The sight of an Englishman scoring a double-century on the way to an emphatic victory in Chennai might have triggered certain memories in the England fan of a certain age. It was only the 13th time in the past half-century that an England player has scored a double-century in an away Test, and though it seems to be becoming more common – it was the second time Root has done it in the space of a month – this remains a rare feat: in the 1970s, 80s and 90s combined it happened only four times. Of those four, two came on a single day in January 1985 when England were, as they are now, in Chennai, and when one of the two batsmen who reached this magnificent milestone was playing his penultimate Test, in his final series.
Accepted wisdom, certainly at the time, was that Graeme Fowler was a batsman of imperfect technique and unpredictable results, destined to be cast aside – as indeed he was – as soon as Graham Gooch became available for selection following a three-year ban for captaining England’s rebel tour of South Africa in 1982. But this is to ignore both Fowler’s achievements in an England shirt, and also the real reason he stopped being asked to wear one.
The Spin finds “Foxy” Fowler in ebullient form on yet another cold, grey winter’s day, interrupting the succession of DIY tasks with which he has kept himself entertained since Covid struck. “I’d crushed two vertebrae in a car accident seven years earlier and over time they started to recalcify and trap my nerves,” he says. The long-term impact of the car accident was only discovered after Fowler started to unexpectedly feel pins and needles, mainly down his left side. “It would last a couple of days then it would go, and it wouldn’t come back for ages. Then over a period of time it became more frequent and lasted longer. Then it got to the stage where it never really went away.
“It was when I got back to England after the India tour, I picked my coffin – which is what we used to call our kit bags – off the carousel and it was like someone had stuck a nail through my neck. I thought: ‘I’ve got to get this sorted.’” X-rays swiftly identified the problem, though he delayed the surgery required to correct it until the end of that summer. “I’d played all my Test cricket with a broken neck, ostensibly,” he says. “I made a stupid mistake, I didn’t tell anybody what was wrong with me. But I couldn’t coordinate, every time I moved my head it was a sharp pain. I went from scoring 200 for England to the Lancashire 2nd XI in about three months.”
After his operation Fowler came back to excel again for Lancashire – in the summer of 1987 he scored precisely 1,800 first-class runs, second only to Graeme Hick’s 1,879 – and, later, Durham, and played a couple of one-day internationals in 1986. But his Test career had come to an end with the conclusion of a trip to India that he remembers both for the cricket and the chaos.
The chaos first. Three hours after England’s touring party touched down Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister, was assassinated. “We arrived at 3am in Delhi to be met on the doorstep of the hotel by three Indian musicians dressed as Mexican bandits singing Home on the Range, which was a bit bizarre,” Fowler says. “We went straight to bed, and when I got up and went down to breakfast I got in a lift and this American guy said: ‘Great time to arrive.’ I said: ‘What do you mean?’ And he said: ‘Gandhi’s been assassinated.’ I thought: ‘Oh hell.’”
As a result of the assassination the first Test was delayed and moved to Mumbai, where the touring party went to a party hosted by Britain’s deputy high commissioner, Percy Norris; the following morning Norris was murdered by Palestinian terrorists. “We didn’t know if we were a potential target,” Fowler remembers. “It was a scary time, to be honest. We had no idea what was happening.” In the first Test Fowler was at the crease when he heard a volley of shots being fired. He dived for cover, only for Syed Kirmani, the Indian wicketkeeper, to saunter up and tell him they were only firecrackers, and that he should probably get up and brush himself down.
By the time they arrived in Chennai, or Madras as it was then, the series was level at 1-1 with two to play. India were dismissed for 272 on the opening day and Fowler, both knees bandaged because of grazes sustained in fielding, and Tim Robinson came out to lead England’s reply. By the time Robinson was dismissed they had put on 178, at the time England’s second-biggest opening stand of the 1980s, after Fowler’s with Chris Tavare against New Zealand at the Oval two years earlier. Mike Gatting came in at No 3, and Fowler just kept going.
“When you batted with Tim he didn’t like talking, he’d just stay up his end,” Fowler says. “I like having chats and so does Gatt. At the end of every over Gatt and I would have a chat. Accepted wisdom was that you push the ball into gaps and take singles. We decided we weren’t going to try to push anything anywhere, we were just going to dead-bat it, and when they bowled a bad ball we’d hit that.”
At the end of the second day Gatting was unbeaten on 50 and Fowler was on 149 and knackered. “I remember the last over of the day, Gatt’s on strike and I think Ravi Shastri had bowled his first ball. Gatt said: ‘You’ve done enough for today, get back your end.’ So I just stood still and had my eyes closed, and I thought: ‘I only have to count to five and that’s the end of the day.’ I got to three and the umpire called over. I’d actually fallen asleep for two balls.”
He was finally dismissed for 201, which more than half a century and 39 matches after their first Test there was the highest total ever scored by an Englishman in India. Three hours later Gatting was out for 207. Fowler, who doesn’t seem to mind having had such a short amount of time in which to bask alone in the spotlight, gave much of the credit for his achievement to Gatting’s cajoling from the other end, and besides insists both were outshone by Neil Foster, who took 11 wickets in the match. “Fozzy bowled brilliantly and was man of the match without a shadow of a doubt,” he says. “We got back to the hotel after the match ended and the hotel manager had given Gatt and me a bottle of champagne and a chocolate cake that must have been 2ft square. Gatt had one on a big trolley in his room, and I had one in mine. All the lads were tucking in but Foster was fuming, looking for his. He wouldn’t eat any of our cakes because he said he deserved his own.”
England won the match by nine wickets, and having reached the pinnacle of his international career Foster played only one more Test innings for his country, in his 21st match. “Becoming the first Englishman to get a double-hundred in India is obviously a highpoint for me,” he says. “When people ask what’s the best moment in your career I have to have two – the 201, and the hundred against West Indies [at Lord’s in 1984]. As an opening batsman, to play against that lot and get a hundred, then go to India and get 200, that sort of proved I could bat against anybody.”
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