Chetan Chauhan, the former Indian opener, died of COVID-19 at Gurugram, Haryana on 16th of August.
Just the previous day, MS Dhoni had declared his intention to retire from international cricket entirely. Most of the cricket websites in India were busy discussing different Dhoni stories, and the news of Chauhan’s death didn’t get much attention.
Of course to many young cricket lovers he is largely a little known figure. His international career ended way back in 1981. Also, many young generation members of northern India are more familiar with Chauhan the minister than Chauhan the cricketer.
In this scenario I was greatly pleased to read a wonderful article on him here at The Roar. I must admit, I knew little about his strong connection with Australia.
As I attempt to pay my own tribute, I would like to focus mainly on one thing: his great ability to fight with his back to the wall. Perhaps, he can be described as a born fighter – and this may have something to do with his Rajput family background.
Also, he was born less than a month before India’s long awaited independence in 1947, so he grew up with an independent, fearless mind. As a batsman, he never had the technique of his more famous opening partner Sunil Gavaskar, but he never lacked in confidence or in courage.
An interesting fact about him is that five of his top seven scores in Tests came in away matches. This is quite unusual for subcontinent batsmen, many of whom score freely in the sun-baked pitches only to struggle in more seamer-friendly conditions elsewhere.
During the tour to Australia in 1981, India was thrashed in the opening Test at the SCG. Then they struggled in the field for the first two days at Adelaide as the home side rattled a 500-plus score. Then the Indian top order struggled as they reached 4-130. But Chauhan remained a rock and along with Sandeep Patil (174) started the Indian recovery. Sadly, Chauhan missed a ton – Dennis Lillee dismissed him for 97 with a cleverly bowled leg cutter.
Chauhan played his part in the historic Indian success at the MCG a couple of weeks later. In fact, his 85 and the 165-run opening stand with the skipper in the second innings inspired the whole Indian team.
While 97 at the Adelaide Oval was his highest score, perhaps he was most unlucky to miss a hundred at Lahore in the second innings in 1978. Here also the Indian opening pair put on a century stand (192) before Chauhan was dismissed – controversially given caught behind off the part-time leg spin of Javed Miandad. Sadly, in those days there was no review system available.
Of course, the most famous partnership of the Sunil-Chetan duo was at the Oval in 1979. Chasing 437 for victory, India were given a great start with an opening stand of 213. Gavaskar looked at his best, scoring freely against both the pacers and the spinners. Chauhan didn’t possess the same array of strokes, but he provided the perfect support. History beckoned India on the final evening before some injudicious decisions by the skipper Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan allowed England back in the game. The match finished in an exciting draw.
At home, at Kanpur in the autumn of 1979, he played a major part in India’s victory over Australia. He scored 58 and 84 in a match of fluctuating fortunes. In the first innings, India slumped from 1-201 to 271 all out with Geoff Dymock and Rodney Hogg bowling their hearts out. Kim Hughes’ young Australians even took a first innings lead of 33. Then Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar fell cheaply in the second innings, but yet again everyone saw Chauhan at his best in difficult circumstances. He top scored with 84 and the middle order produced some useful scores as the tourists lost their control of the match despite the heroics of Dymock.
I can add a few more cases. At Calcutta in the fifth Test of the 1979 series, Kim Hughes’ bold declaration seemed to work for a while as the home side reached 3-70 chasing 247 runs on the final day. But Chauhan (50) and young Yashpal Sharma (85*) ensured India’s safety.
On the Christmas day of the same year, the fourth Test against Pakistan started at the Green Park, Kanpur. And, for once, the Green Park produced a green top. On the opening morning Sikander Bakht and Ehtessamuddin restricted India to 8-69 before the tail wagged and took the score to 161. Still, Pakistan took a 88-run lead, but Chauhan (61) and Gavaskar (81) shared a century stand to wrestle back the initiative. The match ended in a draw.
In his final first-class match, in the Ranji Trophy final of 1985, he scored 98 and 54 with a fractured finger playing for Delhi against Bombay. He still ended up in the losing team. Interestingly, Gavaskar scored a century in Bombay’s first innings.
