Philip Barker

India’s batting firepower is such that they will be among the favourites for the ICC Cricket World Cup when it begins in England next week.

Such is their enthusiasm for the shorter forms of the game, it is hard to believe there was a time when India seemed not to care about the Cricket World Cup. At the first tournament, held in 1975, they made a humiliating exit at the group stage after losing two of their three matches.

Their initial reticence was shared by many in cricket’s establishment. Only in 1972 did the International Cricket Council announce "it was generally agreed on the probability of a World Cup in the United Kingdom as soon as practicable".

There was even a reluctance to use the term "World Cup".

Instead, "International Championship Cricket" was used on all publicity material. The six Test-playing nations took part. South Africa were not invited because of Apartheid. The leading associate member Sri Lanka competed, alongside East Africa, a combined team of mostly club cricketers from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia who were considered rank outsiders.

The tournament format was very similar to the present day ICC Champions Trophy. Two groups of four with the top two in each group of four advancing to the semi finals.

It is perhaps a measure of how different things are that not all matches were televised. In fact, there were only five days of cricket. The group matches and semi-finals were played simultaneously. Very different to 2019 where the schedule is designed to maximise television coverage.

As the teams arrived to take part in the tournament, the Times of India observed: "The Indians have little experience of one-day international cricket. Their batsmen are correct and stylish but lack the dash needed to turn a match in this kind of competition."

A poster which advertised the first Cricket World Cup, or International Championship Cricket as it was known at the time ©Philip Barker
A poster which advertised the first Cricket World Cup, or International Championship Cricket as it was known at the time ©Philip Barker

They had played only a handful of one-day internationals. When they arrived for the tournament, they headed to North London for a practice match against the club cricketers of Finchley. A big score boosted confidence and they played two further warm-ups against Worcestershire, winning one and losing the other. In an eight-team tournament, they were 12-1 with bookmakers. England and Australia were joint-favourites at 5-2.

As part of the build-up, all the teams were taken to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen but there was little of the hype which now surrounds a major event.

‘’I don’t think it registered that this was the first World Cup. It was just a normal day.’’ said England batsman John Jameson, who faced the first ball of the first match.

Some tickets for the 2019 tournament are changing hands for thousands of pounds but back in 1975, a ticket for the group stages cost only £1 and it was even cheaper for under-16s, while an adult ticket for the final was only £3. In a first foray into marketing, souvenirs featuring Disney character Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio were put on sale. The slogan was: "Cricket is a big hit."

India fielded first in that opening match against England at Lord’s but the home batsmen were in fine form. Opener Dennis Amiss struck 137, the first century of the competition. Those who followed carried on in the same attacking fashion.

England’s total after 60 overs was 334-4. In those days, this was regarded as a huge score.

India’s response was keenly anticipated by a large following of their own supporters. In opening batsman Sunil Gavaskar, they had a player rightly regarded as an all-time great , but on this occasion he appeared to make no effort to score the runs. This came as a disappointment to the legions of Indian fans who had hoped for fireworks. Frustrated supporters ran out to the middle to remonstrate with their hero.

"Right from the start, we knew the chase was out of the question," wrote Gavaskar later, describing his innings as "a complete mental block".

Indian captain Srinavas Venkataraghavan insisted: "We should have gone for the runs, which is understood in this type of cricket." 

Messages were even sent out to the middle from the Indian dressing room, to no avail. The scoring rate remained at little more than two an over, nothing like enough.

"It was amazing. We were fielding then, we just wondered what was going on." said Jameson.

‘’He (Gavaskar) just carried on, blocking and blocking. At the end of the day we were probably trying to get through the overs as quickly as we could and get off the field because it almost became embarrassing in the end.’’

When Gavaskar walked off after 60 overs, he was still unbeaten but had scored only 36. India’s total was only 132-3.

The programme for the first Cricket World Cup ©Philip Barker
The programme for the first Cricket World Cup ©Philip Barker

He was confronted by a furious team manager Gulabrai Ramchand, himself a former Test player.

"I was very disappointed with Gavaskar’s performance even though he said the pitch was slow for making strokes and that he used it for batting practice," said Ramchand.

The distinguished Indian cricket writer Niran Prabhu, who wrote for The Times of India as K. N Prabhu, was astonished. 

He wrote: "Gavaskar seemed to be thoroughly out of humour. He likes to go for his shots. Some stodgy sardonic impulse, thoroughly out of character, appears to have possessed him, holding him back from playing the strokes which are his special gifts."

Tony Lewis, a former England captain and a friend of Gavaskar, called it "a performance of Indian mysticism. Whatever the motives, 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".

The Times of India reported "Indian supporters crowded outside the Lord’s pavilion, shaking their fists at their side's dressing room after the humiliating 202-run defeat".

Gavaskar was not disciplined for his slow play and retained his place in the team. India beat East Africa in their second match, but then lost to New Zealand to go out of the competition.

"Our players have to learn the art of limited-overs competition," said Ramchand as the side returned home.

K. N Prabhu’s final assessment for his Indian readers was positive about the new tournament. 

"The classic remark 'I have seen the future and it works' could well be borrowed by World Cup organisers," he wrote. "Yet the pity of it is that the Indians, with so many to support them, failed to do justice to themselves."

Things did not materially improve for India at the second World Cup in 1979 and in the third competition in 1983, they stood on the brink of a heavy loss against Zimbabwe. Enter Kapil Dev, a charismatic all-rounder who struck 175 and guided his side to victory. It proved a turning point.

Against the odds, Kapil led India to the final where they beat reigning champions West Indies in one of cricket's great shocks. It was a match which had all the ingredients of a Bollywood movie which it will become in Kabir Khan’s film "83", due for release next year.

India also won an unofficial "World Championship of Cricket" held in Australia in 1985 and ever since, have been a force in the limited-overs game.

There was great rejoicing when they won the World Cup on home soil in 2011, raising a different trophy this time. By this point, the astonishing success of the Indian Premier League had brought forth a new generation for whom anything was possible.

Now any target in the one-day game is there to be shot at. Long gone is the era when a score of more than 300 was considered unattainable. With them, the spectre of Gavaskar’s infamous 36 not out has also been consigned to the history books.