In all the Tests they have played since 1932 the Indian team has had their share of frustrations, being narrowly deprived of victory through various factors. But surely in this regard, the experience against England at the Oval on September 4 1979 must rank as the most painful in Indian cricket history. A victory would have been statistically the greatest in Test cricket but a combination of factors saw the Indians fall tantalizingly short of a formidable target when they were inches away from reaching it.
It was the last day of the final Test of the four-match series. Over the first four days, England’s dominance was complete. They scored 305, bowled India out for 202, and then declared their second innings at 334 for eight leaving India the herculean task of getting 438 for victory. The highest successful run chase in Tests was India’s 406 for four against the West Indies at Port of Spain in 1976.
Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan however raised hopes by batting through the final session of the fourth day and coming through unbeaten with 76 runs on the board. So now it finally boiled down to the following options. Could India get 362 runs on the final day with all their wickets intact? Could England bowl out India inside six hours? Or would the game end in a draw?
At lunch Gavaskar and Chauhan were very much at the crease scoring runs at a steady pace. Gavaskar was by now past his hundred and it was not until mid-afternoon that the stand was broken with Chauhan falling for 80 the partnership having realized 213 runs. There was no respite for England as Vengsarkar joined Gavaskar and the two battled on till tea when the score was 304 for one. When the mandatory 20 overs started India were 328 for one and suddenly India were the favorites to pull off a remarkable triumph for just another 110 runs were required and they had nine wickets in hand to pursue glory.
Gavaskar reached a memorable double hundred and Vengsarkar his half-century and the second wicket partnership was worth 153 runs before the latter was out for 52. It was now 366 for two and surely Viswanath with his class, skill, and experience along with Gavaskar who was batting like a master could continue the run chase fluently. Surprisingly however it was Kapil Dev who came in. The cricketing world knows him as one who could hit the ball hard and high but this was the inexperienced 20-year-old’s first year in international cricket. As soon as he came in he essayed a big hit, was out for zero and India were 367 for three.
Yashpal Sharma and Gavaskar took the score to 389 when finally after batting just over eight hours the latter holed out to mid-on. His 221 was a masterly exhibition of dedication, determination, and concentration but along the way, he had displayed his immaculate strokes in no small measure.
India had gradually lost the initiative but it was hoped that the remaining batsmen could still see India through. But hereabouts a couple of questionable umpiring decisions went against India and that was the last straw.
Wickets fell at regular intervals, not enough runs were scored and when the last over commenced India needed 15 runs for victory but they had just two wickets in hand. Ultimately they finished on 429 for eight and though they received plaudits aplenty for their gallant effort they could not cap their dominance with the victory they so richly deserved.