So, difficult situations normally brought the best out of Chauhan. Sadly, it’s common for such players to often fail to make hay while the sun shines – or to put it another way, perform in easier conditions. Starting from December 1978 until January 1980 India played 16 Tests at home against the West Indies, Australia and Pakistan. And these were the missed opportunities for him.
The Windies and the Aussie sides had much depleted bowling attacks, while for Pakistan, Imran Khan struggled with injuries and Sarfraz Nawaz, the hero of the MCG earlier in the year, remained sidelined due to his indifference with the skipper Asif Iqbal. So it presented great opportunities for the Indian batsmen and Vengsarkar took the opportunity to establish himself as a reliable number three in Tests. But for Chauhan, it was a disappointing time.
He started well against the Windies, scoring 52 and 84 at Mumbai. But then he struggled with fitness problems, and although he didn’t miss any matches, he failed to produce his best. Then against the Aussies, he had numerous starts but that 84 at Kanpur remained his best score. And against Pakistan, he struggled against the pace of Sikander Bakht. These missed chances certainly affected his overall Test record. And his critics used these stats when he was unceremoniously dumped at the beginning of the 1981-82 home series against England.
Though not directly related to the main theme of this article, I would like to add a bit more information about him.
Chauhan made his Test debut against NZ during the 1969-70 season. He was among a number of beneficiaries of chief selector Vijay Merchant’s ‘go young’ policy of the season. After humiliating away defeats in England and Australia, the Indian board decided to gradually rebuild their team with the future in mind. So many youngsters got their chances at the time.
Gundappa Viswanath became an instant success. Chauhan and Mohinder Amarnath became eventual successes, but took their time. And some like Ambar Roy, Ajit Pai and Ashok Gandotra went into oblivion very quickly.
In his first innings, against NZ at Mumbai, he scored only 18 runs. His innings included two fours and one six off fast bowler Bruce Taylor. Remarkably this was the only six of his Test career.
He first opened with Gavaskar at Madras against Tony Lewis’ Englishmen in the 1972-73 series, but it wasn’t a happy experience. He really established himself in the Test team with his 88 at the WACA in 1977. Batting first, India lost Gavaskar cheaply, but Chauhan and Mohinder Amarnath, with a fine second-wicket stand, gave India the initiative. Although the home side won the match with a successful fourth-innings chase on the final day, Chauhan didn’t look back after his WACA success.
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Overall, the Sunil-Chetan combination produced 11 century stands – ten as openers. At Mumbai in December 1978, the pair put on 117 for the fourth wicket.
When Chetan was dropped in late 1981, his critics mainly focused on his inability to convert fifties into hundreds. They also pointed towards his ordinary average of 31. Interestingly, in the previous season, Chauhan had been the more successful opener for India. He scored 249 in Australia (average of 41.50) and 139 runs against NZ (average of 27.80) while Gavaskar only managed 118 (average of 19.67) in Australia and 126 (average of 25.20) in NZ.
After their century stand at the MCG was broken in dramatic fashion, the pair shared their final century stand at Christchurch in the rain-affected second Test. There the pair put on 114 for the first wicket, but then Sir Richard Hadlee ran through the middle order to restrict India to 255 all out.
Still, Chauhan was dropped at the beginning of the next season. And what happened next? In about nine months Gavaskar had five different opening partners.
And the success of the Gavaskar-Chauhan combination was not confined to just their batting. At Faisalabad, in 1978, Gavaskar picked up his only Test wicket: Zaheer Abbas caught Chauhan, bowled Gavaskar for 96. But Gavaskar always insisted that this wicket gave him more pain than joy, because Zaheer – who had scored 176 in the first go – was denied his chance to join the group to score two hundreds in the same Test.
By the way, Chauhan himself occasionally bowled a bit of off spin, and Peter Sleep has the honour of being his only Test victim. He was dismissed by Chauhan for 64 on the final day of the drawn Delhi Test of 1979.
RIP Chetan Chauhan.