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70 Years of Independence - Part 2: Cricket's Transformation From a Sport to a Religion

Dileep Premachandran | Updated: August 15, 2017, 10:00 AM IST
70 Years of Independence - Part 2: Cricket's Transformation From a Sport to a Religion

File image of Indian cricket team lifting the world cup in 2011. (Getty Images)

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As much as Kapil Dev’s buccaneering 175 not out against Zimbabwe at Tunbridge Wells, or his running catch to dismiss Viv Richards off Madan Lal’s bowling in the final, the seeds of India’s 1983 World Cup triumph and the white-ball extravaganzas that followed were sown at the Albion Sports Club Complex in Berbice, Guyana, a couple of months before the global tournament.

Sunil Gavaskar, who eight years earlier had laboured 60 overs for 36 not out in India’s first World Cup game, set the tone against an attack featuring Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Winston Davis. His 90 from 117 balls gave India a base to build on, and Kapil then smashed a 38-ball 72 to take India to 282 for 7 in 47 overs. By the standards of the time, it was monstrous total.

Richards clattered 64 off just 51 balls before falling to Madan Lal – a sign of what destiny had in store? – and Ravi Shastri, now India’s coach, took 3 for 48 as India won by 27 runs. For a team that had seldom been anything other than inept in the ODI arena, it was a path-breaking win, against the dominant team of the era.

For India, that was the decade that began the love affair with one-day cricket. Cricket in Sharjah, with celebrities, former cricketers and match-fixers in attendance, became a biannual affair, and the World Championship of Cricket in Australia in 1985 presented Shastri with an Audi and the grandiose title of Champion of Champions.

The one that got away was the Reliance World Cup, hosted by India and Pakistan in 1987, the first time it had left English shores. In the 40th year of independence, India-Pakistan was supposed to be the dream final. But with Graham Gooch sweeping India out in the Mumbai semifinal, and Craig McDermott’s pace scuttling Pakistan in Lahore, it was the sport’s oldest rivals that contested the Eden Gardens final.

In the Test arena, India had moved on from the famed spinners of the 1960s and ’70s, and the batting bid adieu to Gavaskar in the spring of 1987. His last stand was a breathtaking 96 on a raging turner in Bangalore. India lost, and but for a 2-0 victory in England in 1986, there was little to savour in that decade.

Sachin Tendulkar’s emergence in Pakistan in 1989 offered hope, but India were no better as a Test team in the 1990s, which featured a 4-0 defeat in Australia (1991-92) – despite two brilliant Tendulkar hundreds – and the humiliation of 66 all out in Durban (1996). That was the decade of being tigers at home and pussy cats away. Anil Kumble and his spin cohorts were peerless in home conditions, but once India went past passport control, there was seldom decent backup for Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad.

That lack of bowling teeth afflicted the ODI side as well. India won just two matches at the 1992 World Cup and lost to Zimbabwe in England in 1999. Sandwiched in between was another home World Cup, which saw Tendulkar top the run charts, but India well beaten by the genius of Aravinda de Silva in a Kolkata semifinal.

By then, innuendo about the underworld’s influence on matches was rife, and the brown stuff hit the fan towards the end of the millennium, with Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja among those to be banned after the Delhi Police accidentally stumbled on the bookie-player nexus.

That debacle was to be the starting point for India’s emergence as a true cricketing force. John Wright, who took charge in November 2000, was India’s first overseas coach, and Sourav Ganguly was the captain asked to lead the team out of the darkness. The Ganguly-Wright combination drew away series in England and Australia, beat all-conquering Australia at home, won in Pakistan, and reached a World Cup final. As a golden generation of batsmen matured, and were supported by the likes of Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan, India were no longer considered soft touches away.

Off the field too, the game had changed beyond recognition. In 1996, Mark Mascarenhas’s WorldTel had made Tendulkar the first cricket millionaire, and by the early 2000s, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was signing broadcast deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Greg Chappell’s two years as coach saw an ignominious first-round exit in the 2007 World Cup and some indifferent performances in the Test arena, and after the team regrouped with a marvelous series victory in England in the summer of 2007, Indian cricket once again found itself contemplating new horizons.

The BCCI didn’t even take the inaugural World Twenty20 seriously – India had played exactly ONE T20 international prior to that – and rested the senior players, asking MS Dhoni to lead the side. Dhoni and his young, charged-up wards lost just once, to New Zealand, before knocking off South Africa, Australia and Pakistan to win the title.

For Lalit Modi, then a vice president of the board and a man who had long envisioned a franchise-based league on the lines of US sport, the euphoria generated by that success was the spur to fast-track the creation of the Indian Premier League. By April 2008, on a Bangalore night that featured lasers, pop stars and cheerleaders, it was all systems go, as players suddenly commanding million-dollar prize tags squared off in uniforms that featured gold and silver trimmings. Subtlety certainly wasn’t the name of the IPL game.

Fears that the IPL would swallow Test cricket have proved unfounded, at least in India’s case. After posting a 40-27 win-loss record in the first decade of the century, India have already topped that this decade, with 41 wins and only 22 losses in 82 games. Players like Hardik Pandya, who first caught the eye in the IPL, speak of how much the safed (white) means to them, even as they bat and bowl with the fearlessness that is central to the abbreviated format.

There have been painful losses to, with the transition from the Tendulkar-Kumble generation proving difficult, but most of the negatives have come off the field, with a succession of power-hungry administrators dragging the game into disrepute. The IPL spot-fixing scandal of 2013, and the appalling manner in which it was handled, was an all-time low, and it prompted the Supreme Court to step in and advocate root-and-branch changes that have yet to be implemented.

But in the midst of such chaos, the team has made serene progress. Since 2010, only once have India failed to make the semifinals of an ICC event, and the Test team has had two lengthy stints at the top of the Test rankings. The World Cup was won on home soil in 2011, the Champions Trophy in England (2013) and another WT20 final reached. Even Tendulkar's tear-soaked farewell, after a career that spanned 24 years and three generations of players, only seemed to inspire those left behind in the dressing room.

As Mohammed Shami, born in UP but schooled in the game’s finer points in Bengal, skittled Sri Lanka in Pallekele to seal a 3-0 whitewash away from home, it was a reminder of just how far Indian cricket has come from the days when they couldn’t even find a half-decent new-ball bowler. Flaws and all, Indian cricket is in rude health, and there are many more happy days to come.
First Published: August 15, 2017, 8:54 AM IST
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