Twenty six years ago to this day, India made their bow in one-day cricket with a game against England at Headingley. The circumstances were not propitious. The two match series was held at the end of a tour where India had been trounced 3-0 in the Tests, so they were hardly in the peak of condition, either physically or mentally. The players were quite indifferent to the whole exercise because there was absolutely no prestige attached to it. Indeed the captain Ajit Wadekar, when reached for his comments, was under the impression that the match was not an official ODI, which perhaps puts the Indian approach to the game in perspective.
The novelty of the phenomenon also needed some acclimatisation. Throwing your bats at the bowling towards the end of the innings, rotating the strike or bowling a disciplined, even restrictive, line and length were all lessons that could not be learned overnight. Wadekar suggested that the players, at least those from Bombay, had played in the Talim Shield and were thus not exactly greenhorns at the limited overs version. But their experience was still strictly at the local level. The England players were old hands at it, with the one-day format having infiltrated into their domestic cricket in the mid-60's. Only Bishen Bedi with Northants and S Venkataraghavan with Derbyshire had similar experience and Bedi for one had stubbornly refused to adapt his style to the requirements of one-day cricket.
Although the Indians were defeated, they were not disgraced. India were put in to bat and bowled out for a creditable 265 scored at almost five an over. Brijesh Patel with 82 and captain Ajit Wadekar with 67 were the bulwarks of the innings. "The wicket was lively and Chilly (Chris Old) was bowling well", is all that Wadekar remembers. England won the 55 overs a side game quite comfortably by four wickets with almost four overs to spare and, as in the first ever ODI between England and Australia in 1971, John Edrich was the Man of the Match for his 90. India ironically responded by sacking Bedi and Venkat for the second game at the Oval and the side was top heavy with batsmen, with Madan Lal at No. eleven. The result however was no different.
In the years that followed India continued to flounder in these unfamiliar environs. Their heads buried deep in the sands, the Board and the players ignored the spreading tentacles of the one day game. India's dismal record at the 1975 & 1979 World Cups is well documented. India also lost 2-0 in New Zealand in 1975-76 and 2-1 to Pakistan in 1978-79 (although they conceded one game from a winning position because of unfair tactics by their opponents). In the 1980-81 Benson & Hedges series they lost seven of their ten games. It was only as late as 1981-82 that the Board woke up to the moneyspinning possibilities of one day cricket. India played their first ODI at home against England at Ahmedabad and the series was won 2-1. But the first inkling that India had indeed turned the corner came on a March day in 1983 in Berbice, Guyana when the powerful West Indies juggernaut was halted in its tracks. But it still left everyone unprepared for the stunning denouement in June.
There was little evidence that India had begun to adapt their approach to the demands of one-day cricket and had raised their competitive level in the bargain. India's success was not due to a conscious attempt to raise the standard of their game after being underachievers for so long. It just happened spontaneously under the helmsmanship of one of the most outrageously gifted players the game has seen. At Berbice some three months before the World Cup, Kapil Dev had struck a ferocious 72 in 38 balls and taken 2-33 in his ten overs. The transformation in attitude owed to one man who lifted the spirit of his team by example, a man who rode on pure instinct, and whose natural style was so brilliantly suited to the nature of the one day game that he didn't need to bother overly about tactics or strategy. To be sure there were times when that direct unsubtle approach failed, most notably in the 1987 World Cup semi final, but you have to take the man in his entirety. Warts and all, he was still the flagbearer.