The gentleman’s fame was introduced to India by European sailors in the 18th century. Right from the beginning, Chepauk cricket ground, part of the Arcot Palace that was spread over 117 acres, was associated with the game in this cricket-mad city.
Finding the palace grounds of a shrivelling Nawab an ideal location, the Englishmen in the city led by British official Alexander Arbuthnot got together here for the game. Years later in 1916, the Chepauk Stadium was established.
For long years since it started playing the game, India had never tasted victory. So subdued was India’s performance over the years that England sent a second string side during the 1951-52 tour.
India had an upper hand in the first three Tests, though they had ended in draws. But in Kanpur, England turned the tables and decisively beat India. As the teams reached Chepauk for the last Test of the series, Vijay Hazare (aged nearly 40), who had nearly snatched victory from the West Indies (6 runs short when the day ended) at Brabourne stadium just two years earlier, led India.
At Chepauk, England chose to bat after winning the toss. At the end of the first day’s play, the score was a healthy 224 for 5. But when they left the ground for the dressing room, the English players had a distressing news awaiting them: British King George VI had died of coronary thrombosis.
George, a cricket loving royal, was the ruling monarch of one team and had been the last emperor of the other. The Patron of the Marylebone, Surrey and Lancashire clubs, he often went to the Lord’s ground and in his 1949 New Year’s honours, then Australian captain Donald Bradman received a Knighthood. Immediately after his death, the officials convened a meeting and the Test was re-scheduled. The second day of the Test was declared a rest day.
On day two of the match, actually the third day, players took to the field with black armbands as a sign of mourning. Perhaps distressed by the death of their monarch, the Englishmen were rather subdued. The visitors could manage just 42 more runs, as Vinoo Mankad ran through the lower order, bagging 8 wickets for just 55 runs.
Sensing blood, the Indian batsman went on a rampage. When Hazare eventually declared the innings to force England bat through the unnerving final minutes of the third day, Polly Umrigar was unbeaten on 130, with India leading by 191 runs. Young Umrigar had played one of the most crucial of his many fabulous innings that would make him a spine of Indian batting. Ironically, had it not been for a sprained wrist of Hemu Adhikari, Umrigar, still searching for a decent score in Test cricket, would have been sitting out. Chepauk gave him the chance he was waiting for.
For the remaining two days, England was pushed onto the back foot. Mankad and Ghulam Ahmed made excellent use of a wearing track, picking up four wickets each. Only four English batsmen managed to reach double figures.
The Madras crowd got a whiff of the long-awaited Test victory. There was a sense of expectancy excitement in the temporarily attached makeshift stands (with casuarina poles and wooden planks and a thatched roof on top) of Chepauk — brimming to its 25,000 capacity.
The match could not have ended more fittingly. When Mankad lobbed a seemingly innocuous ball, the batsman, Malcolm Hilton, was unable to contain his temptation and stepped out of the crease. But he was beaten and wicketkeeper Probir Sen collected the ball and whipped off the bails in a flash.
The spectators went delirious, erupting into a deafening ovation. The two-decade wait had ended with a victory by an innings and eight runs.
CD Gopinath, the only local boy in the team, snapped the winning ball and held on to it as is prized possession till the end. Huge crowd gathered around the hotel to see the men who made history in Chepauk on the afternoon of February 10, 1952, which took nineteen and a half years in coming. And so impressed by the team being spun to victory, spinners were the main wicket-takers in most of its later matches for almost three decades.
(Reference: The days gone by: Glimpses of India’s Test cricket journey by P Ramachander)
—The author is a historian