How bitter our cup

RAJU BHARATAN

IT certainly was a clanger that Dilip Vengsarkar dropped when, on the decisive Thursday morning of the November 1987 World Cup semifinal vs Mike Gatting's England, he pronounced himself unfit for that key match at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium. To say that skipper Kapil Dev and his team felt diminished would be the understatement of the year 1987. Kapil even made a personal approach to Dilip to play. But Dilip's point — he had been struck down by `flu and felt too weak, in the legs, to stand up to the doughty demands of a World Cup semifinal. Computer ratings then were something novel and Dilip Vengsarkar already stood ranked, at that decimal point in time, among the top five batsmen in the world. Plus he came to that Wankhede play-off with 1987 World Cup scores of 29 vs Australia, 0 vs New Zealand, 46 not out vs Zimbabwe, 63 vs Australia & 33 not out vs Zimbabwe.

Later, when I quizzed Dilip upon why he gave such a crucial World Cup semifinal game in his career the miss, `The Colonel' needed the aid of no military medium to spell out the reason why. Dilip's reasoning was that, even if he could have batted, there was the vital swift single for him to tap and run so as to rotate the semifinal strike. His other point was that he would be found out in the field, in next to no time, if he went into a World Cup `semi' semi-fit. Shakespeare was invoked, none the less, by the media in a spirit of: "If you have eyebrows, prepare to raise them now.'' It was suggested that `The Colonel' was paying Kapil in the coin Dev had taken out to toss — after having dropped Dilip Vengsarkar from the Indian eleven for the Wednesday, June 22, 1983 semifinal vs Bob Willis' England at Old Trafford.

That is neither here at the Wankhede Stadium nor there at Old Trafford. The point is Kapil's India had moved into such a self-assured mould by the semifinal stage of the 1983 World Cup that it could afford to jettison, not only a batsman of Dilip Vengsarkar's standing, even an all-rounder of Ravi Shastri's breeding. Why, Sunil Gavaskar had to be grateful to still be in that 1983 semifinal eleven, after a World Cup scoreline of 19, 4, 0 & 9. There was a Kapil Devil message here, somewhere, that Bombay's dominance of Indian cricket was drawing to a close. As he grew in performing stature, Kapil Dev as `Mr. Deeds' made no rustic secret of the way he detested big bad Bombay for the sophistication that Little Master Sunil Gavaskar brought to dominating the Indian cricket scene.

But now we were into the 1987 semifinal of the World Cup where, with Kapil Dev, India's interests came first, his feelings about Bombay after. Hence Kapil's impassioned plea to Dilip to play. Kapil's November 5, 1987 run-off with Dilip is interesting against the backdrop of his gripe (until the match preceding that Bombay semi) about Sunil's opening in a vein foreclosing title defender India's World Cup chances. As matters stood, Sunil (by then on swan song) was in that 1987 World Cup team on the strength of a special request to the then Cricket Board President, the genial S. Sriraman, that Gavaskar be allowed to end his India career on a high note.

Indeed, matters came to a head on the Tuesday morning of India's October 31 final league contest of the 1987 World Cup (vs New Zealand) at the VCA Stadium in Nagpur. The sour grapevine had it that Sunil, here, was all set to settle scores with Kapil concerning the captain's implied thought process that Gavaskar was a stumbling-block in India's attaining a certain run rate by that accountable date of March 31, 1987. As Jeff Crowe's New Zealand came up with a Nagpur score 221 for 9 from 50 overs, it was imperative that India fired from the word go. How Sunil met that Kapil challenge to put even Kris Srikkanth in the Nagpur shade is part of World Cup lore. Sunil, in fact, chose the sultry Nagpur platform to hit his first and last ODI 100 (off 85 balls) — with 10 fours and 3 sixes!

Sunil's 103 not out, as he sustained the tone of the Brown Blaster even after Kris Srikkanth (75) had left at 136, meant India's overtaking New Zealand's 221 from just 32.1 overs — at 224 for 1. Martin Crowe in the deep, thinking, could but stand and stare at the poise and panache Sunil brought to putting New Zealand's bowling under the glass hammer. Martin Crowe later hailed that Sunny Tonny-in-hand 103 as rating among the great one-day innings he had seen played. With Gavaskar's head so still as not to be aware of the Sword of Damocles hanging over it!

