Among the many phenomena that litter the often confusing means of communication we call the English language, the overuse of the word “phenomenal” ranks high (or should that be low?). Nonetheless, when Kapil Dev described India’s emergence as a major player in one-day cricket as “a phenomenal development”, it was easy to forgive him.
Consider this. Up to the start of the third World Cup, held, once more, in Britain, India had participated in 40 such games — half as many as England and Australia, and fewer than any of the other full ICC members bar Sri Lanka, who had only just been invited to sit at the top table. Of those, just 12 had been won.
Undermined as they were by cautious batting and limited pace resources, it was in the field that the gap yawned widest. Slide? Perish the thought. Sprint? What, and risk splitting those nice tight flannels? Dive? What do you think we are — baseball players?
In the months leading up to the tournament, nevertheless, India had been showing signs, though fitful, of coming to grips with a form of the game that they had hitherto appeared to regard rather sniffily.
In 1981-82, they had come from behind to beat England in a three-match rubber. At Ferozeshah Kotla in September 1982, set 278 to beat Sri Lanka, their humiliators at the 1979 World Cup, they waltzed home with six wickets and 9.1 overs in hand as Kris Srikkanth swished and swashed 95 off 66 balls.
In Bangalore a week later, the buccaneering opener was at it again, smacking 92 off 83 balls as the home team sauntered to a target of 234 with more than 10 overs to spare, against fast-improving opponents who had recently come within six runs of winning a series against England.
A four-match altercation in Pakistan was lost quite comfortably, the high note coming in a remarkable if foreshortened game at the Gaddafi Stadium. With Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad piling on 158, Imran Khan’s side thrashed 252 for three off 33 overs only for India to be ahead of the rate when bad light intervened after 27 overs.
Sandeep Patil’s 51 off as many balls confirmed the gifts he had displayed in England the previous summer; yet the improbable mainspring, with 69 off 76 balls, was the man whose indifference to his audience gave the World Cup such a dispiriting send-off in 1975, Sunil Gavaskar. The times were indeed a-changin’.
On the ensuing tour of the Caribbean came the performance that, with the inestimable value of hindsight, can be regarded as the day that India began to believe. One down in the three-match series, Kapil Dev’s bruised and bedraggled party traipsed to the Guyanan sugar heartland of Berbice, to what the captain described as the “nondescript” Albion Sports Complex, and proceeded to bat as sweetly as any team had yet done against Clive Lloyd’s relentless pace battery.
The final score, 282 for five off 47 overs, was the tallest the West Indies had conceded to date, and the highest India had yet amassed. Victory was countermanded by a thumping defeat in the third game, but still. Progress had been made, was being made. Kapil called it “India’s first great win” in a limited-overs contest, although, significantly, he recalled his explosive innings with less pride than his catching of Gordon Greenidge.
John Arlott advised the British public to make the most of the 1983 Cup. All the signs, the venerable broadcaster and journalist averred, were that it would be their “last chance to enjoy it for some time to come”. A BBC strike made life difficult, and the event’s 27 games went largely unscreened, but Arlott had glimpsed the future. “The wealthier countries can sustain the future of the World Cup,” he argued. “India, indeed, could guarantee its solvency.”
First, though, it might be nice if cricket’s biggest market had a team it wasn’t ashamed of. Berbice or no Berbice, those 66-1 odds against Kapil’s squad did not seem unduly unkind. Yet echoes of the Albion Sporting Complex were readily and gloriously apparent at Old Trafford, where, in their first assignment, India beat the holders, and comfortably at that.
Further evidence of mettle came amid the rhododendrons and Olde Worlde greenery of Tunbridge Wells in Kent, the so-called “garden of England”. Stunning victors over a divided Australian XI in the opening game, Zimbabwe made the most of a damp pitch, and gobbled up the first four opposition wickets. Kapil’s decision to bat first, in order to improve his side’s run rate, seemed pure folly.
When Kapil strode to the crease, moreover, he did so “in a trance-like state”. Nine for four begat 17 for five; batting out the full 60 overs was the extent of the captain’s ambitions. Instead, as the surface dried, so the shots flowed. Kapil made an unbeaten competition-best 175, adding 126 in 16 overs for the ninth wicket with cricket’s first slaphead, keeper Syed Kirmani. A hard-won victory followed, prompting the orchestrator to reflect, with some justification: “I had, by the grace of God, infused a new enthusiasm to our campaign.”
Having licked their wounds, West Indies returned to imperiousness, drubbing Australia, beating India by 66 runs at The Oval, and topping Group B. India joined them in the semi-finals by beating Australia at Chelmsford, where Binny’s benders once again swung the tide.
England, meanwhile, had romped through Group A. So intimidating were the home batsmen that sunkissed June — David Gower had 367 runs at an average of 91.75 — that Ian Botham had cause to bat just three times in those six games.
The rustiness was cruelly apparent in the Old Trafford semi-final. On the sort of slow, low pitch with which Kapil and his bowlers were more than familiar, Graeme Fowler and Chris Tavare opened up with 69 at four an over, but Binny binned both, catches were held, and the rate began to stagger.
Amarnath’s unprepossessing dobbers saw off Gower and the menacing Mike Gatting, off-spinner Kirti Azad, a productive replacement for Shastri, made a mockery of Iron Bottom, and 141 for three dissolved into 177 for eight. With Sharma, Patil and Jimmy Amarnath at the wheel, a target of 214 was accomplished with six wickets unlost and more than five overs unused.
Not that the bookies gave India much of a hope in the final. Lloyd’s stallions had cantered home in the other semi-final, caning Pakistan by eight wickets.
India cobbled together 183 — not a terribly daunting score. Indian spirits rose when Gordon Greenidge was bowled shouldering arms to Sandhu, only for Desmond Haynes and Richards to return them to the depths whence they came. Then, at 50 for one, the latter essayed one of his murderous pulls at Madan Lal, only to top-edge it.
As the ball swirled in the afternoon air, it seemed to take an eternity before completing its descent as Kapil scampered after it. “I was being driven,” he would reflect with characteristic other-wordliness, “By some kind of a force that I cannot define.” The ball was snared, the Masterblaster was gone, and the tide turned.
Panic set in against a constraining attack, the favourites slumped to 76 for six, and although Jeff Dujon and Marshall effected a recovery, when Amarnath bowled the wicketkeeper, his victim’s atypically uncool slap of the pitch spoke volumes.
Jimmy’s three cheap wickets confirmed the unthinkable — victory by 43 runs — but if ever a catch warranted a man of the match award, Kapil’s did. The Cup had finally embraced romance.
“It was not a miracle,” the victorious captain-cum-architect asserted in his memoirs, “just a feeling of self-belief and self-confidence. A whole new chapter in Indian cricket had been written and we returned to one of the finest receptions imaginable.”
A love affair had begun. Cricket would never be quite the same again.