Willis et al provide England benchmark
If England find themselves seeking inspiration as they look to claw their way back into the four-Test series against India, a voyage into the record books may be wise.
Alastair Cook’s current crop find themselves 1-0 down having lost by nine wickets in the opening encounter at Ahmedabad.
They gear up for the second Test in Mumbai, starting on Friday, knowing a win would provide a much-needed boost to their hopes of becoming the first England touring side to leave India successful since 1984-85.
Peering back over that series may well motivate Cook et al, yet the triumph overseen by Tony Greig almost a decade earlier perhaps offers even more reason for optimism.
Ahead of the 1976-77 contest, the hosts, boasting the likes of acclaimed left-arm spinner Bishan Bedi, were expected to win handily against an England side featuring several rookie batsmen.
Legendary paceman Bob Willis, a key component of Greig’s side, takes up the story in conversation with ecb.co.uk.
He said: “England had had two big hidings at home by Australia in ‘75 and West Indies in ‘76, so when we set off with Greigy, there were quite a few inexperienced players.
“Bowlers like (Bishan) Bedi, (Bhagwath) Chandrasekhar, (Srinivas) Venkataraghavan and (Erapalli) Prasanna were world-class in their own right.
“I think they were licking their lips a little bit when they saw quite an inexperienced England batting line-up going out there.”
Bedi was right to be excited as England's greener touring batsmen largely struggled. Yet he could not have expected veterans Dennis Amiss, Greig and Alan Knott to step up as impressively as they did.
Willis added: “They were playing three spinners and part-timers and the art was crease occupation. The likes of (Mike) Brearley, (Derek) Randall, (Graham) Barlow and (Bob) Woolmer really struggled on the tour.
“As there always is, there were some late-season selections; Graham Barlow did well in one-day cricket towards the end of the season, but never really looked a Test player on that tour.
“Batting certainly was not easy against any type of bowling. Apart from Madras, the pitches were really made for spinners which made England’s performance so much better.
“I think the key thing was that the side did have players who had been on the 72-73 tour and had had quite a lot of experience of Indian conditions.
“The likes of Amiss, (Keith) Fletcher, Greig and Knott had been before, so that was vital. It was no real surprise that, apart from Fletcher who had an ankle injury and a bit of a loss of form, those guys had very good tours.
“But, although it was a really close-knit touring party, only half of the players actually performed on the tour.”
While the aforementioned seasoned campaigners provided the necessary runs, England’s exceptional bowling attack - the star being spinner Derek Underwood - also played a key role.
Willis said: “The three seam bowlers - John Lever, Chris Old and myself - did well, but the rest really struggled on the tour, which is often the way in sub-continent conditions.
“Although there were two specialist spinners in the party, Tony Greig did the off-spinning which helped to strengthen the batting because Geoff Cope and Geoff Miller did not get a Test between them.
“None of their batsman played Underwood with any confidence. I think these days, with the proliferation of one-day cricket, people would look to attack him more.
“But that was not the way back then; people just tried to play him from the crease and ‘Deadly’s’ control was excellent. Backed up by Alan Knott’s brilliant wicketkeeping, they were an awesome combination.”
The upshot was England enjoying the kind of dominance that few predicted prior to the series, starting with a crushing innings-and-25-run triumph at Delhi.
Willis said: “The key thing was that John Lever got off to that brilliant start in Delhi. It was a pretty flat and slow pitch, but the ball swung prodigiously for John.
“That really set the tone for those first three Test matches - the seamers along with Underwood did most of the damage and Amiss got a big hundred.”
Another outstanding performance followed in Kolkata - a 10-wicket success - before England wrapped up the five-Test series on a pacey surface in Madras, now Chennai.
“Madras, as it was in those days, was an extraordinary pitch,” enthused Willis. “It was one of the fastest I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world, which was pretty strange considering the strength of our bowling attack.
“I do not think anything like that would happen these days. We really steamrollered them in the third Test and they were shellshocked after that because previously England’s series in India had been very attritional.”
India saved some face in the next two encounters, winning in Bangalore before the spoils were shared at Mumbai - but few onlookers would deny that the 3-1 scoreline flattered the hosts rather than England.
Willis certainly agrees, saying: “I am not sure anyone would deny that 3-1 was a fair result. It was a real shock to Bishen Bedi and the rest of the Indian side and cricket-watching population.”
That fact illustrates the magnitude of England’s win - one that Willis will remember for the rest of his life.
He said: “It’s tremendous. There has never been anything like it. To go 3-0 up away from home against anybody is virtually unheard of, but to go to India and achieve that was quite remarkable.”
England’s current crop would have to go some way to match that 3-1 scoreline, but, then again, few believed Willis and Co could do what they did.