Cricket fever is now over with the World Cup events having unfolded not as happily as India would have liked. As England, the progenitor of the game of cricket, won the Cup for the first time ever, questions are still being asked about whether they did really win. Did the umpires officiating on the ground give an extra run to England against the rules, thus enabling them to equal New Zealand in the Super Over and win the Cup by virtue of a larger number of boundaries? Was India unfairly deprived of a possible win in the semifinal because the umpires failed to notice that there were six New Zealand fielders along the boundary ropes, as against permissible five and thus declared
Dhoni unfairly run out, thus depriving him of the chance to hit three sixes and win the match for India?
As usual, the country went into depression. The hunt for scapegoats began. Was it the captain who is to be blamed or the coaches? Why were certain players picked for the team and some left out? Did the selectors commit the original sin leaving out technically competent players like Ajinkya Rahane, Ambati Rayudu and Shreyas Iyer? When a couple of players sustained injuries, why were they not replaced by reserve players already announced by the selectors? Why were three wicket keepers playing in the team for the semifinal? Is Dhoni well past his prime, both as a wicketkeeper and as a batsman? There will be many questions, but the fact remains that India lost only one out of eight games at the league stage and secured the highest number of points at that stage.
Such questions arise after every game of cricket in India and, I dare say, in soccer and rugby and other popular team games worldwide. Defeat erases all memories of past success. Indeed, life too, follows the same pattern. The foundations of industry may have been laid by Nehru with giant steel and cement and fertiliser plants, far beyond the capacity of the private sector at the time or by the later Green and White Revolutions in the rural sector. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh may have been the architects of huge changes that set the economy on a totally different growth trajectory.
However, they are discredited at present, perhaps to be resurrected by history many decades hence.
Coming back to cricket, the game was dominated by England and Australia for a century or so until, in the sixties and seventies of the 20th century, they were swept aside by a fierce West Indies side. Earlier, in the fifties, South Africa kept pace with the two dominant teams, but apartheid forced them out of the cricketing world for a few decades. Despite being the most popular legacy the British left us, despite the huge enthusiasm the game generated in urban areas in particular, Indian cricket languished for years on end until a new, fearless generation took up the game. For many years, the full England team never visited India. A second rung team, representing the Marylebone Cricket Club, the “MCC”, represented England to play test matches against India. It was a great event when India won a match against the MCC in the fifties and we defeated an MCC team led by Ted Dexter in a series of five test matches in the sixties. Rarely were senior English players willing to visit India. Many years ago, English cricketers visiting the subcontinent considered it an awful imposition.They talked of the heat and the flies and the food, of poor hotels and recurrent “Delhi belly”, of bad grounds and huge crowds, who made up for lack of excitement on the cricket field by letting off firecrackers in the stands.
It is very difficult for the present generation to even imagine those days. For many years, during the sixties, I used to stay with my parents in Government accommodation close to Feroze Shah Kotla stadium in Delhi. The Feroze Shah Kotla was an iconic stadium but its condition was nowhere like what it is today. The ground was patchy and cricketers of those days would have sustained serious injury if they had fielded the ball with abandon as present day cricketers do. India’s fielding was particularly bad, catches were routinely dropped, the ball rarely chased, and the fitness level remarkably low. I recall a match against the West Indies, Conrad Hunt, opening for the touring team hit the ball to deep square leg and chose to take a run even after the Indian fielder had picked the ball. The fielder, I think it was Nadkarni, waited for Hunt to complete the run and then threw the ball in a high arc to the wicketkeeper, which enabled the West Indian players to steal another run. Making or saving runs did not matter too much to India in those times as the focus was on somehow playing out time and escape with an honourable draw.
The Feroze Shah Kotla was one of my favourite places then. My evening walks were mostly to the Kotla ruins and Delhi Gate adjoining the stadium. Feroze Shah Kotla was a fortress built by Sultan Feroze Shah Tughlaq in the 14th century to protect the new city of Ferozabad, one of the seven cities that sprang up in Delhi through the ages. It contained a sandstone pillar from the 3rd century BC with an edict of Emperor Asoka, translated from the original Brahmi script in 1837 by architect, numismatist and philologist, James Prinsep. Some of the words engraved on the pillar are relevant event to this day. The Emperor decreed: ”And religion increaseth among men by two separate processes - by performance of religious offices, and by security against persecution. (...) And that religion may be free from the persecution of men, that it may increase through the absolute prohibition to put to death (any) living beings or sacrifice aught that draweth breath. For such an object is all this done, that it may endure to my sons and sons' sons - as long the sun and the moon shall last.”