Kapil, for his narrow screen part, felt overwhelmed — this was a Sunil neither he nor the rest of India knew till then. It was a Sunny innings of a calibre that made Chetan Sharma feel hesitant about moving forth to share the Man of the Match award with Gavaskar. For his hat-trick witnessing Ken Rutherford (26), Ian Smith (0) and Ewan Chatfield (0) being dismissed with the 4th, 5th and 6th balls of his 6th over (Chetan match figures: 10-2-51-3). Sunil, always one with a flair for the right gesture, encouraged the Javed-stunted Chetan to walk a step ahead of him in being the one to collect the Man of the Match award on their joint behalf.

If Sunil thus went up like a rocket at the Vidharba ground, he landed like a stick at the Wankhede Stadium. Bowled all ends up by Phil DeFreitas (for 4) even before Kris Srikkanth (ultimately 31) could manage a wink from the Marine Drive end where `Madhumati' Vyjayanthi lived. Here is where Dilip Vengsarkar was sorely missed at one-drop by Kapil Dev. Having let Graham Gooch (115) and Mike Gatting (56) `semi' sweep England to 254 for 6 from 50 overs, Kapil needed Sunil, yet again, to launch out in a non-Nagpuritan vein. But, once Sunil flopped in the Wankhede featherbed, how could anyone, who saw it on TV, forget the way Kapil (30) lashed out to forfeit India's captaincy, all over again, as Dev ventured to `do a Zimbabwe'? That wide of midwicket airhostess-six that Kapil attempted off Eddie Hemmings saw Dev go up like a Jumbo Jet. Only for it look an ugly helicopter-like touchdown as Kapil merely played the ball into Mike Gatting's barmaid-holding hands. To precipitate India's losing that 1987 World Cup semi by 35 runs.

I have no wish to denigrate Kapil Dev when he remains the only captain to have brought the World Cup home to India. Certainly not at the time of writing when Sourav's India had lost 2 Tests, 4 ODIs and the series to a Martin Crowe-goaded New Zealand. At least there had been a hearty Haryanvi attempt by Kapil Dev to carry the 1987 World Cup war to the England camp. By stark contrast, what a lacklustre Sourav & co build-up to the Veldt World Cup! We now have to rest our 2003 World Cup hopes on the slender premise that only when India goes down in the manner it did in New Zealand shall the meek inherit the earth! By hopefully peaking at the right time in South Africa.

In this timorous context, just look at the emphatic manner in which Kapil Dev's India, on the Wednesday of June 22, 1983, put it across England in the World Cup semifinal at Old Trafford. Such was the British indignation at that 1983 loss to "lowly'' India in England that the Old Trafford groundsman was pilloried for preparing a pitch better suited to Kapil's team! So patronising were the British after that six-wicket World Cup semifinal trouncing that they predicted that the June 25, 1983 Lord's final between Kapil Dev's India and Clive Lloyd's West Indies "would be a crashing bore''. I tell you, it was not so much the World Cup as a mirage that Kapil Dev chased at Lord's. With this difference — that Kapil Dev then headed a team believing in itself. While Sourav's India in New Zealand could only think in terms of how to `contract' rather than how to expand.

What we thus had in New Zealand was a sustained let-down from the commanding heights of the cricket economy. An economy class team is what Sourav's India looked through two Tests and four ODIs in New Zealand. "Oh, but the conditions were against us!'' it will be argued. Vijay Merchant put the point in perspective when he wrote: "We are the champion nation in making excuses for failures. The wickets were different, the weather did not suit us! But does all this not apply to teams touring India as well? Surely, it is not suggested that, when we go overseas, we carry our own wickets, our own weather!''

How now we carry ourselves in South Africa is all-important after the way Indian cricket lost caste in New Zealand. The World Cup was not all champagne as Kapil Dev and his minnows began their 1983 campaign. That vintage World Cup win had its own ebb and flow. But Kapil and his men never let setbacks get to them the way Sourav and his side looked self-defeated, by the midway stage itself, in New Zealand. Being not in a position to blame even Asoka de Silva! Making a totally new beginning in the Veldt is going to call for uncommon gumption. "It needs character,'' to quote Vijay Merchant again, "to be able to redeem oneself at such a time. And character is displayed, not when the conditions are all favourable, but when the odds are against you and your side.'' The odds could not be more against Sourav and his men as they prepare to set out for the Veldt. Sourav and his team go to South Africa with nil public expectation after all that telly hoopla. They are now in the precise position Kapil Dev and his team were in June 1983. That team made its own opening, its own opportunity. So must Sourav and his team start from scratch as far as the Aladdin's Lamp that is the 2003 World Cup goes. Indian cricket is yet again back to bidding for the title of `The Worst Team In The World'. Cup expectations be damned, Shah Rukh Khan urgently needs a new Pepsi script by which it is not Kareena alone turning her back on browned-off India.