Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now
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When it came to initiating a global championship, the world's first organised team game was pitifully slow out of the blocks. Soccer, ice hockey, table-tennis and canoeing all got off the mark between the world wars; between 1949 and 1954 they were emulated by volleyball, motorcycling, water-skiing, badminton, basketball, show jumping and rugby league. Rowing, bowls, lacrosse and field hockey had all joined in by 1971. Perhaps most gallingly of all, for the ICC at least, the first cricket World Cup was a strictly female affair.
At Edgbaston on July 28, 1973, HRH Princess Anne presented the women's trophy to England; three days earlier, the then-International Cricket Conference had taken its most momentous vote to date, approving the Test and County Cricket Board's proposal for a 60-over World Cup, to be held in the old dart two summers hence.
With Test attendances on the wane pretty much everywhere unless England were in town, innovation was required; so was a sponsor. In stepped Prudential Assurance, aka "The Pru", the insurance company that had supported England's ODIs since 1972, the cheque a cool £100,000. Ten per cent of the profits would go to the home board-cum-promoter, with each of the other seven contestants, East Africa and Sri Lanka included, guaranteed 7.5% apiece and the remaining 37.5% earmarked for the Associate members and an international coaching fund.
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The chief impetus, nonetheless, had been the growing financial plight of the game in England, the only country where "professional cricketer" was a plausible career ambition. The crisis intensified when the sodden summer of 1974 left the 17 first-class counties licking deep wounds. Dependent on the income from international fixtures, they had seen their subsidy tumble from £595,000 to £460,000; at a time of 25% inflation, several were in dire straits. Battered by losses of £30,000, Gloucestershire appealed to a hundred local businesses to donate an interest-free loan of £250; Hampshire, Middlesex, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, three of them based at Test grounds, were all in the red to the tune of anything from £7000 to £15,000.
There had, of course, been one eminently forgivable factor in the delayed conception of a global event: the logistics circumscribing a Test world championship. The nearest the game had come to such an unwieldy creation had been the Triangular Tournament of 1912, on which the foul English weather had passed its own scoffing judgement. Sixty years later, with the competitors - even without the banished South Africans - numbering six, it was further from mind than ever.
Snobbery, too, played a part. Even though the one-day variant had proved a fillip for the counties since 1963, giving them a shiny new product of their own to sell, it wasn't "proper" cricket, was it? Only sluggishly did the rest of the world follow suit. Here, it seemed, was the most necessary of evils. So much so, the ODI was conceived by accident: when the 1971 Melbourne Ashes Test was abandoned after three washed-out days, a fixture between the antagonists was hastily arranged by way of compensation (and loss-reduction).
Despite a crowd of 46,000, evolution was fitful, even grudging. The next year brought the first ODI series, a three-match affair between the same nations in England, yet in the four years following that MCG contest, just 17 more ODIs were staged, all but three of them featuring England. When the MCG staged another during the 1974-75 Ashes tour, the ground was barely one-fifth full. Even after the birth of the World Cup, the Australian Cricket Board declined to schedule a single ODI from December 1975 to January 1979. Nor were the players uniformly enamoured. "Cricket containment," as Gideon Haigh observed, "went against Australian grain".
"I'm not the bloke to captain these matches," Ian Chappell informed the selectors during the 1972 Prudential Trophy series. "I don't give a damn about them." He proposed his vice-captain, Keith Stackpole, but the Victorian was similarly sniffy. "Well," he replied, "it's no good asking me because I feel exactly the same as you." Dennis Lillee guiltily summed up the dilemma: "I know it sounds un-Australian, and I almost find the idea offensive, but in limited-over cricket we must learn to think negatively."
Armed with hindsight, there is something endearing, even admirable, about this Luddism. To an extent, it also betrayed the fears of purists and administrators alike: a variation demanding less of both the audience's attention and the combatants' repertoire of skills might leave the real McCoy redundant. Still, the penny finally dropped: get the international format right and it could subsidise Tests not involving the big guns, Australia, England and West Indies, and thus preserve the future of the five-day play.
Venturing further down Sceptical Street, one can also sense contempt in the tournament scheduling. Squeezing the matches into a fortnight, in England, in early June, as an appetiser for yet another Ashes conflagration, does not immediately strike one as sound commercial strategy. On the other hand, the growing proportion of imported talent in the shires meant that the conditions were cosily familiar to many of the participants, especially the West Indians and Pakistanis.
In that April's Wisden, the Editor's Notes ran to 16 items but not one was devoted to the impending tournament. The perceived importance of this brave new world was encapsulated even more depressingly by the Daily Telegraph on the morning of the curtain-raiser between England and India: Michael Melford's preview took second billing to the Amateur Golf Championship. Not so much as a mugshot of a cricketer graced the page. That said, in his musings on the "instant game", Melford was warily prescient: "Whoever wins, I doubt if cricket will lose."
