Friday, Jun 02, 2023

1983, A Foreign Country

1983, A Foreign Country

That was a different time, cricket and life have changed since

1983, A Foreign Country Photo-illustration by Ashish Bagchi

This the tenth World Cup and middle-aged fans will remember the novelty of the first one in 1975. The oddness, first of all, of the very idea of a global cricket tournament because the staple form of international cricket till then had been the Test series which was, by definition, bilateral. And added to that was the weirdness, the forbidden excitement, of sharing a cricketing contest with Pakistan who we hadn’t played for nearly 15 years.

That’s pretty much all that desi fans will want to remember of the first two World Cups. We lost nearly every match we played in those early tournaments. We were so bad that when Sunil Gavaskar, our greatest batsman, scored 36 runs in 60 overs in the inaugural World Cup, his innings seemed less an act of cricketing perversity than an illustration of our hopelessness at the shorter version of the game. When we beat the West Indians, world champions in both 1975 and 1979, in the finals of the third World Cup in 1983, it felt like the most stunning upset in the history of team sport. To top Kapil’s coup, an Indian team would have to win football’s World Cup in Brazil in 2014...1983 was that implausible. Bookmakers were offering odds of 60 to 1 against India winning, when the tournament began. 60 to 1! Winning was a miracle: it turned bits-and-pieces men like Kirti Azad and Roger Binny and Madan Lal into Indian heroes and it made their captain, Kapil Dev Nikhanj, an Indian immortal.

Now, 28 years after that spasm of glory, it’s M.S. Dhoni’s turn to work the magic again. He won the inaugural edition of the Twenty20 championship for India; he has taken us to the top of the Test league table, now all he has to do is reprise ’83 so we can relive that collective explosion of excitement again. If not for the country, for Sachin Tendulkar, who has played five World Cups without ever taking the trophy home. India expects.

But it’s hard to make history twice in the same way if only because cricket, the Indian team and India itself are so different now. “The past is a foreign country,” wrote L.P. Hartley in his great novel, The Go-Between, “they do things differently there.”

To start with, the limited-overs game that Kapil’s men played was visibly different from the version played today. Most obviously, the teams wore white, each match was played over 60 overs with a red ball in daylight. Limited-overs cricket in the early ’80s still looked as if it were an abbreviated version of Test cricket, not a game with a rhythm and rules of its own. For the first two World Cups, there were no field restrictions specially designed for the one-day game, no restrictions on bowling bouncers. The 1983 tournament was the first time that umpires were instructed to be stricter with wides. The fielding circle too made its debut with the attendant rule that four fielders needed to stay within it at all times.

Part of the magic of the 1983 win was the unpredictability of the new format. Teams and captains were still coming to terms with the tempo and tactics required by the relatively new limited-overs format. The final was a case in point: India got all out for 183 in 54.4 overs and won! Theoretically, the West Indies could have won by hitting one six and then scoring a single every other ball and yet Vivian Richards scored 33 at better than a run a ball, hit seven fours and was famously caught by Kapil going for his eighth. In general, though, run rates in the first three World Cups were low compared to the contemporary game: they hovered around four runs an over. At the time I watched it, Kris Srikkanth’s innings of 38 in the final felt like an all-out attack: in fact, he scored those runs off as many as 57 balls for a modest strike rate of 66.

Fanning cricket fires A yagna being performed in Ahmedabad for India’s success in the WC’s ’07 edition; the way that Cup panned out, however, a dirge in advance might have been in order. (Photograph by AP)

Not till 1992 did limited-overs cricket at the highest level mutate into a visibly distinct form, thanks to the coloured clothing, the day-night matches under lights and, most significantly, the white ball. The tweaked fielding restrictions, which now limited outfielders beyond the fielding circle to two for the first 15 overs, saw teams resorting to all-out aggression at the top of the order, instead of waiting till what used to be called the slog overs. Kapil’s team won the World Cup when the world of ODI cricket was young; Dhoni’s men will have to beat all comers at a time when the limited-overs game has matured into a strategically sophisticated sport. They might well do it, but it will be a triumph different from the inspired heist India pulled off in 1983.

India’s victory in 1983 was more than an Indian triumph; it carried within itself the seeds of cricket’s transformation. When we won in 1983, there were people screaming and fire-crackers going off all over India. For once the phrase ‘India rejoiced’ wasn’t a metaphorical flourish—it was literally true. The World Cup of 1983 was the first cricket event that had a national television audience in India. Indians had watched live cricket on television for years before 1983, but never as a networked national audience. Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay, Madras didn’t watch the same programmes. Only with the Asian Games of 1982 did the National Programme come into being, which linked all of Doordarshan’s broadcasting nodes for the same telecast. The result was that India’s incredible win in 1983 was watched by a single pan-Indian audience, tens of millions of eyeballs transfixed by a single event.

This coincidence of national telecasting and World Cup victory transformed Indian cricket (and not just Indian cricket) in three ways.

