A 36-year-old Ian Botham rolled back the years to take 4 for 31 and score 53 against Australia in the 1992 World Cup

Four wickets and a funeral... of Australia's World Cup ambitions at the hands of an ageing Beefy in 1992

© Getty Images

The Jury's Out

The greatest World Cup performance

Pivotal spells, last hurrahs and the ones that came good at clutch moments

Andrew Miller, Osman Samiuddin, Sambit Bal and Andrew Fidel Fernando  |  

Ian Botham
4 for 31, and 53, Australia vs England, Sydney, 1992

by Andrew Miller
Imagine, if you will, Ben Stokes at the 2031 World Cup. By then he will be 39 years old, with knees held together by chewing gum and his batting having long since descended into a riot of mistimed slogs. His glory days will be a decade divorced from the reality of his fading faculties, and yet… when he walks onto the field for that critical clash against Australia at the Wankhede, do you think you'll be ready to bet against him?

Now, hold that thought, and carry it backwards through space and time, to an era when another mighty English allrounder was staggering towards his own endgame. Like this Stokes of the future, the Ian Botham who waddled into the 1992 World Cup was a preposterous husk of a cricketer, a man both hobbled and empowered by his wanton disregard for sport's accepted rules of engagement.

But you can't just look back over that grainy footage of England's World Cup final defeat to Pakistan in Melbourne - complete with Botham's tight-fitting sky-blue pyjamas and his decisively anonymous contributions - and state the bleeding obvious: that he was irredeemably past it and had no business being involved in the sharp end of a global tournament.

Instead, place yourself in the shoes of his opponents, those soon-to-be-world-cricket-overlords, Australia, in a must-win encounter in Sydney 20 days earlier. By the early 1990s, Allan Border's men were a team on the rise, as demonstrated by their two crushing Ashes wins plus the 1987 World Cup title, and by the middle of the decade, Border's heirs would be confirmed as the sport's next great dynasty. And yet, Australia's dog days were not only recent enough for that scar tissue to be all too easily ripped asunder, but those wounds had been administered, for the most part, by the very same man now poddling in off seven paces with his hit-me-if-you-dare outswingers and who-do-you-think-you-are-I-am swagger.

The Botham who waddled into the 1992 World Cup was a preposterous husk of a cricketer, a man both hobbled and empowered by his wanton disregard for sport's accepted rules of engagement

How does one begin to compete with such myth-crafting bravado? Whereas Stokes, you imagine, will at least keep hitting the gym (if not the nets) into his professional dotage, Botham took his own professional dereliction to nose-divingly low standards, as if determined to consume the entire game in the resulting fireball.

He famously arrived late on England's pre-World Cup tour of New Zealand because he was double-booked as the King in Jack and the Beanstalk at Bournemouth's Pavilion Theatre ("The expressionless Botham is the only wooden thing on stage apart from the beanstalk," wrote a critic in the Daily Express). And, as if that hadn't been an insufficient workout, Botham then marked the eve of his 100th Test, in Wellington, by flying across the Cook Strait in a helicopter for a convivial afternoon in a vineyard before sauntering back to the team hotel with minutes to spare before a 6pm meeting.

There was no logical reason to believe that he could possibly be a factor in England's World Cup campaign, except that logic and Botham had long since parted company. And with Australia desperate for victory after damaging defeats to New Zealand and South Africa, one final display of weapons-grade chutzpah proved sufficient to sink them.

From 145 for 4, Australia shipped their last six wickets for 26, with Botham barging through the lower middle order with four in seven balls - Border drove past a straight one and was sent on his way with a pointy-fingered display of dad dancing, before Ian Healy, Peter Taylor and Craig McDermott were also left wondering if Botham was, indeed, their daddy as they too trooped off the stage, meek and bewildered.

Botham's ODI-best figures of 4 for 31 were just the hors d'oeuvres. Suddenly Australia might as well have been back at the Gabba in November 1986 - the previous occasion in which Botham's spirit of conquest had flooded back into his desecrated game. A rollicking 53 from 77 balls ensued, replete with trademark hoists up and over the covers, and long before England had coasted home with eight wickets and 55 balls to spare, Australia knew their World Cup party had been ransacked by the most dastardly foe of their lifetimes.

