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The summer it all changed

The 1983 World Cup was a journey of self-discovery not just for India, but for a sportswriter whose career gamble was vindicated after the final

Ayaz Memon
India's World Cup 1983 squad

The wooden-spooners of 1983  •  Adrian Murrell/Getty Images

"Show me a person who gave Kapil Dev's team any chance of winning the 1983 World Cup and I will show you a liar and an opportunist."
The story of how David Frith, then editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, had to eat his words after he wrote India off as no-hopers has been told too often to be repeated here, yet is symbolic of the disdain with which the Indian cricket team was viewed before the tournament. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the situation was "hopeless, but not serious".
My own faith in the Indian team's prospects, too, tended towards zero. True, there had been some glimpses of excellence when the mighty West Indies were beaten in Berbice in a one-day game preceding the 1983 tournament, but India's track record in one-day cricket, and especially in the two previous World Cups, had been pathetic to say the least.
While I was obviously privileged to be covering a World Cup, on the nine-hour flight to England in May 1983, two issues jostled for pole position in my mind: Did I really want to give up practising law to pursue writing on cricket as a vocation? And secondly, did it make any sense to watch India play West Indies at Old Trafford first up when I could watch England play New Zealand at The Oval?
By the time the plane landed at Heathrow, at least one issue had been resolved. The Oval it would be. This decision was not, as might be misconstrued, based on the kind of cynicism journalists are known to acquire over time. I was on only my second overseas assignment, un-jaded and curious, but frankly, what logic in seeing India play the best team in the world?
I have lived to regret that decision. Watching the classy, elegant Martin Crowe was a delightful experience in itself, but not seeing India floor West Indies was such a bad miss that I was immediately chastened.
The topsy-turvy nature of sport is something only the foolhardy would ignore. This lesson had been painfully learnt. For the next month and more, I followed the Indian team diligently across the length and breadth of the country, spending long hours on the British Rail, making scores of trips on the London Underground, as the World Cup wound its way through that magnificent summer. The budget was modest, the itinerary intense, but the experience was unbeatable - and there were also the other attractions an English summer offers, like catching a concert by Dire Straits in London.
Thatcherism was taking firm control of political and economic life in England in the early '80s, and Prime Minister and "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher was the undisputed Queen Bee. Only occasionally was she forced to share centrestage with US president Ronald Reagan. In that sense, even the World Cup enjoyed minuscule importance, but for those weaned on cricket lore, England was still a dream come true.
The grounds of Sussex spoke of the exploits of Ranji, and the two Pataudis, apart, of course, from CB Fry. At Lord's, passing through the Grace Gates was like a pilgrimage in itself, though the good doctor himself was from Gloucestershire. But my personal favourite, as a diehard Surrey fan, was The Oval, home to Jack Hobbs, the Bedsers, and my childhood hero Ken Barrington.
The World Cup carousel took me to most of these historic grounds. When no matches were scheduled, I made day trips to soak in the history and nostalgia. Every once in a while, I would head off towards the bookshops near Leicester Square, looking for steals. I picked up quite a few titles, mostly hardcover, to my delight, not realising then that lugging them back home would be a task that would have daunted Hercules.
Through the tournament I stayed in Surbiton, a few stops from Wimbledon. My host was a young engineer I knew from Bombay, who was on a work permit and knew everything about cricket, tennis - indeed all sport played in England. "For a sports buff, there is no place like this," he would say. Oh, to be in England that summer!
For a rookie journalist who had never been out of the subcontinent, the first world offered many fascinating experiences. Like learning to get a chocolate bar from a vending machine in an underground station. It seems all so easy now, but when you have never seen such a contraption earlier, it can befuddle; and if there are several options to choose from, it can get bewildering.
There were only six journalists (if I remember correctly) from India on that tour. The explosion in the Indian media, with its din, clamour and suffocating competition to grab sound bites, was nearly two decades away. News-gathering was expensive, covering an overseas tour for five to six weeks virtually unaffordable, even for the mainline newspapers. I had had to pitch in from my own meagre savings. This plus substantial savings on lodging expenses made the trip possible.