Indian cricket emerged from the depths for the first time in 1971. West Indies then ruled the world of cricket and Garfield Sobers, pace bowler, spinner, batsman and lightning fast fielder was the king of cricket. Indeed, there has never been one to equal him as an all rounder before or after. The Indian team, rated not equal even to a club side, visited the West Indies in the beginning of that year. Indian test teams had acquired the unsavoury reputation of being resoundingly beaten in every test each time they travelled abroad. But, lo and behold, India gained ascendancy in the first test, thanks to a determined double century by Dilip Sardesai, won the second test, fended off a desperate last ditch effort by the West Indies to equalise in the last test. This test series also saw the emergence of a cricketing phenomenon called Sunil Gavaskar, who made more than 700 runs in just four tests. India’s triumphant march did not stop there. They visited England in the summer, won most of the county matches, were rescued by timely rain in the first and second tests, and then won the third test.
After 1971, India again went into the doldrums. In 1974, on its next tour of England, the Indian batsmen were bowled out in one morning for 42, the “Year of 42” as it is famously known in Indian cricket. India remained as the also-rans of world cricket until another miracle took place in 1983. The third World Cup was staged in England that year. In the previous couple of years, India had been soundly beaten in test matches by Pakistan and the West Indies. For the 1983 World Cup, the betting rings offered 100 to 1 for an Indian win. The first match was against the West Indies, winners in both previous editions of the tournament in 1975 and 1979. Surprisingly, India won. Fluke, all said, and it looked like that when a couple of matches were lost and India tumbled to 17 for 5 in a match against Zimbabwe. The match was held at Tunbridge Wells, an insignificant location and was not even covered by television. We do not, therefore, have visuals of one of the greatest innings of World Cup cricket, played by India’s captain, Kapil Dev. He made 175, and India recovered to a score of 266 , which proved a winning total on that day. This was followed by another stunning victory over Australia and India were through to the semifinal. English newspapers reported at the time that India’s
win over Australia was a “piece of luck” for England,who had expected to meet Australia in the semifinal. But India held its nerve and eliminated England in the semifinal.
I was in Hyderabad when the final was played, watching the match on a small black and white television set. India was quickly skittled out for 183 with only Srikanth scoring over 30 runs. India got an early wicket, with paceman Balvinder Sandhu bowling Gordon Greenidge in his first over. In walked Viv Richards and he toyed with the Indian bowling. Doordarshan was the only channel available then and when they broke the live telecast for the 9 pm English news, Richards and Haynes were making merry at the expense of Indian bowlers. Defeat of colossal proportions loomed large. When the news telecast resumed again after half an hour, amazingly, the West Indies had collapsed to 67 for 5. The Indian second line pace bowlers had struck hard and rich and Kapil Dev had caught two magnificent running catches to dismiss Richards and Lloyd. Finally, India won at a canter and the Indians in the stands spilled out into the ground and Bhangra was seen at Lords for the first time ever.
Fast forward to 2011,and India won the World Cup again, this time at Mumbai. In 2015 and 2019, they lost in the semifinal. Meanwhile, we had grown in stature from being the poor relations of world cricket to the country which sustained the game in the world, the best in test cricket, the second best in one day internationals. In the meanwhile, 20 over cricket overwhelmed the world and Lalit Modi invented IPL, enriching enormously the wealth and reach of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Earlier, Sharad Pawar, as President of the BCCI, had decided to auction the rights of TV telecast, which resulted in the revenues of BCCI zooming up. Enter the Supreme Court of India, who, despite the many pressures on their judicial time, decided to manage the BCCI also.
The story of cricket in India is an allegory for the story of India. As in cricket, India emerged from the bottom of the third world ladder to a country much sought after by investors all over. Like in cricket, there were turning points in the economic history of India which inexorably pushed it up to the front line of the nations of the world, such events as investment in heavy industry and knowledge, the decision to invest in technology and education, the Green Revolution, the White Revolution,economic liberalisation, the huge inflow of foreign reserves, increasing interest among top foreign companies to invest in
India, even the growth of markets for Indian goods abroad like China. As international cricket players make a beeline for the IPL, ignoring the heat and dust that troubled them so greatly in the past, businessmen from abroad crowd our hotels today, seeking partners, looking for opportunities. We have the judiciary and regulatory and investigative agencies also operating on the national scene like bishops on a chessboard with no clarity regarding where they will strike,when and for what .
As we go towards 2023, when the next World Cup will take place entirely in India , this country would have seen still more transformational changes in the polity, the economy and in society. The saga of India and Indian cricket continues.
Former Union Cabinet Secretary, presently, Chairman, Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum
(The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.)