It Wasim that did it: Akram sealed the deal first with the bat, then the ball

It Wasim that did it: Akram sealed the deal first with the bat, then the ball © PA Photos

Wasim Akram
33 and 3 for 49, England vs Pakistan, final, Melbourne, 1992

By Osman Samiuddin
The moment Wasim Akram won Pakistan the World Cup final was the moment he stopped being the next Imran Khan and started being Wasim Akram. Except that until then, Wasim Akram was a simple idea. He was the next Imran, the next great Pakistan fast bowler, the next great Pakistan allrounder, the next great Pakistan captain, the next great Pakistani sex symbol.

Life got very complicated very quickly after this evening, and not being the next Imran, it turned out, was both good and bad. But this 25th evening of March in 1992 - the 20th fast of Ramadan - was the last night of that first part of Akram's life and it was the perfect culmination of his career as it had been till then.

Two summers previously, he had dominated an Australian summer, stepping into Imran's shoes with impeccable all-round performances: wickets when it mattered, runs when they were needed. The arrivals of Aaqib Javed and Waqar Younis - younger, quicker, wilder - had, by default, burnished Akram with a sense of seniority. He was now the leader of this attack.

The reflex is always to view his eventual performance in this final as its own thing, as the kind of great sporting feat we expect from great players. It's natural, given it came on the biggest stage in cricket. But that he would deliver in this final was as close to an inevitability as there can be when dealing with such notions, because it often goes unnoticed how clutch Akram had become coming into the MCG in 1992.

Scan through his record in finals in multi-team tournaments. Three for 42 in a vital death-overs slowdown of India in the Miandad game; 3 for 27 in a final lost to England in Perth; a first-ball six to win the Nehru Cup when three were needed off the last two balls; 86 and 2 for 30 in a Benson and Hedges tri-series final thrashing at the MCG; 49 not out off 35 and a hat-trick in an Austral-Asia Cup final against Australia; a couple of months later, 28 off 21 and 3 for 30 (including a legendarily quick spell to Graeme Hick) in a famous Benson and Hedges Cup win with Lancashire.

That Akram would deliver in this final was as close to an inevitability as there can be. It often goes unnoticed how clutch he had become coming to the MCG in 1992

Pakistan would do how they did at the MCG, but Akram, it was clear by then, would turn up.

Although the batting bit of it, in truth, wasn't entirely inevitable. Akram had not reached 20 in 21 innings since the unbeaten 49 in that Austral-Asia final. He reached double figures only five times in that run. Moreover, Pakistan's strategy of hoarding wickets at the expense of a proactive run-rate, in the hopes of a late-overs blast, was high risk.

And sending Akram in ahead of Salim Malik, a proven death-overs bandit, was arguably even riskier. But Akram had been feeling light all morning, as if floating, and the promotion was perhaps Imran's acknowledgement of Akram's sense for these moments.

He was always a clean hitter of the ball, as was apparent when he struck Ian Botham for two fours in the 46th over. In the 49th, he charged at a floaty nothing ball from Chris Lewis as if offended by its innocuousness, and struck it fiercely down the ground. Then, as he turned to walk back to his end, came the tell, his head down but visibly pumping himself up. It was unusual for Akram to be this expressive while batting, but it signalled that he was right here, grounded in the moment, present, all of him, and England had better watch out and also resign themselves to this mood.

And then, the bowling, about which what more can be said? The wicket of Botham, a ball that yelped at him from a length like a startled terrier, made so much better by dint of not actually being out? Or that the two wickets of Allan Lamb and Lewis are by now so ingrained, each frame in the journey of the ball can be recited, as can the repartee between Richie Benaud and Tony Cozier that followed, like some article of faith?

Perhaps only this that what Akram did to Lamb and Lewis, that night-time blur of quick arm, sharp angle and late movement, even to this day feels as fresh and new as it did then; 30 years later, it's still impossible to see how Lamb or anyone, with whatever kind of bat and mindset, in whichever league on whatever ground, could play that ball.

Inevitable and no less spectacular for it.

