Kapil Dev's catch to dismiss a rampaging Viv Richards was one for the ages. © Getty Images

Kapil Dev's catch to dismiss a rampaging Viv Richards was one for the ages. © Getty Images

I can recall that day only in flashes.

A Sony Trinitron colour TV encased in a hefty wooden box, my dad’s walrus-moustached friend Mukulesh in a bush shirt, his demure saree-clad wife Shobha, our new home in Bombay still reeking of fresh paint, my mosaic-tiled bedroom, the sound of cricket commentary, the smell of fried cumin wafting in from the kitchen, the clinking of glasses, my parents squealing in delight, firecrackers going off that Sunday evening.

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were,” said Marcel Proust. Did that day happen the way I remember it or have I created those memories through the course of several retellings? I’m not sure, but my parents can confirm most details (apart from the cumin).

I was four. It was June 25, 1983 – the day India won the World Cup at Lord’s. It was a day that changed Indian cricket, a day that changed India.

“I celebrated ’til late in the night after getting permission from my parents,” Sachin Tendulkar recently said. “I was inspired to take up playing the game with the season (hard) ball after the 1983 World Cup victory. Had it not happened things could have been different for me.”

For years after, I would hear about that day. A rampaging Viv Richards, Kapil Dev running backwards to catch him, Jimmy Amarnath’s man-of-the-match performance, and thousands of Indians invading the pitch – these vignettes were narrated over and over, embellished with every telling. It was many years until I actually saw a replay of Kapil’s catch, but I could have sworn I had watched it on a loop. No father in the Eighties ever tired of talking to his children about that magical, morale-boosting win. India’s leading newsmagazine at the time – India Today – titled its cover story “Miracle at Lord’s: Indian cricket’s finest hour”.

And what a miracle it was. The team capable only of – in captain Kapil’s own words – “a surprise or two”, beat the 50-1 odds (some reports say 66-1) to lord it over the home of cricket. Was it even more special because it came at Lord’s? Probably.

For a poverty-stricken nation, recovering from the throes of the Emergency and Nehruvian socialism, cricket was less a game, more a metaphor for life. And nowhere was that metaphor more evident than in India’s conflicted relationship with Lord’s, with its underpinnings of race, colour, class and colonialism. Lord’s was regarded as the ultimate bastion of imperialism – a private gentleman’s club, with an emphasis on order and rules, and a white, privileged, male outlook on life; it was the only English cricket venue patronised by the royal family; and it had stiff-upper-lipped stewards, regarded by one or two prominent Indians as – how best to put it? – prejudiced. To win the World Cup – at Lord’s – was to triumph over all it stood for.

These tensions were apparent right from the start: when India were meant to play their first Test, against England in India. A series originally scheduled for 1930–31 coincided with the outbreak of the Civil Disobedience Movement in India, including the Salt Satyagraha. When Mahatma Gandhi began the march from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi to protest against the draconian British laws on salt manufacturing – so “shaking the foundations of the British empire”, as he put it – there was outrage in India that an English cricket team would be visiting the country. The tour had to be called off.

The two teams did eventually meet, two years later, with the All India team – as it was known then – travelling to England to play one Test, at Lord’s, and several county games. “While Gandhi was languishing in jail, the Indian cricket team to tour England was being chosen,” writes Ramachandra Guha in A Corner of a Foreign Field. “Interestingly two Indians appeared for their counties against the tourists. Duleepsinhji played for Sussex, and the Nawab of Pataudi for Worcestershire. Both had disdained to appear in the colours of All India, hoping rather to be chosen for that winter’s tour of Australia by England. Both were selected, although Duleep dropped out through illness. While India was still ruled by the British such anomalies were possible. It is notable, though, that neither was asked to play for England against India in the solitary Test of 1932.”

The 1932 Indian cricket team gave England quite the scare with their gritty performance in the solitary Test at Lord's. © Getty Images

The 1932 Indian cricket team gave England quite the scare with their gritty performance in the solitary Test at Lord's. © Getty Images

As the anti-British sentiment raged on in India, the Indian and English teams presented themselves before King George V at Lord’s. Jahangir Khan – who featured in the 1932 Lord’s Test – told Ashish Ray in the documentary Indian Cricket: Great Moments (1932–1976) that the Indians felt “slightly nervous because they had never played a Test match and there were so many people shouting”. Could the venue have added to the nervousness?

