“We are here to win everything,” thus spoke Srinivas Venkataraghavan, captain of the Indian side, on landing in England in June, 1979, prior to the start of the second edition of the ODI World Cup. This statement from the Indian skipper was met with a great amount of amusement, if not outright derision, by the followers of the game in the country. India’s performance in the previous championship was dismal, with the side failing to make it to the last four stage.
Moreover, there was little to show by means of any improvement during the intervening period as the focus of the game in the country was on longer duration matches. The limited overs version of the game was considered by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the players alike as the proverbial poor cousin and disregarded with disdain and contempt.
Further, Venkat himself had been appointed as captain in rather strange circumstances. He had led the side during the first World Cup, but was sacked to make way for Bishan Singh Bedi in the winter of 1975. Bedi was replaced by Sunil Gavaskar following the defeat in the Test series in Pakistan in 1978.
Gavaskar, who was expected to remain at the helm for a long period, led India to a win in the Test series against a depleted West Indies side in 1978-79. But the national selectors dropped a bombshell by removing Gavaskar and bringing back Venkat as the skipper for the World Cup and the four-Test series against England that followed.
It was evident to the fans that the real reason behind the axing of Gavaskar was the annoyance of honchos of the BCCI with him on account of the hobnobbing with representatives of Kerry Packer. The traditional cricket establishment as represented by the International Cricket Conference (as the present day International Cricket Council used to be called at that point of time) was waging a fight against Packer, the Aussie media mogul, who had weaned away top cricketers from around the world to start his own World Series Cricket (WSC) in 1977. Initially the WSC had not contracted any player from India, but by the end of 1978 there were newspaper reports that Packer was keen on recruiting top Indian cricketers as well. Rumours were also afoot that Gavaskar and Syed Kirmani, the wicketkeeper, had evinced interest in joining the WSC. It was widely believed that the removal of Gavaskar from captaincy and dropping of Kirmani from the squad was intended to make the duo toe the line dictated by the BCCI.
Thus the squad that embarked for England was in addition to being ill-prepared for the World Cup, low on morale and motivation as well. The only ray of hope for the diehard supporters of the national side lay in the fixtures that saw India placed in the relatively weaker pool, along with defending champions West Indies, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka had not attained the status of a Test playing nation then and was hence expected to be easy fodder, while the optimistic Indian fan always placed his country above New Zealand. It was believed that, with a slice of good luck, the side might be able to reach the semifinal stage.
However, India were forced to eat humble pie as they lost all three matches by big margins. The defeat at the hands of Sri Lanka, in the last pool match, when neither side had any chance of reaching the next stage, was particularly galling. In reply to the Sri Lankan total of 238, the Indian innings folded up for 191 in 54.1 overs. Earlier, New Zealand had inflicted a resounding eight-wicket defeat on the side, thus killing the slim hope of securing a semifinal berth.
The loss to Sri Lanka shocked the entire cricket establishment in the country. This was the first instance that a Test playing nation had tasted defeat at the hands of an associate nation. The result was as much an indication of the progress made by the Sri Lankan side as the lethargy and indifference of the Indians. Hence, it was not surprising that Venkat and his boys received flak for their poor performances from all quarters.
However, the batting of Gundappa Viswanath in the opening match of the tournament against the West Indies provided the silver lining. The Caribbeans were the only side, other than Pakistan, who had included players recruited by the WSC in their squad for the World Cup. Batting first against the fearsome pace quartet of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft, India lost Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar with only 24 runs on the board. Viswanath walked in at this stage and took charge of the situation in his usual unhurried manner. Despite losing wickets at regular intervals at the other end, Viswanath showed no evidence of discomfort or difficulty in tackling the stuff bowled by the quickest bowlers on the planet on a wicket that aided the pacers. Only Brijesh Patel, who was run out for 15, and Kapil Dev who made 12, stuck around to give him a token of assistance as Viswanath took the total to 163 before being the ninth batsman to be dismissed with his individual score at 75, embellished with seven hits to the fence. Such was the class and caliber of batting exhibited by Viswanath that Clive Lloyd, the West Indies skipper, hailed it as the best innings played against his side in the championship.
On a roll
For the record, the West Indies won the tournament without breaking a sweat. The only occasion when their overwhelming superiority appeared to be under challenge was when Majid Khan and Zaheer Abbas launched a blistering counter attack in the semifinal. Chasing a target of 294 runs in conditions favourable for batting, Pakistan lost their first wicket with the score at 10 when the duo came together. In a brilliant display of attacking batsmanship, they caned the West Indian bowlers, carting the ball to all parts of the ground. As runs started flowing in a torrent, the West Indies started running out of ideas. At one stage, when only 118 runs were required from 24 overs, Pakistan appeared well on course for a shock victory. However, Colin Croft got the breakthrough by dismissing Zaheer and followed this with the wickets of Majid and Javed Miandad off consecutive deliveries to swing the scales in favour of his side. The West Indies did not look back after this and romped home by 43 runs.
In the final, England fancied their chances when they reduced the West Indies to 99/4. But a sizzling 139-run stand between Viv Richards (138 not out) and Collis King (86), where the latter outscored his more accomplished partner, took the game away from the hosts. After King was dismissed, Richards took over and demolished what was left of the England bowling, hitting all but five out of the 48 runs scored by his side. Richards ended the innings on a majestic note, walking inside the line of a yorker bowled by the miserly Mike Hendrick and coolly hoisting it for a sixer over square leg! England did not have any fight left inside them after this and chasing a target of 287, they were bundled out for 194.
Venkat redeemed some of his prestige as skipper when the Indian side staged a remarkable recovery after losing the first match of the four-Test series against England by a huge margin. India came very close to winning the last Test at the Oval, where, chasing a target of 439 runs in the last innings, the side fell short by a mere nine runs, with two wickets in hand. However, he was replaced by Gavaskar as captain of the national side when the series ended.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)