If the shock World Cup victory of 1983 marked India’s coming of age as a cricketing power, then an equally surprising 19-run defeat to a Minor Counties Select XI – a team of farmers, solicitors, salesmen and engineers – just five days before the tournament began must surely be considered their last bit of wayward adolescent troublemaking. For the India of 2013, looking back at the game is perhaps akin to a billionaire contemplating his errant days as a teenage shoplifter; from the perspective of that June afternoon, however, lifting the World Cup must have seemed about as likely as becoming a billionaire does for a petty thief.
With the Indian squad having arrived to a dank and drizzly early English summer, this hastily arranged practice match took place just beyond the M25 London Orbital, in the Buckinghamshire village of Monks Risborough. The host county was unable to provide a regular venue, so the game was played at Molins Sports Club, the now disused factory ground of a company specialising in tobacco vending machines.
Due to the fixture’s short notice, most of the team came from the Home Counties and South-East England, and Frank Collyer, wicketkeeper and captain of both the Hertfordshire and Minor Counties teams, now jokes that it wasn’t even the best XI available to them. “It wasn’t a formally selected side,” he remembers. “It was put together from convenience, to get people there who could get there, basically.” Having already played four group games in the 50-over Benson and Hedges Cup, and with nine two-day MCCA Championship games to come, a player had to prioritise his days off work.
Still, according to Collyer’s Hertfordshire teammate Wayne Osman, cousin of Russell, the former Ipswich Town and England centre-half, the part-timers were “not there to make up the numbers”, as can be gleaned from their decision at the toss. The opening batsman explains his captain’s logic: “He felt that when playing against first-class opposition, our best chance of winning these type of limited-over games was to post a score in excess of 150 and try to bowl them out on a hopefully deteriorating wicket, rather than inserting them, trying to defend, and end up having to chase down large totals. The converse of this is that, against Minor Counties opposition, first-class teams, if they lose the toss, expect to be inserted as it’s considered by the Minor Counties the best way of ensuring the maximum amount of cricket is made available to the paying public. So India might have expected to bat, particularly as it was supposedly a warm-up match. Not to be. We had other thoughts. We had taken a day off work turned up and we intended to try and win a cricket match.”
On a deathly slow wicket that was offering some purchase for the slow bowlers, the Minor Counties eked out 154 from 50 overs, the game having been reduced by ten overs per side. Osman chipped in with 34 – “I don’t remember their attack troubling me too much,” he deadpans, “and I don’t remember me troubling them too much” – while the top scorer was Bucks captain David Smith, a last-minute call-up playing in his one and only game against an international opposition. “I just remember it was a real grind,” he says of his unbeaten 36, “but we just had to register a presentable total. Every run was hard work.”
India’s standout bowler was Ravi Shastri – the sole spinner with Kirti Azad not playing – who returned miserly figures of 10-6-10-3. He had two stumped in the classical manner and Rick Hayward, son of former Wolverhampton Wanderers owner Sir Jack, caught by skipper Kapil Dev, who had himself only deigned to send down two lacklustre overs. Collyer concedes that this might indicate that the visitors were taking things easy, albeit with the caveat that it was a cold day and a sluggish surface, so it was plausible that a seasoned campaigner such as Kapil might have been saving himself.
This was not a view shared by Collyer’s own spearhead, Ian Pont, the former Essex and Notts player, Netherlands and Bangladesh bowling coach, and Major League baseball triallist. “I spoke to Sunil Gavaskar about this match in Bangladesh at the 2011 World Cup, where I was coaching and he was commentating for TV,” Pont recalls. “He said India were going through a tough time and they desperately needed to get some momentum for the tournament. So I don’t believe India were taking anything easy.”
Pont and Gavaskar locked horns at the start of the Indians’ reply, which was given a bit of a flyer by Kris Srikkanth, who hit a straight six back over the bowler’s head, receiving an earful for his trouble: “I called him a terrible slogger and he explained that I should go somewhere and be nice to myself.”
With the tourists 30 without loss from six overs, Collyer promptly withdrew his opening bowlers from the attack and took pace off the ball. Gavaskar immediately fell lbw for a laboured single, departing in silence but with a rueful shake of the head. “I don’t think I even appealed,” shrugs Collyer. “Let’s just call it a generous decision.” The adjudicating umpire, Terry Wilkins, remembers giving “three or four lbws, all Indians. In the bar, a friend of mine made me Man of the Match and presented me with a cupcake!”
The bowler – appositely or ironically, depending on your viewpoint – was Norfolk’s Steve Plumb, a farmer and part-time offspinner who would finish with 4 for 24, including top-scorer Srikkanth for 28 and Shastri, who chipped in with 21. “Maybe India’s undoing” Osman reflects, “was playing for the turn against Plumby, who was not renowned for giving it a great rip”.
Comprising what Osman describes as “a fairly regular fall of wickets, interspersed with the odd spell of resistance”, the chase was an attritional affair throughout. “We moved the field a lot and it was a big and slow outfield,” recalls Smith. Collyer, meanwhile, was fairly confident 154 would prove a difficult target and remembers his team “fielding like demons”, the highlight being an excellent run out of Mohinder Amarnath, who had three years’ Minor Counties experience with Durham and would later turn out for Wiltshire.
Next to fall was Dilip Vengsarkar, snared by the medium-paced cutters of Cheshire’s Neil O’Brien: “It was just before a break in play for rain and was a totally unplayable leg cutter. Seriously, it did move from leg to off. My victim played back when he should have been forward. Poor Dilip never knew what hit him.”
Another part-time offspinner, the late Oxfordshire captain Phil Garner, bagged 3 for 37 (Roger Binny, Yashpal Sharma, Kapil), while the Minor Counties’ frontline spinner, Devon’s Tony Allin – a left-armer good enough to take 44 wickets at 23 in a solitary season for Glamorgan – returned 9-4-20-1 as India subsided to 135 all out from 43.4 overs.
With so many overs of spin and cutters, one could be forgiven for thinking India were beaten in subcontinental conditions, but that wasn’t the case, either underfoot or overhead. Pont sums up, “The pitch was such a club-style wicket that on it 154 was a good score. We had some medium pacers and slow bowlers who had learned their trade playing in the leagues every week. It favoured our style of player more than theirs.”
Although it was only a practice match, the home side were rightly proud of having beaten an international opponent. “It’s not every day you beat a touring team,” says Osman, although Collyer had been part of the Minor Counties teams that had vanquished the visiting Australians in 1977 and the New Zealanders the following year, both over two days. Pont, who last year picked up a winner’s medal as coach of Dhaka Gladiators in the inaugural Bangladesh Premier League, says, “At the time it ranked very highly in my career. To defeat the world champions in the year they win the trophy is very special.”
Despite the potential embarrassment of such a defeat, Collyer’s overriding impression of the Indian team was their being extremely magnanimous and gracious. After the game, chatting to “the very relaxed and smiley” Kapil, Collyer “might have suggested to him that it was always better to bat first in these types of conditions,” although no one could envisage what was to follow. Of course, as has now passed into legend, just three weeks later, India successfully defended 183 in the final, the distinctly English slow medium-pace of Amarnath securing the Man of the Match award. As they celebrated in the famous old Lord’s pavilion, a clutch of amateur cricketers out playing for their clubs in the Shires were left thinking that, viewed in a certain way, they were better than the world champions.
As for Terry Wilkins, he is more rueful about things: “I do like a little bet on the horses and after the following morning you could walk into any betting shop and place a bet on India to win the World Cup at 500-1. I never had a penny on it.”