England won by 158 runs, but not before the Indians had created a stir with three quick wickets on a lively first-day pitch. The English wicketkeeper Les Ames, also interviewed for the documentary, said India’s bowling was up to standard, but not their batting. Had the “two very fine Indians” – Duleepsinhji and the Nawab of Pataudi – been in the side “there could have been, well, a different story to the match”.

Intriguingly, three decades before Duleep and the Nawab were not picked despite being eligible, MCC decided against including Duleep’s uncle Ranjitsinhji in a Test at Lord’s against Australia during the 1895–-96 season. Lord Harris, the MCC president, believed only “native-born” cricketers should be chosen. “This, depending on how you look at it, was either rank hypocrisy or outright racism,” writes Guha. “For Harris had been born in the West Indies himself.”

But Ranji was then picked for the Test at Old Trafford, because the Lancashire committee wanted him to play (in those days, the host county – or MCC at Lord’s – chose the England team). Guha explains: “The Australia captain, GHS Trott, sportingly said that his team had no objection whatsoever.”

At the heart of India’s conflicted relationship with Lord’s, then, is the colonial baggage Indians carried that often resulted in deference to the ground’s traditions and everything it stood for: the desperate desire to see their name on the honours board, the awe with which they regarded the Long Room and – in some cases – their urge to prove a point with empire-strikes-back vengeance.

For Jack Bannister’s Innings of My Life, Mohammad Azharuddin picked his century in the 1990 Lord’s Test – more famous for Graham Gooch’s 333 after Azhar won the toss and put England in. “Before the game,” he writes, “my father called me from Hyderabad and said he wanted me to score a century on that wonderful ground. He always showed interest in my cricket … but he was anxious for me to score one at Lord’s.”

This is a sentiment expressed time and again. Be it Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid, it is common to hear Indian cricketers speak in hushed tones about how much it means to put on a show there. “I never understood the significance of such statistics when I came here the first time as a young man,” Dravid said after his century at Lord’s in 2011, six months before he retired. “But to miss out on my first hundred at Lord’s all those years ago did stay with me a little bit. It is not as if it was the end of the world, but it was there at the back of my mind that it would be great to do it. It is one of the most talked-about honours boards in the world.”

To miss out on my first hundred at Lord’s all those years ago did stay with me a little bit, said Rahul Dravid, who eventually succeeded in scoring a ton there in 2011. © Getty Images

To miss out on my first hundred at Lord’s all those years ago did stay with me a little bit, said Rahul Dravid, who eventually succeeded in scoring a ton there in 2011. © Getty Images

The only Indian exception to this rule is, perhaps, Sunil Gavaskar, who was never especially taken with Lord’s. In a chapter entitled “Blight on Blighty” in his 1976 autobiography, Sunny Days, Gavaskar wrote: “Lord’s, at first sight, is not impressive. Quite frankly, I don’t understand why cricketers are overawed by Lord’s. The members are the stuffiest know-alls you can come across, and the ground is most uninspiring. It slopes from one end to another. I shuddered to think of it as the Headquarters of Cricket.” In another chapter, he says: “I, for one, would rather play before a Calcutta crowd than at Lord’s, where the applause is strictly restricted to three to four claps.” This was, of course, before Gavaskar had orange peels thrown at him by the crowd at Eden Gardens, in 1984, for dropping Kapil Dev.

Gavaskar’s aversion to Lord’s and MCC could fill a book on its own: from his run-ins with the stewards to his deliberate go-slow during the 1975 World Cup opener against England, prompting a “disgruntled spectator to deposit his packed lunch at Gavaskar’s feet”, according to ESPNcricinfo’s Steven Lynch. The 1976 Wisden reports: “India gave such a disappointing exhibition that even their own large contingent of supporters showed their disapproval. The culprit was Gavaskar, who sat on the splice throughout the 60 overs for 36 not out.”

At the receiving end of some harsh treatment from MCC stewards, Gavaskar rejected the club’s offer of membership after he retired. During a recent lunch at Lord’s, a committee member recounted the story to me with utter disbelief.

Signs that this relationship was on the mend came when MCC invited Gavaskar to deliver the 2003 Cowdrey lecture. Gavaskar, never one to overlook a perceived slight, began in typically wry fashion: “There may be some among you who, on receiving the invitation to this evening’s lecture, must have seen who was going to speak and said ‘Oh, yeah! Only if he is allowed through the gate!’

