January 23, 2003

A new World Cup is born!

THE initial reaction on looking back at my original assessment of the inaugural World Cup was to cringe at its hyperbole.

It was, I wrote at the time, "perhaps the boldest and most ambitious innovation the game has known since the legalisation of overarm bowling". Yet, as we prepare for the eighth such tournament, more than a quarter-century on, it doesn't seem so outrageous after all.

Until the advent of limited-overs, single-innings matches in English domestic cricket in the 1960s, such a concept was simply impractical. A round-robin series of five-day Tests, even among as few teams as the six that then had Test status, was too time-consuming to contemplate.

It needed the development of the shortened version, with matches completed in a day, to give birth to the World Cup idea and the daring of International Cricket Conference (ICC) - a body not usually credited with foresight - to implement it.

They chose England as the venue, a questionable choice only as far as the unpredictable weather was concerned but best qualified by virtue of its tradition, its facilities, its manageable size and the presence of a large, cosmopolitan, immigrant population of passionate cricket followers.

They found a generous sponsor in the Prudential Insurance Company, which paid £100 000 for tournament naming rights. And they invited Sri Lanka, yet to reach their present exalted rank, and East Africa (a combination of club cricketers from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia) to take part along with the Test teams of the day (Australia, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan and the West Indies).

With everything in place, they set the process in motion on June 7 with matches between England and India at Lord's and Australia and Pakistan at Headingley.

For the following two weeks, the success exceeded the expectations of even the most cock-eyed optimist.

One of the main ingredients for its triumphant run was the weather. It remained glorious, untypically British, right through. Not a single ball was lost to the elements.

A rousing final, at a packed Lord's in uninterrupted summer sunshine, was able to run until the final wicket fell at 8:41 p.m. on the longest day of the year as the West Indies completed victory by 17 runs over Australia after 118.4 overs.

Large, enthusiastic crowds thronged the six grounds for most of the matches. Thousands of joyous, enthusiastic West Indians, who transformed the Oval and Lord's into Caribbean carnivals with their drums and whistles, brought to the occasion a special excitement previously foreign to the game in England.

The World Cup had come to stay.

It has inevitably evolved in the interim so that the 2003 event in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya will be all but unrecognisable from what it was in that unforgettable English summer of 1975.

T he innings will be restricted to 50 overs instead of 60. Fourteen teams bedecked in national colours will contest 54 matches at 15 different grounds in three countries over six weeks, many under lights, with white balls against black sightboards and on fields demarcated with a field-restricting area.

In the beginning, eight teams used the six main venues in England for 15 matches and got through the whole business in a fortnight.

Everyone dressed in conventional white and bowled with the red ball. The only markings were the popping and return creases. And lights were restricted to the scoreboards.

Yet a few tenets were immediately established that have remained constant.

One was that the best players remained the best players, whatever the length of the game.

Others were that partnerships were as crucial over one day as over five, and that tactics were, if anything, even more critical in the condensed version.

Above all, the value of fielding was repeatedly emphasised, especially in the final when the West Indies effected five run outs in their pulsating victory over Australia. Three were by Viv Richards, a dynamic 24-year-old athlete soon to become one of the greats of the game, who threw out three of the first four in the order.

Another certainty was also established. It was that, for all the inevitable scepticism of the traditionalists, the concentrated action of the abbreviated game made it hugely popular.

Aggregate crowds of 158 000 paid over £200 000 to watch the 15 matches, 26 000 of them at the Lord's final where gate receipts were £66 000, then a record for a one-day match.

If these figures - and the prize money distribution of £4 000 pounds for the winners, £2 000 for the runners-up and £1 000 each for the beaten semifinalist - appear laughably puny now, they were not to be scoffed at 26 years ago.

The West Indies had been justifiably installed as favourites and lived up to the bookmakers' confidence. Their strength lay in their all-round depth, their fielding and the experience that 11 of their squad of 14 had of the special demands of the limited-overs game from their seasons of county cricket.

They did have one scare, in the first round against talented but mercurial Pakistan when they squeezed home by one wicket with two balls remaining. That apart, they showed themselves palpably the best team.

