Defeats and setbacks are part of sport. You win some, you lose some goes the saying. But there are some defeats that are difficult to digest. And if there is one such result that numbed the nation it has to be the India – England World Cup semifinal at Bombay in November 1987.

For starters it was for the first time that the World Cup was being held outside England. India and Pakistan had won the right to conduct the tournament as joint hosts and that itself was enough to put the fans in both countries in an optimistic mood. For one thing India were the holders having won the trophy most unexpectedly four years before. And Pakistan too had a strong balanced squad. The co-hosts were installed as joint favourites with West Indies given some chance to regain the title. Australia and England were the outsiders while New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe were rated no-hopers.

India certainly had the right blend of youth and experience. The nucleus of the side was the victorious team of 1983 with Sunil Gavaskar, Kris Srikkanth, Kapil Dev, Roger Binny, Ravi Shastri and Dilip Vengsarkar still around. Among the newcomers they had Navjot Sidhu who had graduated from a strokeless wonder to a sixer hitter, an exciting stroke player in Md. Azharuddin, able new ball bowlers in Chetan Sharma and Manoj Prabhakar, capable young spinners in Maninder Singh and L Sivaramakrishnan and two wicket keeper batsmen in Kiran More and Chandrakant Pandit.The team balance seemed just right and they had home advantage with India scheduled to play all their league games in this country. Enthusiasm too was at fever pitch for with Kapil and his men lifting the trophy in 1983 interest in the country had finally shifted from Tests to ODIs.

India was placed in group A along with Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe and it was obvious that the semifinalists would be India and Australia. India’s campaign got off to a rather shaky start with a one-run loss to Australia in the opening game at Madras. Thereafter however India could do little wrong in the league stage. One emphatic victory after another assured India of a semifinal berth but there remained one tricky hurdle to avoid as they approached their final league game. Australia too had made sure of a semifinal spot but who would top the group? This assumed importance as the team topping the table would avoid a potentially tricky encounter with Pakistan at Lahore. India certainly didn’t want to go through such a risky proposition since Pakistan had topped their group and were playing really well. Moreover the sub-continent at this stage were already looking for a potential mouth watering India – Pakistan clash in the final at the Eden Gardens. If they topped the group India would play England at Bombay in the semifinal.

India’s last league match was against New Zealand who batting first were restricted to 221 for nine in their 50 overs thanks in the main to a hat trick – the first in World Cup history – by Chetan Sharma. To edge ahead of Australia on net run rate they had to score at 5.25 an over reaching their target in 42.2 overs. In Srikkanth they had the ideal opener to approach this task but the surprise was Gavaskar. He matched Srikkanth stroke for stroke in the bravura of his batting. The 100 of the stand was posted in the 14th over and India were well on their way. Srikkanth hammered 75 off 58 balls in the first wicket partnership of 136 runs while Gavaskar went on to record his only ODI hundred remaining unbeaten with 103 off 85 balls as India reached their target off only 32.1 overs.

So it was India vs England at Bombay but cricket fans were already looking beyond this game to the India – Pakistan final at Calcutta. Both countries were tipped to win their semifinals – Pakistan was up against Australia – and nothing it seemed could stop the most eagerly awaited clash for which Eden Gardens was already being decked up. But Australia shocked Pakistan by 18 runs so the final would not have the script fans hoped for. On the other hand the way appeared to be clear for India to retain the trophy for Australia were reckoned to be weaker opponents than Pakistan.

But first India had to beat England on the day following Pakistan’s unexpected defeat. Put in to bat England put up a respectable total of 254 for six, Graham Gooch excelling with a stroke filled 115. It was a gettable target and Srikkanth (31), Sidhu (22) and Pandit (24) gave them a reasonable start before things picked up with Azharuddin and Kapil Dev coming together for the fifth wicket. They gave the innings the necessary impetus with the skipper hitting a breezy 30 out of the 47-run partnership before playing an impetuous stroke holing out to Mike Gatting at deep mid wicket off Eddie Hemmings. It was an uncalled shot for the required run rate was well under control.

Still India remained favourites as Azharuddin and Shastri took the total past 200. At this stage with five wickets in hand and ten overs to go India needed five an over. But Hemmings removed Azharuddin for 64 and India lost their last five wickets for 15 runs sliding sharply from 204 for five to 219 all out in the 46th over to lose the game by 35 runs.

The Wankhede stadium crowd was stunned into silence and all round the country cricket fans glued to their TV sets could not believe what they had just seen. This was a result they could never have envisaged and it took a long time for them to come to terms with it. They could not accept that an England team which was no match for a well-oiled Indian machine – or so they reckoned – had won the semifinal encounter. If there is one campaign in which the Indian team raised the hopes of cricket fans sky high and then dashed them to earth it has to be the 1987 World Cup.