The Indian cricket team is gearing up for the Australia series which would conclude only in the second half of January, 2021. The travel restrictions brought about by COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping across the globe have left their impact on the itinerary and scheduling of matches during this tour. Thus, one finds that all the One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and T20 Internationals will be played in Sydney and Canberra before the squad moves to Adelaide for the first Test starting on December 17.
As the sides get ready for the first ODI on November 27, pleasant memories of the successes registered by the national side on Australian soil come flooding to mind. And the happiest occasion till date has been the title triumph achieved by India in the Benson and Hedges World Championship of Cricket (WCC) held in February-March, 1985. This tournament was hosted by Australian Cricket Board and was held to commemorate the 150th year of European settlement in that country. All Test playing nations took part in this championship thus making the event as prestigious as a World Cup. Matches were limited to 50 overs-a-side with players wearing coloured clothing and games played under lights for the first time at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Before the start of the tournament, the West Indies were the favourites to win the title as they were strongest among contemporary sides in all forms of the game, while the field was open for deciding who came second best. As far as India was concerned, their fortunes had dipped sharply after the historic win in the 1983 World Cup. The West Indies had thrashed them in Test matches and ODIs during the winter of 1983-84, which led to Kapil Dev losing the captaincy. His replacement Sunil Gavaskar had started by hailing the 1984-85 as the “season of hope”. But that soon turned into a winter of despair as India was defeated by an unfancied England side led by David Gower. A loss on their home turf to a team that had been “blackwashed” by the West Indies not too long ago shocked the followers of the same in India and the skipper and his boys were at the receiving end of vitriolic criticism from all quarters.
It would be an understatement to say that morale of national side and its followers was at boot lace level. Gavaskar himself had a poor series with the bat against England and he seemed to run out of ideas while leading the side. Kapil appeared to have forgotten the art of moving the ball late and was struggling to get wickets. Ravi Shastri gave the impression of playing more for himself then for the side, while Dilip Vengsarkar continued to remain an enigma who could be brilliant against the best but very average when pitted against the mediocre. The only rays of hope were the emergence of two talented youngsters who looked capable of taking Indian cricket to the next century. They were Mohammed Azharuddin (Azhar), a lean right-handed batsman who created history by back to back scoing centuries in his first three Tests and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan (Siva), a sprightly right-arm leg- spinner who mesmerised the willow-wielders with his turn and guile.
When they sat down to select the squad for the WCC, the selectors sprang a surprise by retaining Gavaskar as captain, despite his lacklustre performance in this capacity during the home series. Officials of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) would have realised that this decision would not be welcomed by the members of Press waiting in the lobby of the hotel where the Indian skipper was staying and asked him to proceed for the meeting with the selectors for choosing the rest of the side by scaling over a wall on the backside. Gavaskar did as instructed but also decided that he would not suffer this ignominy again and announced, in another couple of days, his decision to step down from captaincy after the tournament. The only new face in the team to Australia was Sadanand Viswanath, a young wicketkeeper, who replaced Syed Kirmani.
India was placed in Group A during the round robin stage along with the hosts, England and Pakistan. Incidentally India had lost ODI series to both Australia and England during the 1984-85 season itself in the more familiar home conditions. Hence, the average cricket fan in India was rather circumspect and not very optimistic about his side reaching even the last four stage. This general mood of pessimism and despondency was reflected in the decision of Doordarshan, then the sole provider of inputs for television sets in the country, not to uplink live coverage of matches. As the national side was not expected to do well, it was anticipated that there would not be too many viewers for the live footage!
However, the fortunes of the side underwent a sudden change the moment they stepped on to the field in their first game, which was against Pakistan. The few diehard supporters, like this writer, who had woken up early in the morning to listen to the commentary of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation were pleasantly surprised to hear the commentators describe the energy and determination with which Indian players moved on the field. After Roger Binny dismissed opener Mohsin Khan early, there was a 65-run partnership for the second wicket between Qasim Omar and Zaheer Abbas, which was broken by Siva, who dismissed both batsmen in quick succession. After that wickets fell at regular intervals as the Indian bowlers turned on the screws and even Pakistan captain Javed Miandad, who invariably used to come good against India, did not make much. India managed to bowl out their opponents for 183 in the last over, with Binny claiming 4/35.
When India started batting, Imran dismissed Shastri, who opened with Krishnamachari Srikkanth, quickly. Azhar and Srikkanth took the score to 27 when Imran, who was bowling extremely well, dismissed the latter and Vengsarkar off the last two balls of his fifth over. Gavaskar came in next but did not have to face Imran as Azhar played out the entire sixth over of Imran with tremendous self confidence and ease. At this juncture, skipper Miandad made the elementary mistake of removing Imran from the attack, probably to conserve his overs towards the end of the innings, little realising that one more wicket would have pushed India to the wall. Gavaskar found his touch in the company of Azhar and the duo gradually put the Indian innings back on track. Imran came for his second spell but he could not do much against two batsmen who were by then well settled and stroking the ball comfortably. Though Gavaskar fell after compiling a -century, this did not cause any hiccups as Mohinder Amarnath gave company to Azhar, who carried the side to win with an unbeaten 93.
This victory was all that India needed to rediscover their Midas touch of 1983 World Cup. The side easily won the games against England and Australia to top the group. There were a few tense moments in the semifinal match against New Zealand, whose bowlers managed to dry up runs in the middle overs, till Kapil Dev snatched a win with his pyrotechnics with the bat. Meanwhile, Pakistan, as mercurial as ever, defeated the West Indies in the other semifinal. India won the finals easily by a margin of eight wickets to lift the Cup. There was a further surprise for the winners when Shastri was named as “Champion of Champions” and presented an Audi car.
What were the reasons for this amazing turnaround in the fortunes of the side? Skipper Gavaskar has written in his book “One Day Wonders” that this was solely on account of good fortune favouring a side that possessed the innate strength to do well. But that would not offer a full and complete explanation as there were factors other than pure old fashioned good luck. In the first place, Gavaskar was more relaxed after deciding to quit captaincy and went about his task in a more calm and serene manner. The return to form with the bat also improved his outlook and contributed to his positive demeanour. Kapil was promised by the selectors before the side departed from India that he would return as skipper if the team did well. This must have had a huge impact on him as he bowled brilliantly in all the matches, besides contributing handsomely with the bat whenever required. Shastri and Srikkanth came good with bat, while the former also bowled tight spells with the ball. Further, the energy and zeal of the young trio of Azhar, Siva and Viswanath came like a whiff of fresh air that helped to lift the performance levels of the side to stratospheric levels.
In the end it was a memorable win that sent across the firm message to the cricketing world that India’s win in the 1983 World Cup was no mere flash in the pan. It was made even more enjoyable by the decision of Doordarshan to start live coverage after India won the first two matches. Hence the fans in India could follow the action on the field and savour the thrill and elation of victory. As one of the popular banners displayed by fans in the ground proudly proclaimed, India indeed stole Thunder Down Under!
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)