Essays, reflections and more

Watching, hoping, praying

When a nation came together to view a miracle

Mukul Kesavan

April 1, 2007

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In glorious black-and-white: fans invade the pitch after Kapil's magic catch to dismiss Richards © Getty Images
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I watched India win the 1983 World Cup in black and white. I also watched it in colour. Colour television had arrived in 1982 with the Asian Games in Delhi, but my parents weren't early adopters. So the Indian innings, which I watched at home (including Krishnamachari Srikkanth's stirring cameo), lives in my mind in period monochrome - 183 in 1983.

Srikkanth, who opened, pulled Andy Roberts for four, and I can still, a quarter of a century later, hear that knowing commentator tell us that Roberts had two bouncers: the quick one and the quicker one. The one that Srikkanth had hammered had been the former. He knew, this commentating genius, that Roberts was setting him up. And he was ... right. Roberts bowled the faster bouncer and Srikkanth was so surprised that he pulled it for six.

But when India collapsed for under 200, the fairy tale seemed over. You have to understand that none of us really thought we could win. This was West Indies, twice champions of the world already. Just to list their bowlers was to finger a rosary of scary modern greats: Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner. And we were one-day minnows; that we were in the final was a miracle. In the first two World Cup competitions, we had won once, against a minor team.

In the break between innings, I did what Indian fans have always done: I consoled myself with individual performances amid the collective wreckage. Individual performance, actually, in the singular: Srikkanth top-scored with 38. Reading the scorecard now, it's odd to notice that it took him 57 balls to make, because I remember it as a berserker innings.

Anyway, after the team folded, we drove to a friend's house because it seemed too depressing to sit indoors waiting for West Indies to begin killing us. Venkat, who lived a few miles away, had a new colour television. I watched Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge take guard in colour.

West Indies didn't just have the four greatest fast bowlers in cricket, they also had an invincible top order. Haynes and Greenidge had been the best opening partnership in the game for years. No. 3 was Viv Richards, whose on-field aura was more menacing than that of most fast bowlers. No. 4 was the captain, Clive Lloyd, who had been giving Indians a hard time from the time I was 12. And they batted all the way to No. 8.

But colour worked for us. Balwinder Singh Sandhu, the gentlest swing bowler in the history of cricket, got Greenidge to shoulder arms to a slow-motion in-dipper, and that was the end of Greenidge. There was a nasty passage when Richards was cruel to Madan Lal, hitting him for lots of unnecessarily emphatic boundaries, but that ended in colour too, with Kapil Dev in whites bounding across green turf to catch in his brown hands a red ball dropping over his shoulder.

We tore ourselves away from that magic box because we had to get home for dinner. By the time we got back, Lloyd, Larry Gomes, and Faoud Bacchus were gone too, consumed, presumably, by the corrosive colour of Venkat's television. Mohinder Amarnath didn't let the handicap of my mother's old black-and-white set get to him: bowling even slower than Sandhu, he winkled out Jeffrey Dujon and Marshall, who were threatening a lower-order resurgence, and then, suddenly, the thing was done.

 
 
Colour worked for us. Balwinder Singh Sandhu, the gentlest swing bowler in the history of cricket, got Greenidge to shoulder arms to a slow-motion in-dipper. There was a nasty passage when Richards was cruel to Madan Lal, hitting him for lots of unnecessarily emphatic boundaries, but that ended in colour too, with Kapil Dev in whites bounding across green turf to catch in his brown hands a red ball dropping over his shoulder
 

There were people screaming, and little explosions in my corner of Delhi. All the accounts I've read of that famous victory have firecrackers going off. And they're all true, because 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, dozens of millions of eyeballs transfixed by a single event.

This coincidence of national telecasting and World Cup victory transformed cricket in three ways.

It cemented cricket's primacy in India. 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 Sunil Gavaskar, they won the World Championship of Cricket, a one-off one-day tournament in Australia, this time in blue costumes (in 1983 the teams wore white). These two victories won cricket a new mass audience that 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 during the course of a cricket match. India hadn't yet emerged from the days of austerity and high tariff barriers (the Maruti 800 was launched the year we won), so this was an untapped ocean of consumers. Unsurprisingly Dhirubhai Ambani saw the opportunity first and staged the Reliance Cup in 1987. Pepsi moved into 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, then Mohammad 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 1990s, 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.

And all of this began that long ago summer evening in 1983, when spectators like me, individually clapping for India, found ourselves part of a national communion.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi

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Mukul Kesavan teaches social history for a living and writes fiction when he can - he is the author of a novel, Looking Through Glass. He's keen on the game but in a non-playing way. With a top score of 14 in neighbourhood cricket and a lively distaste for fast bowling, his credentials for writing about the game are founded on a spectatorial axiom: distance brings perspective. Kesavan's book of cricket - Men in Whitewas published in 2007.
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