As a cricket lover who came of age during the early 1970s, I was brought up to believe in the dictum that India could not produce fast bowlers. Our bowling department was limited to spinners and we used to employ the services of a couple of all-rounders who could bowl medium-pace to take the shine off the ball during the initial overs. Though this practice fetched some positive results during the matches played at home, our bowling department used to be severely hampered due to the absence of fast bowlers while playing abroad. To make things worse, other countries prepared hard and bouncy tracks to give advantage to their fast bowlers and exposed the weaknesses of Indian batsmen when confronted with such bowling. In short, it appeared that “pace” was an ugly four-letter word so far as Indian cricket was concerned.
Whiff of fresh air
However, this depressing situation change dramatically towards the end of 1970s when a strapping young man with a toothy grin made his appearance on the Indian cricketing horizon. Kapil Dev was like a whiff of fresh air that blew into the parched staid world of Indian cricket. Like the first monsoon rains, his arrival brought cheer and happiness and was greeted with undisguised glee by the Indian cricket community. He made his debut in the first Test of the series against Pakistan in 1978 at Faisalabad and in the very second over bowled a bouncer at Sadiq Mohammed, which almost brushed his cap. Sadiq, who had not bothered to out on his helmet, was forced to summon for one from the dressing room in a hurry. It was good that he put it on as within another couple of overs, Kapil bowled another bouncer which hit him on the helmet!
India lost that series to Pakistan, but the trauma of the defeat was diluted by the positive vibes brought in by the arrival of Kapil. In the series against the West Indies that followed, he showed that he could match the West Indies pacers in speed as well as bowling bouncers. He also demonstrated his ability with the bat, scoring his first Test century in New Delhi. During the tour of England in 1979, he matured as a bowler, finding the weather and pitches there to his liking though his batting floundered in the face of controlled seam and swing bowling by the English bowlers.
Kapil came into his own as a match-winner of the highest caliber during the 1979-80 season. India easily won the series against an Australian side weakened by the absence of main players who were contracted to Kerry Packer. But the highlight of the season was the visit by a full strength Pakistan side led by Asif Iqbal, which had in its ranks such legends as Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad and Majid Khan. Kapil was at his best during this series picking up 32 wickets, besides scoring runs in critical situations and won the man-of -the-match award in both the Tests that India won. His performance in the fifth Test at Madras that India won to seal the series, where he took 4 wickets for 90 runs in the first innings and 7 for 56 in the second, besides scoring a breezy 84, ensured that this match would be remembered as Kapil’s Test.
He followed up his good performances during the tour of Australia that followed. He was instrumental in India winning the last Test in Melbourne by 59 runs as he took the field after having pain-killing injections on the final day and picked up 5 for 28. He established himself as one of the leading all-rounders in the world and was appointed as the vice-captain of the side when the squad to tour Pakistan was announced in 1982-83. India fared dismally in this series, done in by a combination of high quality pace bowling by Imran Khan and company, and poor umpiring, bordering on being partisan. While Indian batsmen, barring Sunil Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath, had no answer to the new technique of reverse swing that was introduced to the cricketing world by the Pakistani pacers, Indian bowlers suffered at the hands of the local umpires. Kapil toiled manfully picking up 24 wickets and was rewarded by being appointed as the captain of the national team for the tour of West Indies that followed.
No one expected India to perform any miracles in the Caribbean Islands and they lost the series 0-2. However, the side performed better than many of the other teams that had visited West Indies during the early 1980s when the hosts were invincible. What came as a pleasant surprise to the lovers of the game in India was the surprise win that the team managed over the mighty Windies in an One-Day International (ODI) at a little known place called Berbice. No one could have prophesied at that juncture that this victory would be the forerunner for a bigger one in the 1983 World Cup that was to follow.
Critics did not give India even an outside chance of getting into the semifinals, let alone win the third edition of the Prudential Cup, held in June, 1983. However, Kapil’s Devils astounded one and all by scoring an upset win over the West Indies in their very first match. This was followed by a victory over the lowly Zimbabwe, but the team suffered setbacks when they lost to Australia and immediately thereafter to the Windies, in the return match. India needed to win the game against Zimbabwe to stay in the race for a semifinal berth.
The match against Zimbabwe at Turnbridge Wells marked the change in India's World Cup campaign. India were five down for 17 at one stage, but skipper Kapil, in the company of Roger Binny, Madan Lal and Syed Kirmani, took the total to 266/8. Kapil was at his best as he played one of the most brilliant innings ever in the history of limited overs cricket. He started cautiously as conditions favored the bowlers, then opened up after taking the score past 100 and finally cut loose in the company of Kirmani, to remain unbeaten on 175 when the allotted 60 overs came to an end. This knock not only shut Zimbabwe out of the match, but also gave the impetus to the Indian side to win the remaining pool match against Australia and the semifinal tie against England to reach the final where they faced the West Indies.