And so to the show. Tony Cozier may have cringed at his own initial verdict - "perhaps the boldest and most ambitious innovation the game has known since the legislation of overarm bowling" - but he was being too hard on himself (and subsequently recanted on this site). Even so, that reverence may well be attributable, in the main, to a single innings. In the final, had Ross Edwards, Australia's finest fielder, not dropped Clive Lloyd's miscued pull long before he'd completed his 82-ball century, who knows what potholed path our trivial pursuit might have taken next.
Fortunately, the fates were kind: that frenetic fortnight was blessed by blissful weather. The crowds flocked in; Headingley drew 22,000 for Pakistan v Australia, the tatty old ground's gates locked for the first time since 1966. The highlight of the group phase was a riveting one-wicket victory for West Indies against Pakistan at Edgbaston, Deryck Murray and Andy Roberts adding 64 to pull off one of the most improbable and audacious of all cricketing heists. The thrill quotient was only marginally lower as little Alvin Kallicharran hooked and drove big bad Lillee all over The Oval, acclaimed by an intoxicating chorus of Anglo-Caribbean cheers, horns and drums - support that would soon be banished from English venues, or priced out of them, with a short-sightedness unique to the threatened elite.
As for the foremost individual performance, that came from Gary Gilmour, who coupled 6 for 14 with a tide-turning 28 not out to wreck the hosts in the semi-final, though sharing his name with a world-renowned murderer was hardly the association with wider celebrity he craved. Australia's four-wicket win satisfied no one more intensely than Chappell, the converted arch-Luddite. "The one game we wanted was to beat the Poms. We used to get so pissed off with them saying how we couldn't play one-day cricket. How you had to play different cricketers. We all just said, 'Bull. A good cricketer is a good cricketer.'"
Somewhat less edifying - notwithstanding the pre-tournament decision to ban bouncers - was the sight of Jeff Thomson felling and hospitalising two Sri Lankans, Duleep Mendis and Sunil Wettimuny. Far more indefensible was Sunil Gavaskar's go-slow in the opening game, where India's revered opener carried his bat for an all but useless 36 in 60 overs. Not only was he booed by his own supporters; both his captain, S Venkataraghavan, and tour manager, GS Ramchand, upbraided him in public. "The Indian cricket philosophy has yet to take kindly to one-day cricket," EW Swanton would attest in 1983 - albeit before the World Cup mugging of West Indies that revolutionised the sport anew.
By the time Australia and West Indies convened in NW8 before a full house of 26,000, taking total receipts to £200,000, the economic success of the venture was already assured. Still, to cricket tragics, even those who had welcomed the experiment, something nagged. To confirm that this was the future, that it mattered, we deserved something epic. We got it too, all eight-plus hours, every cadence, cadenza and crescendo capturing sport at its most mesmeric.
Viv Richards's hat-trick of almost derisive run-outs and the twilit tenacity of Lillee and Thomson remain tattooed on the memory, but it was Lloyd's feline strokeplay that bequeathed the most vivid, vivacious, reverberant legacy. "His innings will always be talked about while those who watched it are still alive," predicted John Woodcock in the Times. "He made the pitch and the stumps and the bowlers and the ground and the trees all seem much smaller than they were." If a single splash of the game's palette pointed the way ahead, we gazed on it that day.
After the presentations, Lloyd, Chappell and Rod Marsh adjourned to the Tavern bar, the former in suit and tie, the Australians still in their creams. Staying beyond midnight, they were joined by Mike Procter, obliged to miss the tournament by South Africa's abhorrent regime. "After a while this enormous West Indian guy came over," recollected Chappell. "He said, 'Hello' and then pointed at Proccy and went, 'Who's this?' I thought, 'Aw shit, it's been such a lovely day, and now it's all going to go wrong.' 'Erm… this is Mike Procter,' I said. 'Mike Procter!' boomed the bloke. 'One of the world's great allrounders. Lovely to meet you!'"
Standing half-heartedly in a synagogue at the outset of that historic day, I had wrestled with a quandary, albeit a distinctly luxurious one open only to someone living within 400 yards of the Grace Gates and whose stepfather happened to have a spare ticket for the final. What promised greater pleasure: Green Caps v Maroon Caps at Lord's or the Beach Boys at Wembley? I've no idea why I resolved the dilemma as I did, or what coaxing there may or may not have been from Him or Her Upstairs, but I'm bloody glad I did.
Cricket's Year Zero had begun, and in more ways than it could have realised. As Lloyd once lamented to me, in disbelief as much as anger, the West Indies board saw fit to deny the winners a bonus. No spectator left Lord's that evening more wide-eyed than a Mr K Packer.
This article was first published in 2014