In nine editions of the World Cup, this remains one of the most poignant moments—a young Vinod Kambli exiting Eden Gardens in Kolkata in tears after India’s 1996 World Cup campaign ended with the crowd rioting.

Nailed! Kapil Dev’s dismissal ended India’s hopes in the semi-final against England in 1987. Getty Images

India needed 132 runs from 15.5 overs with only two wickets remaining when match referee Clive Lloyd awarded the contest to Sri Lanka after a futile attempt to restart the game.

“I cried for the team; we had played brilliant cricket till then," says Kambli, recalling his frustration. “For our fans, as an Indian cricketer, you understand their involvement and along with it, their expectations."

“When the team is doing well, the crowd gets behind you and it is really motivating. But if you are doing badly, they can really demoralize you," adds Kambli, who was India’s second highest scorer in that tournament after Sachin Tendulkar.

Extreme crowd reaction is not uncommon in the subcontinent where cricket is a religion and top stars are treated as demigods. The weight of expectation was, therefore, much greater on these countries (India and Pakistan hosted it in 1987; Sri Lanka was the third co-host in 1996) than on England, which held the first three editions of the championship (1975, 1979,1983) and again in 1999.

Sri Lanka broke the jinx of a host/co-host never winning the World Cup when they beat Australia in the final in 1996. India were left to rue their second stumble in the semi-finals on the sport’s grandest stage after their astonishing triumph in 1983. Ironically, the previous semi-final loss was also at home, in 1987.

India, who were the finalists in 2003, Sri Lanka and unpredictable Pakistan will start as favourites when South Asia hosts the World Cup in February. The obvious question is: Will India be third time lucky?

1996: So near, so far

Sri Lanka, whose openers exploited the 15-over field restriction with revolutionary pinch-hitting tactics in 1996, had shown a preference to bat second during the tournament and chased down targets with considerable success. Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin, influenced by the defeat in the group phase when Sri Lanka chased 272 with six wickets in hand, chose to bowl first in the semi-final. Critics argued that Azharuddin should have played to his team’s strengths, not to the opposition’s weakness.

“It was a team decision," all-rounder Ajay Jadeja says. “It was taken after considering the pitch and all other factors. It is easy to pass judgment in retrospect, but we took the decision as a team and stand by it, be it then, now, or even 20 years down the line."

The semi-final was the tournament’s only match played at Eden Gardens, which hosted the opening ceremony, and there was considerable speculation on how the pitch would behave.

The decision to bowl first initially seemed a sound one. Both Sri Lankan openers were caught in the deep in the first four deliveries and Asanka Gurusinha followed soon. “It was a good start but we didn’t take it easy as Sri Lanka’s batting ran deep," wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia recollects. “But Aravinda (de Silva) was simply superb."

De Silva, with skipper Arjuna Ranatunga, Roshan Mahanama and Hashan Tillakaratne, helped the team recover to 251-8. The target was not all together beyond India’s batting might.

Tendulkar struck a sparkling 50 to give India a confident start but the script took a dramatic twist with his stumping at the team’s score of 98.

“We were cruising then and all of us in the dressing room were confident of booking a place in the final. But the match turned after Sachin’s dismissal," says Kambli.

Azharuddin fell seven balls later as the team collapsed, fuelling the crowd’s ire.

“Wickets just kept falling. At the other end, I was hoping someone would stay and help stitch a partnership," says Kambli. “But in cricket, there is no room for excuses."

Mongia feels the Kolkata pitch changed completely in the second innings. “The binding didn’t hold as it should for 100 overs," he says.

1987: Swept away

The One Day format has gained tremendous popularity in the last two decades following several strategic innovations, but the 1987 edition will remain special as the first World Cup to be held away from England. India lost the opening game to eventual winners Australia by one run but rebounded to top their group on superior run rate after beating the same opponents in their second meeting.

Skipper Kapil Dev opted to bowl first in the semi-final against England, expecting the conditions in Mumbai to assist swing. But it turned out to be a spin-friendly surface.

England scored 254-6 on the back of a 117-run stand between century-maker Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, who used the sweep and pull shots effectively to master the spinners Maninder Singh and Ravi Shastri (India were bowled out for 219).

“Our spinners didn’t bowl really well. Gooch’s ploy to sweep and pull to success took us by surprise," says the then wicketkeeper Kiran More. “We didn’t have a plan in place for that. We allowed them to score too much. (Krishnamachari) Srikkanth dropping Gooch proved crucial. Forty runs less would have made a big difference."

Sunil Gavaskar’s early dismissal turned out to be a costly setback for India, with an indisposed Dilip Vengsarkar unable to play. Kapil Dev and Azharuddin kept India in the hunt but Eddie Hemmings wrested back the controls for England in a 34-ball spell, taking 4 for 21.

“Gooch swept us away literally, but we were on course in the chase until Kapil’s dismissal," says opener Srikkanth, who scored 31. Dev was caught at the midwicket boundary off Hemmings almost immediately after Gatting positioned himself there. “But that’s Kapil. That’s the way he is," More says.

Recent performances would again make India one of the favourites for the 2011 edition. Srikkanth, a member of the victorious 1983 side and chief selector currently, is confident that the team will do well. “We have the talent and our recent performances in One Day cricket have been really good," he says.

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