Having reported on eight World Cup tournaments (two more than Sachin Tendulkar played in), to pick the most memorable is not easy. Witnessing India’s victory in 1983 rates as among my most cherished experiences in sports writing. Nobody gave Kapil Dev’s team a hope in hell. The result was totally unexpected and redefined cricket.
The win in 2011 under MS Dhoni was equally memorable, but for different reasons. India were favourites this time and also playing at home. Countering these advantages was the huge burden of expectations on the team. It had been 28 years since India had last won the World Cup, and their fans would not settle for anything less than a second title. There was a strong emotional pitch to India’s campaign as well for this was to be the great Sachin Tendulkar’s sixth and last attempt to be part of a World Cup winning team. How India achieved victory makes for one of the greatest chapters in the country’s sports history.
But, while these two triumphs are obviously watershed moments in Indian cricket history, purely from an experiential point of view, the 1987 Reliance Cup was unique. This was the first time, after three tournaments, that the World Cup had moved out of England, that too to the Indian subcontinent, where it was jointly hosted by India and Pakistan.
I got to cover the tournament in both countries, crossing over from Pakistan, where I was based for the major part of the tournament, to India for the second semi-final and the final.
My most vivid memories of the 1987 tournament are of the two semi-finals, played on successive days and involving Pakistan, first, then India. Both resulted in unhappy results for the host countries. In the first, at Lahore, Pakistan were beaten by Australia. Till then, Imran Khan and his side had looked unbeatable. This was a close match, but the result was unexpected and sent the entire country into grief.
The second semi-final was to be played at the Wankhede Stadium, in Mumbai, between India and England. The charter flight that was supposed to take the Pakistan team from Lahore to Mumbai, and then Kolkata for the final, was now empty. I managed to grab a seat and found myself at the Wankhede the next day, confident India would win. The team had looked in splendid form right through the tournament.
But, like in Pakistan a day earlier, there was a stunning upset. England, having done their homework well, stymied the spin threat from India through the sweep shot. Graham Gooch played this to perfection, scoring a century and leading his side to 254, a score that might seem easy picking these days, but was daunting then.
India’s response fell short of expectations. In his last international innings, the great Sunil Gavaskar fell for 4. Instead of recognising danger, the batsmen to follow adopted a cavalier approach that soon turned to panic as wickets kept tumbling. The last five wickets fell for 15 runs. India had been ejected from the tournament, causing nationwide gloom.
Instead of the two subcontinent giants taking the field at the Eden Gardens for the final, it was now Australia and England. There was some trepidation that disappointed Kolkatans might spurn the match. But, on the day, almost 90,000 turned up, much to the astonishment of the international media covering the match. This was the most significant sign that India was now the El Dorado of cricket.
The final was remarkable for the resilience and ambition of the Australians. Allan Border had under him a young side. He had become captain a few years earlier, when Aussie cricket was in deep crisis. This victory was to be a defining moment and laid the foundation for the great Aussie side that was to dominate world cricket for almost two decades after.
Where India and Pakistan were concerned, the disappointment of losing in the semi-finals was overcome to a great extent by the mere fact that they had successfully collaborated to host a World Cup. Cricket had succeeded where politics had struggled, to engage the two countries in a joint endeavour.