Flowering inferno: Kapil unleashes violence against the rhododendrons at Nevill Ground

Flowering inferno: Kapil unleashes violence against the rhododendrons at Nevill Ground © Getty Images

Kapil Dev
175 not out, and 1 for 32, India vs Zimbabwe, Tunbridge Wells, 1983

by Sambit Bal
How to write about a performance that no one has watched?

Okay, let's change that to "very few".

And for which no footage exists.

It's kind of strange that in the age of on-demand clips, the first audio-visual representation of Kapil Dev's colossal solo came via a movie, with the actor Ranveer Singh making an honest fist of Kapil's trademark strokes. You can only assume that, given he was consulted for the film, Ranveer's reproductions had passed Kapil's scrutiny. But so much of that innings is left to scouring hazy memories and second-hand impressions that the performance has a fable-like quality, where imagination is left to have a free run. Which is just as well.

But while the minutiae remain sketchy - did his fifty come off 72 balls or 73? Did he really not hit a single four during his 60-run sixth-wicket partnership with Roger Binny? And how many of his sixes cleared the playing arena and landed in the streets outside? - about the fundamental truth of the performance there is no doubt. There is no other World Cup performance of such scale achieved under such adversity, when the stakes were as high, and so much depended on one player.

Immediacy can create instant halos, but the marker of true sporting greatness is the test of time. Forty years on, Kapil Dev's single-handed deliverance of India at Tunbridge Wells, a small town known more for its rejuvenating spring waters, pretty gardens and medieval castles than any cricket heritage, stands incomparable in the history of the World Cup, not merely for its epic quality but also for consequence.

Some facts about this match are well known. India, rank outsiders before the tournament began, came into this game hoping to keep their semi-final prospects alive. Kapil, then 24 and not even a year into his captaincy, after landing the job abruptly, chose to bat on a wet wicket ostensibly to push India's run rate ahead of Australia's. But the Zimbabwe new-ball bowlers, the seasoned Peter Rawson and the young tyke Kevin Curran - who would go on to become a prolific county pro and whose sons Sam and Tom would go on to play for England - had the ball wobbling and nipping. India, at 6 for 3 when Kapil was summoned from the showers, at 9 for 4 when he walked in to bat and at 17 for 5 in seven overs when Binny joined him, at 78 for 7 before the lunch break, and at 140 for 8, were not as much in a hole as spiralling down an abyss.

It's kind of strange that in the age of on-demand clips, the first audio-visual representation of Kapil Dev's colossal solo came via a movie

Indians hadn't known a cricketer like Kapil before. He was effortlessly athletic. He glided into the crease and bowled outswingers as if he was designed for it. He was as swift in the field, making it to distant balls with deceptive ease and rarely dropping a catch; and with the bat, he was lithe, jaunty and handsome, possessing a range of strokes to match his natural intent. It was only his impetuosity that got the better of him at times.

Here, with no one else to rely on, he rebuilt the innings with calculated singles and twos to the longer part of the ground. His fifty came off 70-odd balls as India went to lunch at 106 for 7. His next 50 runs came in about 30 balls, but it was not until he went past hundred that he had traded the bat he was using for a shoulder-less Slazenger WG, a bat previously used to vicious effect by Lance Cairns, the New Zealand allrounder, and wrought mayhem. All his six sixes are said to have come in this period, as he ransacked 75 runs from his last 37 or 38 balls. The ninth-wicket partnership produced 126 runs, of which Syed Kirmani's contribution was 24, the second-highest score of the innings. Kapil scored 66% of India's runs.

Here are a few numbers for perspective and to illustrate how far ahead of its times this innings was. This was the first ODI hundred by a Indian; the 175 was then the biggest individual ODI score ever; the 150 mark had been breached only three times in ODIs till then; Kapil's strike rate (126.81) was nearly 50% higher than the top strike rates of the era - Viv Richards, the platinum standard then, strutted around in the mid-eighties and most Indian batters hovered in the 60s; and the average run rate in the 1983 World Cup was 4.08.

Show me an outlier performance of this magnitude, when survival depended on only one pair of shoulders, a performance that went on to impact the game profoundly, and I will concede without murmur. Till then, this will stay for me, without doubt, the greatest World Cup performance. This didn't keep the Indian dream alive, it created the dream.