A striking feature of that tour was the proximity between players and the media. It helped, of course, that there were so few of the latter. It helped me also that so many of the players were of my own vintage and several were from my home city, Bombay. Sandeep Patil was the first cricketer I interviewed for Sportsweek, where I cut my teeth; I had played against Dilip Vengsarkar in an inter-schools match (though he doesn't remember it); Ravi Shastri lived a few buildings down the road from me, though I first went to his house only after he became Champion of Champions in Australia a couple of years later.
And then there was Sunil Gavaskar, the epitome of the Bombay school of cricket and unarguably India's best - and best-known - player to the world. He was a few years older than the likes of Patil and Shastri. By age, temperament and stature, not so easily approachable. It didn't help much that he was in poor nick, which I thought made him moody. But this also meant that he would suddenly come into his own, crack jokes and come up with insights that one could only marvel at. Midway through the tournament he said the key to India's performances would be how the medium-pacers performed, when everybody else was talking about how the batting would fare. Touring with Gavaskar, with all his prickliness, was always an education, I maintain.
My favourite on that tour, however, was Kris Srikkanth - he of the many nervous tics and restless energy. Srikkanth was a couple of years younger than me, but had been a hero ever since his university days when he began blasting bowlers all over the park with a devil-may-care approach that oscillated between brilliance and insane recklessness. We were both heavy smokers then, which perhaps helped us bond better. But it was his blithe spirit and intrepidity that I found endearing. He was a bundle of energy, got along with everybody, was the team's best outfielder after Kapil Dev, and batted with a dashing bravado that won him fans everywhere.
It seems almost strange to say such things now when the two parties have so much mutual mistrust, but the relationship between the media and players during the 1983 World Cup almost bordered on friendship. Dinners with players were not unusual, and during a brief lull in the tournament a few of us even went out for a night on the tiles in Soho in London. (No names, please!)
What this also meant was easy access to players and the dressing room. I remember watching Vengsarkar get hit in the face by Malcolm Marshall from the dressing room, having stepped in briefly for a quote from another player to meet a deadline. There was a flurry of abuse when the batsman returned retired hurt, and not from Vengsarkar, who could barely open his mouth.
When India played Zimbabwe in the historic match at Tunbridge Wells, I watched a fair bit of Kapil Dev's memorable innings, sitting next to Gundappa Viswanath, just outside the dressing room. Vishy, who hadn't yet retired, had failed to regain his place after a poor tour of Pakistan but was still an integral member of the Indian team.
Kapil was also the main source of hope, I realised, as the team tottered. When India were 9 for 4, he was to say with a sense of righteous belief, "Don't worry, the match is not over yet." He must have been the only man then to believe this. But talk of prophetic words.
As the tournament progressed, the small media corps became almost like an extended family of the team, but this did not mean we did not look for "controversies". The composition of the team showed a distinct north-west divide, so to speak, and anybody who knows anything of Indian cricket knows how much these things mattered in those days. Did it influence Kapil? More importantly, was Gavaskar dropped for the first match against Australia, or "rested", as manager PR Man Singh insisted?
All such doubts died by the time Kapil had finished his business at Tunbridge Wells. Gavaskar was back in the team despite his mediocre form; Vengsarkar was still out of contention through injury; but by a process of trial and exigency, India had hit on the right combination.
The academically inclined are still locked in endless debate about which has been the greatest one-day innings ever. In my mind there is no doubt that Kapil's unbeaten 175 that day stands supreme. There have been bigger scores since, innings with more sixes and boundaries hit, runs scored at a faster rate, but for sheer magnitude of impact, nothing quite matches up to Kapil's innings.
It not only helped India win from the jaws of defeat but also dramatically altered the course of the tournament, and subsequently, the future of Indian and world cricket. In the context of the tournament, this innings was to be a rallying cry from a field marshal to his troops, as it were.
Remember, Kapil was in his first season as captain, having taken over from Gavaskar after the rout against Pakistan a few months earlier. This change had been contentious. Moreover, India had come into the World Cup on the back of a series defeat against West Indies, and there was muted talk about Kapil's future as a leader even before the tournament began. The pressure on him was to not only justify his reputation as a top allrounder but also to hold his team together, and thereby hold on to his captaincy.