It cemented cricket’s primacy in India because this newly consolidated television nation wanted winners and the Indian cricket team had delivered glory on cue. Two years later, our one-day heroes delivered again when, captained by Gavaskar, we won the World Championship, a one-off one-day tournament in Australia, this time in blue costumes. These two victories won cricket a new mass audience which was as interested in savouring the unfamiliar taste of international glory as it was in watching cricket.

This perfectly timed, nationally televised victory created a massive captive audience for any company that had the sense to advertise its wares in the course of a cricket match. India hadn’t yet emerged from the austerity of autarky and high tariff barriers (the Maruti 800 was launched the year India won the World Cup), so this was an untapped ocean of consumers. Unsurprisingly, Dhirubhai Ambani saw the opportunity first and staged the Reliance Cup in 1987. Pepsi moved in to India at the end of the decade and began recruiting actors and cricketers for its campaigns because they were the keys to India’s consuming classes. First Kapil Dev, then Mohammed Azharuddin, then Sachin Tendulkar and his generation became rich and the BCCI became powerful. By the time India began to open up its economy at the start of the ’90s, cricket owned the national audience and was perfectly positioned to milk a subcontinental market.

And once it became clear that India owned the world’s largest and most lucrative audience for cricket, the balance of power within world cricket changed decisively. For good and ill, India became the pivot of the ICC, of world cricket. The consequences of this shift in power are still working themselves out but we are in another world from 1983 when Lord’s was still the epicentre of cricket and England had staged the first three World Cups as if by right. And this process began that long-ago summer evening in 1983, when spectators like me, individually clapping for India, found ourselves part of a national communion.

It was, of course, a very different nation. In 1983, India was a poor non-aligned country in a Cold War world. The euphoria after the 1983 win was driven by an underdog nationalism, the pride felt by a people inured to not winning very much. India was a junior member of an International Cricket Conference dominated by Australia and England, it was a poor-to-middling Test side and it wasn’t expected to win.

McDonald style A young Indian fan sits beside a Sachin replica in Guwahati before the last World Cup  (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook, February 21, 2011)

In 2011, India is, potentially, an economic powerhouse in a multi-polar world. It aspires to a UN Security Council seat. Its cricket board, the BCCI, is the 800-pound gorilla in the conclaves of the ICC, because it controls the biggest television audience for cricket in the world. Thanks to Lalit Modi, the Indian cricket board also owns the most valuable cricket property in the world, the Indian Premier League. The difference between then and now is simple. The 1983 victory was an unexpected gift, a lucky strike. We were delighted, surprised and grateful to the cricketing gods. In 2011, we look to Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men with a sense of entitlement. This isn’t to say we assume the Indian team will win—we’re not stupid—we just feel it ought to.

But even if Dhoni’s team did win, we wouldn’t be able to conjure up the unalloyed euphoria of 1983. This is partly because we’ve done it before: thanks to endless television reruns of India’s ODI victories and the pressure-cooker drama of Twenty20 cricket, desi fans are sated with spectacle and jaded with triumph; as spectators we’ve lost the clean palate and sharp appetite that hunger brings.

The other reason a World Cup triumph in 2011 won’t seem as epic as the one in 1983 has to do with money. There was no money in cricket in 1983; there were no team sponsors, no individual endorsements, no television revenue and barely any prize money. A member of the ’83 World Cup squad said in private that they couldn’t have made more than Rs 70,000 each if you added up their match fees and prize money. In fact, the players made more money out of the revenues of a Lata Mangeshkar Nite organised by Raj Singh Dungarpur to raise a purse for them than they did out of the tournament.

The 2011 World Cup, in contrast, offers prize money in the millions of dollars. But despite the money, or perhaps because of it, the World Cup isn’t the prize it used to be, simply because there’s vastly more money to be made elsewhere, in a newer, shorter, more trivial form of the game. The IPL and its auctions have created a marketplace where a player’s worth can be explicitly defined in dollars. There’s a new star system in place based on the needs of the Twenty20 format and the whims of franchise owners which has little or nothing to do with performance or achievement in the 50-over format that defines World Cup cricket. Unlike the English Premier League where clubs play the same game that’s played by nations in football’s world cup, the richest tournament in cricket promotes a format completely different from that in which its biggest international competition is played.

Players and fans often say that this doesn’t matter, that the honour and glory that comes from winning the World Cup is bigger than money. And who can doubt Tendulkar’s desire or Dhoni’s determination? But once you make money the measure of cricket as explicitly as the IPL has done, it’s impossible to turn your eyes away from the numbers. So it’ll be wonderful if Dhoni’s men take the World Cup and put an end to Australia’s winning streak (the Australian team has won three World Cups in a row), especially since that triumph will unfold in front of a home crowd, but it won’t be the same as it was in ’83. Because then, there was no reward, material or otherwise, that was larger than a World Cup triumph. Now there is...and it carries the name of another game.

Mukul Kesavan is the author of Men in White, a book about Test cricket


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