The worst-ever tour undertaken by an Indian cricket team? It should be a difficult question to answer given the fact that the Indians have not generally traveled well. Old timers may opt for one of the earlier trips when India lost all five Tests in England in 1959 and all three Tests in the same country eight years later. The 4-0 drubbing in Australia in 1967-68 must also rank very high as also the 5-0 rout in the West Indies in 1962.

The newer generation might say that it was not just the pioneers who fared badly and point out to the team losing all three Tests in Australia in 1999-2000 and the twin 4-0 routs in England and Australia during 2011-12 which are too fresh in everyone’s memory for me to go into detail.

But for me answering the question is a no-contest. The 1974 tour of England has to rank as the nadir when it comes to Indian debacles on trips abroad. However humiliating the defeat, however pathetic the performance on the other tours it is difficult not to rate this as the worst-ever performance by an Indian touring team.

In the fifties and sixties when the Indian team went from one setback to another it was more or less along expected lines. The Indian cricketers were still finding their way around on the major stage that was international cricket. India was able to hold its own at home but on a foreign trip they came a cropper unable to cope with the vastly different wicket and weather conditions and in the face of formidable opposition.

All that changed with the India Rubber Year of 1971. Within the space of a few months the Indians first got the better of the West Indies in the Caribbean and then proceeding to England finally won a series there too. Both were outstanding, historic achievements and suddenly the Indians were being termed as the ''team of the seventies’’ just as West Indies had been the ''team of the sixties’’ and England the ''team of the fifties.’’

Back home in 1972-73 the Indians beat back a spirited challenge from England winning a tightly contested series 2-1. Never before had India won three contests in a row and the team was hailed as world beaters. Gone were the diffident days of the fifties when the Indians were described as the ''dull dogs’’ of international cricket and those of the sixties when they played brighter cricket but still went down fighting. There was a confident look about the Indian team who were ready to knock down any opposition.

Thus there was every hope that there would be a repeat performance in England in 1974. After all the nucleus of the team was very much the same. Ajit Wadekar was still the captain and he again had as his deputy S Venkatraghavan.

The famed spin quartet was at the peak of their powers and reams were written about how Venkat, Bishen Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and BS Chandrasekhar had terrorized the batsman in much the same way as the leading fast bowlers of the time. The batting line-up too was pretty much the same for besides Wadekar, there was Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Ashok Mankad, Eknath Solkar and Farokh Engineer.

In the absence of Dilip Sardesai who had retired there was a young stroke playing batsman of much promise in Brijesh Patel. The lack of an adequate new ball attack would still be felt but that did not stop India from winning the series three years before. In any case in Abid Ali and Madan Lal they had the swing bowlers who could utilize the helpful conditions in England.

The performance of the team in first class matches leading up to the first Test at Old Trafford was quite heartening for after ten drawn games they won the last two and that put them in a confident frame of mind. At Manchester however they came up against typical English conditions with the ball swinging this way and that. Gavaskar got a masterly hundred but this alone was not enough and England won by 113 runs in the 13th of the 20 mandatory overs.

This was bad enough but what followed was straight out of a horror film as far as the tourists were concerned.

In the second Test at Lord’s England led off with 629 and India replied with 302. There were still two days left and even as everyone was looking forward to a fightback from the Indians there was a rude shock. In just 17 overs on the fourth morning India were bowled out for 42 till today their lowest-ever total in Tests.

The margin of defeat was an innings and 285 runs the second heaviest India had suffered in Test history. How could a batting line-up which had helped script memorable victories in three previous contests collapse in such a sudden and shattering manner was the question being asked and there was no satisfactory answer.

From one disaster the Indians now stumbled on to another. With the series having been lost the ever optimistic Indian cricket fan hoped for at least a better show in the final Test at Birmingham. But there was no change in the depressing scenario. India were all out for 165 to which England replied with 459 for two declared.

In their second innings India were dismissed for 216 to give the home team victory by an innings and 78 runs and a clean sweep of the series. Moreover with rain having washed out the opening day’s play the match was effectively over in a little over 2-1/2 days and it was only the third time in Test history that a team had won a match losing only two wickets.

There were also unsavoury off field incidents involving the tourists on more than one occasion and compounded by the fact that Sudhir Naik was charged with shoplifting it can be seen why the tour was an unmitigated disaster. As Gavaskar noted in his autobiography ''It was a totally disastrous series and the tour was one of the worst I had made. There was no such thing as team spirit. Instead there were a lot of petty squabbles which didn’t do anyone any good. The incidents which gave the team such a bad name didn’t help.’’

Given our new found exalted stature in international cricket this kind of thrashing and walloping was least expected and that is why India in England 1974 - widely known as the ''Summer of 42’’ for obvious reasons - has to rank as the worst-ever showing by an Indian team away from home.

(Cover Photograph: Geoff Arnold (left) pours champagne for Chris Old after the two English pacers destroyed India in sensational manner. India were all out for 42 in just 17 overs with Old taking for 5 for 21 and Arnold 4 for 19. Getty images)