August 10, 2020
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From A Peculiar Start, To The Arena Of Champions

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From A Peculiar Start, To The Arena Of Champions

Much as I revere Test cricket, I have to confess that the World Cup does something to me. It has the high-power competition plus the defin-itive title of World Champions, which the random nature of Test cricket precludes. I am one of probably only a dozen or so people who have seen all the Cup finals to date. Who will hold the Wills World Cup on the evening of March 17, 1996, in Lahore is anyone’s guess, but I bet his grin will be as wide as those seen on the five previous occasions.

When the first Cup was arranged by the International Cricket Conference (ICC) in England in ’75, not all were confident it would capture public imagination. But it did. Anxiety was allayed when a sponsor, Prudential Assurance, was signed (for £100,000), and the 15 matches were well-supported, with gate-takings alone amounting to over £200,000. Thoughts immediately turned to a repeat show. India wanted to stage it, but England, with its long summer evenings and compact distribution of grounds, won enough support to stage the next two Cups before it moved out.

The inaugural Cup got off to a peculiar start. England played India at Lord’s, piled up a formidable 334 for 4, and watched bemused as Sunil Gavaskar batted through India’s 60 overs for 36 not out. Mike Denness and his bowlers couldn’t comprehend what went on. Gavaskar, of course, was making a point of principle. The target was out of reach, so he was darned if he was going to get out. One of the more thrilling preliminary matches came at Edgbaston when West Indies’ last pair, Deryck Murray and Andy Roberts, snatched 64 runs to beat Pakistan. Jeff Thomson got a bit brutal against Sri Lanka at The Oval, and these two sides—West Indies and Australia—were to emerge as finalists, Gary Gilmour, the Australian left-arm swing bowler, destroying England in the semi-final with 6 for 14.

The final was a humdinger. Play began at 11 am and went on until twilight, the final Australian wicket falling at 8.43 pm when Thomson left his crease and Murray’s throw broke the wicket. West Indies had won by 17 runs, having been propelled into a strong position by a century from captain Clive Lloyd and 55 from Rohan Kanhai. Keith Boyce then took 4 for 50, but what really destroyed Australia was the fielding, mainly by young Viv Richards. There were five run-outs.

The host nation might have pocketed the Cup in ’79, but in thefinal, West Indies, fired this time by Richards’ century and Collis King’s sparkling 86, had the arch exponent of denial in their ranks, Joel Garner, who speared yorker after yorker in another evening of fading light. Geoff Boycott and Mike Brearley had built a large launchpad with 129 for the first wicket, but it took them far too long. Too much was asked of those who followed. India again had a bad tournament, losing all three matches—one, almost inconceivably, against Sri Lanka at Old Trafford. Recalling this four years later, your correspondent wrote the immortal words that if India did not show some fight in the ’83 Cup, then they might as well declare themselves unavailable for future tournaments!

What a day it was on June 25, ’83. West Indies, strongly favoured for a hat-trick, faced an Indian team led by Kapil Dev, whose sensational 175 not out against Zimbabwe amid the splendour of Turnbridge Wells had staved off extinction. They had beaten England in a semi-final, the medium-pacers all doing their bit before Mohinder Amarnath (46), Yashpal Sharma (61) and Sandeep Patil (51 not out) forged a six-wicket victory. Overcoming the mighty West Indians, however, was a daunting requirement. Everything went as expected initially. Garner and company bowled out India for 183, 32 balls inside the allotted 60 overs. Balwinder Sandhu scalped Greenidge but Haynes and Richards batted disdainfully, the 50 came up, and there were some knowing nods about the place. Poor Richards is usually the one to take the blame for the defeat, though he was only the second one to fall when Kapil chased and held on to that loose leg-side shot. Then, wickets fell as regularly as Big Ben’s chimes. India won by a margin of 43 runs. Drums pounded in the hotel across the way as Kapil danced a bhangra in the foyer, surrounded by an ecstatic mob.

Your correspondent was there, genuinely sharing in the joy. But a few days later he came firmly down to earth upon receipt of a letter which suggested he eat his harsh pre-tournament words about India. This he honourably did, washed down with relief with some of John Arlott’s Beaujolais.

Soon the political juggling began. Everyone, it seemed, wantedto stage the next World Cup. Finally, with certain long-term guarantees apparently made to pacify others, India and Pakistan’s joint proposal was accepted. The trophy now was transmogrified into the Reliance World Cup. And the sceptics were put in their place when everything went off very smoothly.

There was, of course, one major oversight. The host nations did not make the final. It looked a good bet when they earned places in the semi-finals, but Australia then filched an 18-run victory at Lahore and Gooch, sweeping just about every ball, made a century that launched England to victory over India in the Bombay semi-final.

Thus, with Indian and Pakistani cricket-lovers as onlookers at Eden Gardens, Calcutta, as two ‘foreign’ teams contested the final, the fourth World Cup was thrashed out by Mike Gatting’s England and Allan Border’s Australia. David Boon’s 75 and Mike Veletta’s hectic 45 not out lifted Australia to 253 off their 50 overs, and tight bowling never let England break loose in reply. Gatting’s downfall to an ill-advised reverse-sweep at Border is remembered in a sense ofignominy, and ‘Ice Man’ Steve Waugh’s control at the end prevented a late dash by England, who finished seven runs short.

Just over four years later, England found themselves in a World Cup final for the third time. Surely this was the one? Not at all. Exhausted by their efforts so far, they let Pakistan in after keeping a tight grip on the first half of the innings. Imran Khan (72) and Javed Miandad (58) suddenly opened the throttle, a vital catch went down, and Inzamam-ul-Haq and Wasim Akram hit quick runs to raise a sizeable score, 249 off the 50 overs. Under the Melbourne Cricket Ground lights, before a tumultuous crowd, England lost Ian Botham for nought, to a dubious decision, and never truly threatened once Neil Fairbrother (62 off 70 balls) was out. The ball swung around crazily, and late that night, with everyone bathed in sweat, Imran held the crystal trophy aloft. He had told his men to ‘play like cornered tigers’, and they had.

With 39 matches, well over twice the number in that first World Cup in England back in ’75, this was the biggest and richest World Cup yet. Television rights were worth many millions of whatever currency one chose to select. So once again, the pressure was on for the rights to stage the next, the sixth. Not unexpectedly, the ICC meeting to discuss the ’96 World Cup became heated. The numerous smaller countries were naturally most interested in how much they would get out of it. Their votes were decisive.

So the World Cup was back on the cricket battlefields of the subcontinent, this time with matches also in Sri Lanka. Personalities came and went, wrangles over television rights splashed acidly onto the pages of newspapers, and venues were changed, causing confusion in the ranks of tour organisers.

But it will all come right in the end, and many, many millions will focus on their TV screens as the world’s cricketers strive to steal runs off balls designed to deny them. Heads hung sadly, players will accept their fate while the luckier and more talented march on to the next stage. And then, at Lahore, it will all reach boiling point as the best two face each other for the crown—and the loot.

(The author is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly.)

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