, only months past a spectacular debut series in the West Indies. Both played the first three matches of the tour—Middlesex, Essex and DH Robins’ XI, from 23 June-2 July—before sitting out the next, versus Kent. Then they played the next four matches—Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Glamorgan and Hampshire, from 7-20 July—took 21 July off with their teammates and played the first Test, 22-27 July.
Gavaskar wasn’t done. He went on to play the game after, versus the Minor Counties (28-30 July). That is, between 7-30 July, Gavaskar was playing every day except two (21 July and the Test’s rest day): 22 days of cricket in a 24-day stretch.
It’s not just the nearly non-stop cricket. Consider too what happened between matches. The match with Kent was at Canterbury and finished late on 6 July. The Indians had to then travel 3 hours that evening to Leicester, about 250km, sleep as best they could, and be ready to take on Leicestershire the next morning. Not all of them, of course, but these six men played both matches: Abbas Ali Baig, Ashok Mankad, Dilip Sardesai, Eknath Solkar, S. Venkataraghavan and B.S. Chandrasekhar.
Later in the tour, the teams had similar evening trips of about 275km (Hove to Taunton on 27 August, between the Sussex and Somerset games) and 310km (Worcester to Scarborough on 3 September between the Worcestershire and TN Pearce’s XI games). Seven of the Indians played against both Worcestershire and TN Pearce’s XI, the last tour engagement.
You’ll forgive the details. I use them to start nailing down a simple point: Cricket tours of England are just not what they used to be. Of course, there were no limited-over formats in 1971. So this tour, like every other in that era, comprised only first-class games (usually three-four days) and Tests (five days).
In much the same way, an international team touring India would play each of the five zones that played for the Duleep Trophy, perhaps the Ranji Trophy champions, and likely a President’s XI or a Combined Universities’ XI—besides the Tests. Tours of England tended to pack in more games only because that country has so many county sides that play first-class cricket.
Modern tours are dramatically different. Take India’s last tour of England, in 2014. They played two three-day first-class matches (Leicestershire and Derbyshire) at the start, with two days off between them (29 and 30 June). After five days off, they plunged straight into the five Tests against England. No rest day during each Test, but between Tests they had three-six days off each time. Then a 50-over one-day match against Middlesex, followed by five straight ODIs against England, with one-two days off between games. The tour ended with a Twenty20 match against England.
Note the big difference from 1971. None of the 2014 Indians played anything like 22 days of cricket in a 24-day stretch, like Gavaskar had done 43 years earlier. The longest stretch was five days, during each of the first three Tests (as it happened, India lost the fourth and fifth Tests in three days each). Not once were successive matches played on successive days, so there was never a need to trundle 300km across rolling English countryside after the end of a match, to reach the next venue the same evening and be ready to play the next day.
You might feel I’m nostalgic for the old-style tours, and you would be right. After all, consider that the primary reason for such a tour must surely be to give the greatest number of people the chance to watch a good game of cricket.
Towards that end, packing in as much play as possible in as many different venues as possible makes sense, even if it means plenty of travel, and playing nearly every day. In any case, that’s why tour teams have 15-16 players—so that they can be rotated for each match.
I know there’s no going back to those good old days—those who run cricket know far better than I where the money is. Yet, what I wouldn’t give for a return to those earlier tours.
I’ve not yet come to what I believe is the greatest boon of the 1971-style tours. It’s that they gave a whole lot of lesser teams, lesser players, the chance to play serious cricket against top-flight opposition in the form of the touring team. If a player made a mark, that might just have opened up a spot for him in the national side. Even if that didn’t happen, he would have had his own moment in the sun.
The 1971 tour had plenty of moments like that. For example, I’m sure the 1971 Essex players still crow that their team handed out to the Indians their only defeat of the tour. Those things are matters of pride, and justifiably so.
Apart from that, playing for Hampshire against the Indians, Richard Gilliat scored 50 and 79, both more than the scores of Hampshire’s big star, the great South African Barry Richards. Then, in the Sussex match, Mike Buss hit his way to 140.
Neither Buss nor Gilliat was ever selected for England, so these scores against that strong Indian side were probably career highlights for them. Similarly, Tom Cartwright took eight Indian wickets in the Somerset match—six years after last playing for England, this may have been something of a reminder to the selectors. Three years after being despatched for six sixers in one over by the remarkable Garry Sobers, Malcolm Nash might just have erased some of that pain in an unexpected way—by scoring 75 for Glamorgan against the Indians.
Then there was Mumbai’s Byculla-born John Jameson. He had played first-class cricket for over 10 years by the time the Indians took the field in Birmingham on 10 July 1971, to play his Warwickshire team. They were probably 10 years of frustration because there had been no England call-up. But he seems to have poured it all into his assault on the Indian bowlers that day, to the tune of 231 runs, and the national selectors finally noticed him. In less than a month, he was playing the Indians again, this time for England, in the second Test. He made 15 and 28, and then scored an 82 in the famous third Test that India won to take the series.
Jameson didn’t have much of a Test career—he played only twice more for England, over two years later, and that 82 was his highest Test score. But despite that, his was a classic case of the best reason of all for touring sides to play plenty of first-class matches: a chance for domestic talent to shine.
What a pity we have tossed that chance into the dustbin of cricket history. So as Virat Kohli’s India team readies for its English summer, you will excuse me if I wallow in the nostalgia of tours past.
I reserve a special nostalgia for that long English summer of 1971. Then, we had cricket as it was meant to be played. Every day, all over the place, against all kinds of opposition. Sorry Virat, your forthcoming tour simply does not match up.