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Sunil Gavaskar's World Cup go-slow

The first World Cup match saw the most bizarre of innings from Sunil Gavaskar

Sunil Gavaskar hits out, England v India, Lord's, World Cup, June 7, 1975

Entirely out of character - Sunil Gavaskar plays an attacking stroke during his tedious innings  •  Getty Images

One-day cricket is such an established part of the game now that it is sometimes easy to forget that it is a relatively new concept. The first domestic tournament was launched in England in 1963, and the first limited-overs international followed eight years later, almost by accident after a Test match was rained off.
The inaugural World Cup came in 1975 (two years after the ladies held their own tournament). The first match in that competition produced one of the most controversial one-day innings of all time.
In the opening round of games, on June 7, 1975, England, the hosts, were drawn to play India at Lord's. The format of the event - there were two groups of four countries - meant that a defeat would leave the losers struggling to progress.
The scene in London was perfect, with high temperatures and glorious sunshine, conditions that continued throughout the two-week tournament and on through the rest of the summer. It had, however, been a near-run thing. Five days before the start the weather was so grim that snow stopped play in a county match at Buxton in Derbyshire, and another game in Essex was delayed because of biting cold.
Demand for tickets at Lord's wasn't as it would be now - this was, after all, a relatively new idea - but nevertheless the ground was three-quarters full.
The first half of the game went according to plan. England batted and piled up 334 for 4 in 60 overs, at the time the highest total in one-day cricket. Dennis Amiss led the way with 137 (an innings of "calm, simple movements," according to Tony Lewis) and was well supported by a solid 68 from Keith Fletcher. Although England wobbled mid-innings, losing three wickets for 15, the respite was brief. As the Indian bowlers tired in the heat, a 30-ball 50 from Chris Old bludgeoned the match out of their reach.
The competition rules stated that if a group was tied, run-rate would be the deciding factor. So even if India lost, the more runs they scored, the better their chance of reaching the semi-finals. Such considerations or tactics were, however, sadly lost on Sunil Gavaskar, who opened the Indian innings. From the off, it was apparent that he was adopting a strategy known only to himself. At first, his snail-like batting was put down to a desire to see off the new ball. But when he continued his go-slow, frustration among the crowd grew.
India's supporters voiced their desperation, and as the innings drew towards its turgid conclusion a few even ran to the middle to remonstrate with Gavaskar. "Dejected Indians were pathetically pleading with him to die fighting," reported the Cricketer. "Their flags hung limp in their hands. It was a perverse moment of self-inflicted shame." On their balcony in the pavilion, Gavaskar's team-mates made no secret of their frustration.
In the Times, John Woodock wrote: "From the Mound stand, where the police were kept as busy removing rowdies as if it were the Hill at Sydney, anyone who could break the cordon came to plead with the Indian batsmen to play the game properly. But it was no use.
"To understand why India, and especially Gavaskar, batted as they did, It is probably necessary to remember what happened when they last played at Lord's. They were bowled out then for 42. If they could not win on Saturday, as they decided they could not after England's innings, then every effort had to be concentrated on averting another collapse."
"It was the most disgraceful and selfish performance I have ever seen… his excuse [to me] was, the wicket was too slow to play shots but that was a stupid thing to say after England had scored 334"
GS Ramchand, India's manager
By the end of the innings, Gavaskar had crawled to 36 not out off 174 balls with just one four. India had scored 132 for 3 and had lost by 202 runs.
The motives behind the innings remain unclear. In a post-match statement GS Ramchand, India's manager, said that Gavaskar had considered the England score unobtainable and so had taken practice. It was an excuse, but not one that anyone believed. "I do not agree with his tactics," Ramchand concluded, "but he will not be disciplined."
In the firestorm after the match, Ramchand grew more bullish, and two days later he told the Daily Express: "It was the most disgraceful and selfish performance I have ever seen… his excuse [to me] was, the wicket was too slow to play shots but that was a stupid thing to say after England had scored 334. The entire party is upset about it. Our national pride is too important to be thrown away like this."
