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The MCG thriller of 1981

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25th December, 2018
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Being locked one-all in the current Test series, Australia and India are about to resume their rivalries in the Boxing Day Test starting in Melbourne today.

This takes me back 38 years, where an incredible Test was played at the same venue between the same contestants.

For India, this 1980-81 tour was like an Indiana Jones or Charlie Chan movie when everything goes wrong for the main character.

He is bashed, a truck runs over him, he is ejected from a plane, crunched in a metal crusher and partly eaten alive by a piranha. Yet he comes back smiling and destroys his enemies before ‘The End’ flashes on the screen.

After winning the series 2-0 at home in 1979-80, India was full of confidence when they toured Australia in 1980-81.

However, the return of Greg Chappell, Doug Walters, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh to the Test fold considerably strengthened the home team.

Also, the visitors’ new-found confidence was shattered in the first Test in Sydney, when they lost by an innings in three days.

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Lucky to draw the second Test in Adelaide, they shocked their hosts by winning the final Test in Melbourne to tie the three-Test series 1-1.

This was the first time India had not lost a Test series Down Under.

This Melbourne Test had everything: attractive batting, beguiling bowling, a mega dose of controversy with a hint of conceding the Test, as well as gallantry and Australia collapsing ignominiously in the final innings.

The biggest controversy of Sunil Gavaskar’s career came in this Test.

Leading 1-0 in the three-Test series, Australia needed only 143 runs to win the Test and the series 2-0.

But, on a crumbling MCG pitch, things went horribly wrong for Greg Chappell’s team.

The match is more remembered though for the Gavaskar ‘walk-off’ incident on the fourth day.

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Trailing Australia by 182 runs, India put up a big fight in the second innings, with skipper Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan contributing 165 runs for the opening partnership.

Both the Indian openers were playing comfortably on a wicket with plenty of juice.

When on 70, Gavaskar was given out lbw to Lillee. The Indian great vehemently disagreed with the decision and openly argued with umpire Rex Whitehead.

On hearing sledges from the bowler, Gavaskar lost his cool and urged his partner Chauhan to leave the field with him. Thus India came close to forfeiting this match.

Fortunately for India and for cricket, India’s manager – wing commander SK Durrani – met the pair at the gate and ordered Chauhan to continue his innings.

Although Gavaskar is my friend and a hero, he was wrong in doing what he did in the Melbourne Test.

Here is how Gavaskar explains the background of this incident in his book Idols (1983);

“I was batting well for the first time in the series and was middling the ball well. It looked like I would get a few runs when a ball from Lillee kept low and as I played it with the inside edge of the bat it went on to hit the pad.

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“After that, a typical Lillee appeal for leg before wicket followed as he danced down the track, eventually winning the appeal.

“At this stage I must say that the umpiring of Mr Whitehead had disappointed us, for he gave a lot of decisions that went against us.”

Gavaskar added that their disappointment had reached the stage where his teammates were requesting that he do something about it.

“For example, the previous day when Allan Border was bowled when trying to sweep Shivlal Yadav, the umpires had to confer with each other to give that decision.”

After that, wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani told Gavaskar that if the umpire had given Border not out, he would have walked off.

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Perhaps the words ‘walk off’ were subconsciously imprinted on his mind the next day when Lillee’s appeal was upheld.

He was furious at the umpire for giving that decision.

Gavaskar added, “When the umpire did not reverse his decision a lot of anger was boiling within me but still the idea of walking off did not strike me.

When I walked past Chetan, I heard Lillee utter one of his profanities which was a very delayed reaction from him and it was then that I lost my balance of mind and told Chetan to walk off with me.

“That is one of the most regrettable incidents in my life. Whatever may be the provocation and whatever the reason, there was no justification for my action and now I realise that I did not behave the way a captain and sportsman should.

I take all blame and responsibility for my action … I do not fully blame Lillee because whatever may be the provocation, I should have kept my cool and allowed the anger to die down.”

He later apologised for his actions.

A wide shot of the MCG during a cricket match.

The MCG was home to a thrilling Boxing Day Test in 1980. (Photo: Julian Smith/AAP)

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Gavaskar still maintains that he had played the ball and was not out. However, Lillee in his book Over and Out (1984) claims Gavaskar had not played the ball at all and was clearly out.

This on-field altercation has not altered Gavaskar’s opinion of Lillee. According to him, “Dennis Lillee is the greatest fast bowler in cricketing history.”

Back to the topsy-turvy 1981 Melbourne Test.

Gundappa Viswanath was passing through a bad patch. Garfield Sobers, then living in Melbourne, advised him to play straight and not attempt any shots square of the wicket until he was on 40.

Following his advice, Viswanath scored 114 in the first innings.

But others failed and India could total only 237, Lillee and Len Pascoe claiming seven wickets between them.

Border hit 124, Greg Chappell 76 and Doug Walters 78, giving Australia a comfortable lead of 182.

Amidst the drama of India’s second innings, Lillee took four wickets (and eight in the match) and India made 324, leaving Australia a token 143 for a win and a 2-0 series victory.

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In this match, Lillee, playing his 48th Test, overtook Richie Benaud’s Australian record of 248 wickets in 63 Tests. Lillee became the sixth bowler to take 250 wickets.

Shocks were in store for the home team, however, as the modest target of 143 proved beyond them.

They collapsed sensationally against an Indian attack weakened by injuries to her main bowlers, Kapil Dev, Surendrakumar Yadav and Dilip Doshi.

Allan Border batting

Allan Border’s men collapsed. (Photo by Adrian Murrell/Getty Images)

Australia was already on her knees at stumps on the fourth day, being three for 24, when Chappell was bowled by Karsan Ghavri for a duck.

A rejuvenated India continued torturing the home team on a deteriorating MCG pitch and Australia was shot out for a miserable 83 to lose by 59 runs.

A gallant bowling spell by Kapil Dev (5/28 despite a pulled thigh muscle) and Doshi (2/33 in spite of a fractured instep) brought India her third victory in 17 Tests in Australia.

The wounded heroes, Kapil and Doshi, bowled unchanged on the epic final day.

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After this vitriolic and victorious MCG Test, R Mohan was moved to write in Indian Cricket 1981;

“Instead of limping off like Napoleon from Moscow, the Indians could hold their heads aloft as they left Melbourne for New Zealand, having risen Lazarus-like from the depths of defeat to savour the aroma of victory that was indeed little short of a miracle.”

For the first time, India had shared a Test series Down Under.