The story of India defeating West Indies on June 25, 1983, and lifting the Prudential Cup has been told and retold many times over. Record books would show Mohinder Amarnath as the man of the match, but the game effectively swung India’s way when Kapil took an astonishing catch, running almost 30 yards with his back to the pitch to pluck the ball out of thin air as Viv Richards skied a pull shot off Madan Lal. West Indies collapsed after this as India kept up the pressure to squeeze through by 43 runs in a low-scoring match.
Ironically, the year 1983 was also to witness a downward turn in the fortunes of Kapil. West Indies toured India during the later part of the cricket season determined to make amends for their shock loss in the World Cup final. They defeated India by a convincing margin of 3-0 in the Test series and blanked the hosts 5-0 in the ODIs. In Kolkata, an angry crowd, who felt let down by India’s spineless performance, hurled stones at the bus carrying players. Gavaskar, who was sitting near Kapil, has written that while everyone else ducked for cover or wore helmets to avoid injury, the skipper stood ramrod erect, as if daring the stones to hit him. Miraculously, none touched him.
Poor performance in that series cost Kapil the captaincy and Gavaskar took over the reins again. Worse was to follow when Kapil was dropped from the side after the second Test against England during the 1984-85 season. It was true that he was not in great form as a bowler as he recovering from a knee surgery; he had also played an atrocious shot at a critical stage in the Indian second innings, which also contributed to the defeat of the home side. But the sad fact remains that this did not warrant the dropping of this great cricketer from the squad. He sat out for one match and was back in the side for the fourth Test.
Indian squad, who had performed poorly against England at home, suddenly hit top form to win the World Championship of Cricket held at Australia in 1985. Kapil contributed substantially towards the success of the team by contributing with both bat and ball in almost all the matches and would have stood a very close second to Ravi Shastri, who won the “Champion of Champions” award. Immediately after this, Kapil was reappointed as captain after Gavaskar announced that he was stepping down.
Falling in the semis
Kapil led India during the next two years till the 1987 World Cup that India lost in the semifinals. India were cruising along chasing a target of 255 set by England, when Kapil holed out to the fielder at deep mid-wicket, trying to hoist off spinner Eddie Hemmings over the fence, despite knowing that a fielder was positioned there to catch a mishit. That shot cost India the match and the World Cup and Kapil was replaced as captain.
The years post-1987 were the ones when Kapil regained his predominant position as one of the top all-rounders. He bowled superbly during India’s tour of Australia in 1991-92 and crossed the landmark of 400 wickets in Tests. During the tour of South Africa in 1992, he not only bowled well but also exhibited superb batsmanship to score a magnificent knock of 129 in the second innings of the third Test at Port Elizabeth when the side was tottering at 31/6.
India played only at home during the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons. The cricket establishment decided that preparing turning tracks to suit the spin attack led by Anil Kumble was the way forward for Indian cricket. Though this strategy yielded easy victories for the side, this also led to the sidelining of the fast bowlers who were reduced to removing the shine off the new ball. Kapil struggled to pick up wickets in unhelpful conditions; moreover, his body also started showing signs of aging. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) hurriedly arranged a one-Test tour of New Zealand in March, 1994, to help Kapil pick up the handful of wickets that he needed to cross the world record of 431 wickets held by Richard Hadlee. However, Kapil succeeded in doing that in the second Test of the home series against Sri Lanka and increased his tally to 434 wickets during the Test against New Zealand.
The BCCI and most of the cricketing fraternity in the country expected Kapil to announce his retirement from international cricket after the Test in New Zealand. It was obvious to one and all that he was a pale shadow of the bowler he used to be in his prime, when he could trouble any batsman and take wickets almost at will. However, to the surprise of one and all, he decided to continue playing. He was benched after a mediocre performance in the first ODI against the touring West Indians in October, 1994. This episode opened his eyes to the writing on the wall and he announced his retirement.
Kapil was appointed as the coach of the national side in 1999. However, he quit from the post before completing his term in the aftermath of match-fixing allegations raised against him by his one time teammate Manoj Prabhakar. The enquiry conducted absolved him of all charges. He associated himself with the parallel Indian Cricket League (ICL) launched by Zee TV in 2007 and faced the wrath of the BCCI for some years. He was nominated by Wisden as the Indian cricketer of the Twentieth Century, ahead of greats such as Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar, which only went on to show the regard in which he was held by his contemporaries and adversaries globally.
In the final analysis, Kapil is far more than the 9,000 odd runs and the nearly 700 wickets that he goes against his name in international cricket. He showed the world that Indians could bowl fast and proved that his country could win the World Cup. He inspired a whole generation of Indian cricketers and made them feel proud of their country. The Haryana Hurricane, as he used to be called by the media, was a phenomenon that ignited fire in the minds of cricket lovers of the country, leaving behind in its trail a galvanized nation and millions of motivated minds. As stated in the advertisement catch-line that he used to promote, one can only say with awe “Kapil Dev da jawaab nahin”!
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)