Rumours abounded, the most popular being that Gavaskar was unhappy with the team selection, especially the decision to ditch the team's reliance on spinners (who had been mauled in England the previous summer) in favour of seamers. Others claimed he was annoyed that Srinivas Venkataraghavan had been made captain.
"His cussedness could quite easily have been formed before the match by matters of selection, his hotel bedroom or even the nightly meal allowance," wrote Lewis. "Whatever the motives were, he had no right to force them on the sponsors, who have put £100,000 into cricket this summer, or on the 16,274 spectators, who paid £19,000 to watch."
Ted Dexter, at the time commentating for the BBC, argued that Gavaskar should have been pulled from the field by his captain. "Nothing short of a vote of censure by the ICC would have satisfied me if I had paid good money through the turnstiles only to be short-changed by such a performance," he fumed. But match referees were not introduced for almost another two decades and the ICC at that time did not get involved in such matters.
And what was Gavaskar's explanation? At the time he said nothing publicly. Years later he admitted that it was the worst innings of his life and claimed he was out of form. "It is something that even now I really can't explain. If you looked back at it, you'd actually see in the first few overs some shots which I'd never want to see again - cross-batted slogs. I wasn't overjoyed at the prospect of playing non-cricketing shots and I just got into a mental rut after that."
"There were occasions I felt like moving away from the stumps so I would be bowled," he added. "This was the only way to get away from the mental agony from which I was suffering. I couldn't force the pace and I couldn't get out."
Team-mate Karsan Gharvi offered a simpler explanation: "Sunil thought it was difficult and impossible to chase this target. Messages were being sent to him but he was just concentrating on his game and it never bothered him at all at the time."
Anshuman Gaekwad, who made 22 off 46 balls, said: "We were all very surprised by the way he was batting. It was difficult to say what he was up to. When I was with him in the middle, we didn't discuss the team's strategy or his or mine. I was too junior to say anything to him. I myself was conscious to prove my own ability." He added that when Gavaskar returned to the dressing room nobody said a word.
Gavaskar also claimed he had actually been caught behind off the second ball of the innings, and admitted he wished he had walked. "I keep tossing and turning around about it now. I asked myself, 'Why the hell did I not walk the second ball? I was caught behind and would have been out for zero. But nobody appealed. I had flashed outside the off stump... it was just such a faint nick that nobody appealed. The bowler went 'ah' and the keeper, Alan Knott, who was standing some way back, did the same. There was no real appeal, no proper 'how's that?' That little moment of hesitation got me so much flak all these years."
On the team's return home he was slammed by the board in response to the manager's report, which claimed that Gavaskar had been "aloof" and had had a detrimental effect on the younger players. But no official reprimand was issued and the matter was quietly dropped.
The newspapers the next day generally concentrated on the epic match at Leeds, where Dennis Lillee had blown away Pakistan, although the Sunday Telegraph led with a headline "Indian stodge follows England's spice".
A fortnight later Lord's staged the inaugural World Cup final between West Indies and Australia, one of the great limited-over matches. It was the perfect finale to a tournament that had risked being stillborn.

What happened next?

  • Gavaskar was not dropped and scored 65 not out and 12 at a decent rate in India's remaining two matches. He played in four World Cups, including India's win in 1983, the only other time he played at Lord's in the tournament, where he made 2 off 12 deliveries against West Indies
  • The authorities announced a clampdown on spectators entering the playing area. Later that summer Michael Angelo was fined £10 for his now famous streak in the Ashes Test
  • On the same day Gavaskar was dropping anchor, Glenn Turner scored 171 not out off 201 deliveries for New Zealand against East Africa
Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail us with your comments and suggestions.

Gavaskar: Portrait of a Hero - Clifford Narinesingh (Royards, 1995)
Summer of Cricket - Tony Lewis (Pelham, 1976)
The Cricketer - August 1975
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1976

Martin Williamson is a former executive editor of ESPNcricinfo