“As you can see, I am here – let in by the stewards who over the years have become quite charming. No more does one hear ‘Oi! Where do you think you are going?’ Instead, now we hear ‘Excuse me, sir, can I help you?’ This is a tremendous change and the MCC needs to be complimented on the remarkable improvement in the attitude of those manning the various entrances at the ground.” Clearly, Gavaskar had forgiven but not forgotten.

At least the royal family, of all people, provided some humour, as several visiting teams were made to line up to meet the King or Queen – sometimes forcing a break in play, or making the cricketers wait at the ground after play until they arrived.

“The Test at Lord’s finished before the Queen’s traditional visit on Monday, and the teams had to line up to be introduced after the match,” writes Suresh Menon of India’s dismal 1967 series in Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer. “The Queen told the Indian captain she had watched some of the match on TV and felt sorry that India had to bat on what looked like a difficult wicket. ‘This was most generous’, recalled Pataudi (junior) ‘since the wicket was less to blame than our unworthy batting.’”

Despite Dilip Vengsarkar’s Lord’s centuries in 1979 and 1982, India were yet to breach the Lord’s frontier. © Getty Images

Despite Dilip Vengsarkar’s Lord’s centuries in 1979 and 1982, India were yet to breach the Lord’s frontier. © Getty Images

Four years after India lost that series came a phase of its greatest overseas triumphs – in the West Indies and England under captain Ajit Wadekar. Despite the triumph at The Oval in 1971 and innings of individual brilliance – including Dilip Vengsarkar’s Lord’s centuries in 1979 and 1982 (he would make another in 1986) – India were yet to breach the Lord’s frontier.

The 1983 World Cup win opened the floodgates. After ten Tests at Lord’s – eight defeats and two draws – India finally managed a win in 1986, only their second in 33 Tests in England. India haven’t won a Test at Lord’s since, but from Kapil Dev’s four sixes off Eddie Hemmings to save the follow-on in 1990 to the dream debuts of Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid in 1996, you could witness India growing in confidence.

Off the field too, India began to pull their weight, co-hosting the next World Cup with Pakistan in 1987. Guha calls it the “triumph of anti-colonialism”, as BCCI president NKP Salve – denied more than two tickets by MCC to the 1983 final – “set about organising the associate members of the ICC in a revolt that led eventually to the World Cup being shifted out of England”.

Strangely enough, while India continued to play Tests at Lord’s through the late Eighties and the Nineties, it was 19 years before they played another limited-overs game at the venue after the 1983 final. After a league outing during the 2002 Natwest Series – a match India won comprehensively – came the final against England at Lord’s.

Chasing 326, India looked down and out at 146 for five, with Virender Sehwag, Ganguly, Dravid and Tendulkar all back in the dressing-room. But India’s young turks – Yuvraj Singh (20) and Mohammad Kaif (21) – took them home with two balls to spare. India seemed no longer burdened by their decade-long history of overseas defeats and nine consecutive one-day final losses.

Up on the Lord’s balcony, Ganguly took off his shirt, twirling it in a maniacal frenzy as he copied Andrew Flintoff’s shenanigans at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium – India’s own HQ – five months earlier.

“There was supposedly a ban on bugles, whistles and flags, but many spectators seem to have smuggled in a full set,” writes coach John Wright in Indian Summers. “On the balcony, Ganguly took off his shirt and whirled it over his head, reminding Flintoff that what goes around comes around. Harbhajan wanted the whole team to do it, but discretion, in the form of Dravid, prevailed. As hard as Adrian [the physical trainer] was working, they weren’t exactly Chippendale Male Revue. So instead they took off like a bunch of excited schoolboys, clattering through the Long Room and on to the field to get to Kaif, a pitch invasion with a difference.”

Now it would seem like India’s relationship at Lord’s has come full circle: from diffidence in 1932 to arrogance in 2002. The headline in Mumbai tabloid Sunday Mid-day read: “LORDS: At cricket’s Mecca, Mohammad performs a miracle”.

If India hadn’t won that day in 1983, would they have pushed to co-host the 1987 World Cup? Would Tendulkar have been inspired to pursue cricket? Would the game have exploded in the subcontinent? Would Jagmohan Dalmiya have become ICC President? Would cricket’s epicentre have shifted from London to Mumbai?

The story of cricket, not just Indian cricket, might have been very different indeed.


This article appeared in the fifth issue of The Nightwatchman. You can buy all copies here.