In between the Pakistan thriller, they despatched Sri Lanka by nine wickets in 56 overs and, in a prelude to the final, beat Australia by seven wickets at the Oval, in the heart of London's pulsating West Indian population.

New Zealand proved no match in the semi-final, defeated by five wickets with as many as 19.5 overs remaining.

Their captain, Clive Lloyd, a destroyer in spectacles, set up victory in the final virtually on his own - with a little help from Richards and his fielders.

His 102 from 85 balls was an exhilarating exhibition of power-hitting that saw the West Indies to 291 for eight from their 60 overs. He followed it with a containing spell of medium-pace bowling (12-1-38-1) that kept Australia in check as they were dismissed for 274.

The Australians were scheduled to play a series of four Tests against England following the Cup and their captain, Ian Chappell, made it plain that was their main focus. With limited-overs cricket still in its infancy back home, they were reportedly not keen on it. But, as Australians, they were less keen on losing.

The draw placed the West Indies, Australia and Pakistan in the same group that was completed by Sri Lanka.

Only two could advance to the semi-final and Pakistan, also filled with county professionals, were the unfortunate ones to miss out, even though they severely tested Australia and, by all that is logical, should have beaten the West Indies whose last two wickets put on 110.

Sri Lanka might have fared better with a more favourable draw, but endured three heavy defeats on their way out. They won a host of fans with their plucky batting that raised 276 for four against Australia, even after two of their batsmen had to be hospitalised after taking blows from the fiery Jeff Thomson. Their time would come.

England had the advantage of the less demanding group and coasted into the semi-final after sweeping all three qualifying matches.

They amassed 266 for six against New Zealand, 290 for five against East Africa and 334 for four against India, the tournament's highest total. The standard of their opponents only camouflaged their known weaknesses that were exposed in the semi-final against Australia when, on an appalling pitch at Headingley, they were routed for 93 by the left-arm swing and seam of Gary Gilmour (12-6-14-6) and lost by five wickets.

The second qualifier from the group, New Zealand, depended heavily on their captain, Glenn Turner, an established pro with Worcestershire.

He batted through the innings against both East Africa and India to become the only batsman with two hundreds in the tournament. When he failed against England and against the West Indies in the semi-final, the team couldn't muster 200 and lost comfortably.

India did run New Zealand close in their decisive first round match, but a semi-final place would have been an undeserving honour after they reduced their match against England, the showpiece opening at Lord's, to a farce.

They paid for the selectorial madness of omitting their left-arm spin wizard Bishan Bedi to be hammered around at 5.5 runs an over and made no effort to compete. Sunil Gavaskar, their finest batsman, epitomised their cynical attitude by batting through the 60 overs for 36 not out.

It took the sparkle of that ebullient cricketer, Abid Ali, to erase some of the shame with a thrilling, yet futile, all-round performance against New Zealand (70 and 12-2-35-2).

Africa's strongest team, South Africa, had placed itself beyond the pale of international sport by its policy of racial exclusion and Rhodesia, later to become Zimbabwe, was still governed by the illegal Ian Smith regime.

So it was left to the inadequate amalgamation of East Africa to represent the continent. Comprised of weekend club cricketers never before exposed to such international standards, they wereduly outclassed.

The competition was an unqualified success even before the final, but a remarkable match was a fitting climax.

"It might not be termed first-class," noted Wisden, the game's bible, "but the game has never provided better entertainment in one day."

It was a contest of intensity and incident that kept the crowd of 26,000 in a constant state of frenzy.

It produced Lloyd's outstanding individual performance and his vital fourth wicket partnership of 149 with the wily, 39-year-old Rohan Kanhai. There were uncharacteristic errors in the field by the Australians that contrasted with the brilliance of Richards and the other West Indians.

And an unlikely last wicket Australian partnership of 41 between the two feared fast bowlers, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, produced the final dramatic twist.

The pair threatened to snatch an astonishing victory until wicket-keeper Deryck Murray's presence of mind, calmness of nerve and accuracy of throw, to underarm the stumps with Thomson out of his ground, formalised the result as Lord's was immediately engulfed by thousands of excited fans.

The famous old ground had never seen anything like it. It set a standard by which all subsequent finals would be judged - and none has yet matched it.