In over 500 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 the experience against England at the Oval in 1979 would be the most painful in Indian cricket history.

A victory would have been statistically the greatest in the history of 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.

Little had gone right for the Indians during their tour at least in the initial stages. The trip started with the second World Cup and in the competition India lost all their three group matches - including a shock defeat at the hands of associate members Sri Lanka. Staying back as the tourists for the season India lost the first Test at Birmingham by an innings and 83 runs in four days and with England very much the leading outfit of the day with most teams having lost their leading players to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket the stage seemed set for the home team making a clean sweep of the four-Test series.

In the second Test at Lord’s India batting first were skittled out for 96 and were 323 runs in arrears on the first innings. But rain allied to a third wicket partnership of 210 runs between Dilip Vengsarkar and Gundappa Viswanath both of whom got hundreds helped salvage an honourable draw. The third Test at Leeds was badly affected by the weather and a draw was the only possible result. So India entered the final Test at the Oval with the rather unexpected prospect of squaring the series.

But over the first four days these hopes evaporated as England got themselves to a commanding position. Batting first they scored 305 to which India could only reply with 202. In their second innings England with Geoff Boycott getting a century declared their second innings at 334 for eight leaving India just over eight hours to try and reach a target of 438.

Mike Brearley’s declaration was anything but generous. This was a total no team had reached in the fourth innings to win a match in the history of Test cricket. The highest was India’s 406 for four against West Indies at Port of Spain in 1976. There was only one other instance of a team scoring over 400 in the fourth innings to win a match and that was when Don Bradman’s Australians scored 404 for three against England at Leeds in 1948.

So the stage seemed set for an England victory for given their showing in the series so far India had not given any indication that they could last out eight hours in the fourth innings to draw the game. There was of course no chance of the visitors winning but there was enough time for England to bowl out India. The pitch remained good for batting with the inevitable wear and tear.

Sunil Gavaskar (42) and Chetan Chauhan (32) however raised hopes of India forcing a draw 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? The second and third seemed possibilities while an Indian victory was reckoned to be out of the question.

And yet at lunch Gavaskar and Chauhan were still 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 batted on till tea when the score was 304 for one.

England was now clearly on the defensive and bowled just six overs in the half hour after tea. When the mandatory 20 overs started India were 328 for one and suddenly the hunter had become the hunted. Now India were the favourites to pull off a remarkable triumph for just another 110 runs were required and they had nine wickets in hand to pursue glory.

By today’s standards an asking rate of 5.5 runs an over would be a breeze but almost 40 years ago the Indians had not yet fully grasped the intricacies of the limited overs game. That is why they had such a dismal record in two World Cup competitions with just one victory in six games and that against East Africa. But it was not just the lack of familiarity with the strategy and tactics associated with the one day game that saw the Indians fall just short.

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, high and handsomely but this was the 20-year-old Kapil’s first year in international cricket and he was still feeling his way around. More significantly he had had a poor series so far scoring only 45 runs in five innings. 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.

It is generally ranked among Gavaskar’s three best innings in his long Test career along with his 101 in swinging and seaming conditions at Manchester in 1974 and his 96 on a treacherous turning track at Bangalore in 1987.

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.