And we all know what followed.

Express rehearsal: de Silva's 66 in the semis was overshadowed by his hundred in the final, but was no less important

Express rehearsal: de Silva's 66 in the semis was overshadowed by his hundred in the final, but was no less important © Getty Images

Aravinda de Silva
66, and 1 for 3, India vs Sri Lanka, semi-final, Eden Gardens, 1996

By Andrew Fidel Fernando
It's not as if Aravinda de Silva had stumbled through the tournament or anything. There had been a 91 off 86 balls against Zimbabwe, and 145 off 115 in a record-setting team total against Kenya.

But if trumpets were being blown for Sri Lanka through their first four matches in the 1996 World Cup, they were being blown for someone else. Sanath Jayasuriya, aided by Romesh Kaluwitharana, was setting cricketing imaginations ablaze. A little team, orchestrating a little revolution. No side had so successfully knocked the daylights out of the opposition's attack inside the first 15 overs.

De Silva barely batted in those.

It's said that you are either born great, achieve greatness or have greatness thrust upon you. Twenty-seven years later, most agree that de Silva is great. And yet, it is possible he didn't tread any of these paths. He instead gave off the air of someone who wandered accidentally into greatness. A child chasing a bubble through a park all the way to the ice-cream van.

In the '80s, and early '90s, he'd been a batter capable of dizzying majesty - his 161cm frame hooking, cutting and driving some of the best to ever play. But they liked him and could sing his praises then partly because Sri Lanka rarely won.

Then de Silva went to Kent for an English county season in 1995, and found some consistency. Or was it the Sri Lankan cricket establishment who suddenly saw him in a new light?

In any case, when the World Cup rolled around, Arjuna Ranatunga believed in him completely.

To everyone else, Ranatunga gave a role:

- You hit over the top while the field is in
- You anchor the innings from No. 3
- You rebuild when wickets have fallen
- You take wickets with the new ball
- You bowl tight spells until the ball is old enough for the slow bowlers
- You choke the opposition with spin

De Silva's was the only talent Ranatunga did not bind to his own imagination. Perhaps he knew he couldn't have.

De Silva gave off the air of someone who wandered accidentally into greatness. A child chasing a bubble through a park all the way to the ice-cream van

Our guy walked into Eden Gardens, 100,000 fans baying for India, the score one run for two wickets, soon to become 35 for 3.

Who would start crashing boundaries in that situation? Someone who wandered into the ground like a child chasing a bubble through the park.

It is possible that a Sri Lankan has played the greatest Test innings ever, and yet also somehow also possible that there is no greater Sri Lankan innings than this one at Eden Gardens. De Silva, opening the face, running a fast Anil Kumble delivery through deep third. De Silva, closing the face, whipping Venkatesh Prasad through backward square leg.

Halfway through this tournament, he insisted on playing with a heavier bat than he was used to, and selector Sidath Wettimuny tells this story best:

"Aravinda said: 'You know, Sachin Tendulkar uses a very heavy bat. Maybe if I use a heavy bat like this, I can just get bat to ball and it will go for four.' He had never, ever batted with a bat like this before. He just chose it on a whim. Can you believe it? I was sceptical but I kept my mouth shut."

If there were a Sri Lanka Cricket award for keeping your mouth shut, Wettimuny dominates the category, because de Silva is then imperious with his new bat. His bat barely appears to make contact. The ball only reappears when it is jumping off the boundary rope into the advertising hoardings. De Silva hit 56 of his runs through boundaries. He made 66 off 47 in the end.

There are plenty who will say that de Silva's performance in the final, against Australia, is superior. He hit a near-flawless 107 not out from 124, took 3 for 42 off nine overs with the ball, and two catches besides. Those people are right. The opposition attack featured two all-time greats in Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. De Silva dismissed Ricky Ponting, Mark Taylor, and Ian Healy.

If this whole exercise is an appeal to logic, then the de Silva of the final is the clear winner. There is no one who has done all that in as big a game. There is no one who has come close.

But for the sake of fun, let's nominate this mere 66. An innings which, when read on a scoresheet in 2023, seems normal enough. But which in its context was epoch-defining, as well as incandescent in its audacity.