Examine the scorebook and you find that India's performances till then had been modest - despite the first-match win over West Indies - and not at all indicative of the heady climax that was to follow. There had been a couple of exciting fifties, some of the swing bowlers like Roger Binny and Madan Lal were enjoying the helpful conditions, and the fielding was much improved by traditional Indian standards. But there was little to suggest that this was a world-beating side.
The next week flew past in a flurry of wins, banter and laughter as India knocked over Australia and England to earn a place in the final against the world champions, West Indies. This was surreal stuff from a side that had now forged such enormous self-belief as to become unstoppable.
Australia were a team in disarray, with Greg Chappell not available, and unconfirmed reports suggesting massive infighting between some of the senior pros and the captain, Kim Hughes. Having lost their first game, against Zimbabwe, Australia were on the back foot when they met India in Chelmsford. As it happened, neither Dennis Lillee nor Hughes played that game, and the result was a massive defeat that set in motion a train of events that was to culminate in Hughes surrendering the captaincy in tears a year later.
The two semi-finals involved India and Pakistan. Could it be a dream final between the two arch-rivals from the subcontinent? It was not to be, as Pakistan lost badly to West Indies. With Imran Khan unable to bowl, Pakistan relied heavily on their batting, but in this crucial match they missed Javed Miandad, who reported unwell. I happened to meet Miandad in his hotel room on the eve of the match. He was obviously ill. I wondered, though, if he would miss such an important game; he did and that was that.
On the same day, India's players marched to Old Trafford like born-again gladiators, bristling for the kill. It was a surcharged atmosphere, and by the time the match ended in a flurry of boundaries by Patil off the hapless Bob Willis, many fights had broken out between the fans of the two sides all over the ground. One placard captured the Indian performance and the result of the match tellingly: "Kapil Dev eats Ian Botham for breakfast".
Much celebration followed. India's surge had been unexpected and there was frenetic partying in the few days leading to the final. It seemed almost every Indian, resident of England or otherwise, wanted to host the players or be a guest wherever the players were.
So incredible had been India's run of success and such was the disbelief that even the stiff stewards who manned the Grace Gates were nonplussed. "Oh, we now have Gandhi coming to Lord's," said one to his colleague in an obvious reference to Sir Richard Attenborough's memorable film when a few of us landed up to demand accreditation for the final.
Since India were expected to be wooden-spooners, the Indian press corps' accreditation did not include a seat in the press box for the final. In any case, the Marylebone Cricket Club lives by its own rules. But we were not to be denied accreditation for the match, and we duly got it after some haggling.
On June 25, India took the field against West Indies. Excitement over being at the final in my maiden World Cup tournament blew up into a kind of anxiety attack on the eve of the match, leading to a night of tossing and turning - and waking up later than anticipated. Dreading that I would miss the start, I hopped into a taxi at Surbiton instead of taking the train, which any seasoned visitor to London would tell you is a cardinal mistake, even on a Sunday.
Coaxing the cabbie to "step on it", I managed to reach Lord's in what seemed to be the nick of time. But by the time I got past the Grace Gates, I heard a roar go up, sounding distinctly Caribbean in timbre and words. "Gavaskar's out,'' yelled somebody as I hared towards the staircase that led up to the press box. Running up, I bumped into Richie Benaud, not a hair out of place. "Want to bet on India 66-1?" he asked. I was not just out of breath but also belief. A ten-quid bet looked a good punt at such seductive odds. But India to win? Really?
I shook my head. It's a decision I regret still. Not for the money that could have been won but for missing out on the thrill of punting on one of the greatest upsets in sports' history. For, a seven-hour roller-coaster ride thereafter, Kapil's men had turned the cricket world upside down, and the lives of hundreds of millions changed forever.
At a personal level, the second issue that had haunted me on the flight into England had been resolved too: the law degree would find its place on the mantelpiece; writing on cricket was to be my lifeline.

Ayaz Memon is a senior journalist who has feasted on cricket for almost half a century and covered eight World Cups, which he brags is two more than what Sachin Tendulkar has played in