Kapil Dev bowled fast at a time when his country didn't produce fast bowlers; his spirit lives on through the style and aggression of modern Indian teams
May 30, 2009
'The liveliest and least imitable action of all' © Getty Images
In 1982 Scyld Berry, the very excellent cricket correspondent of the Observer who has lately become the editor of Wisden, published a fine book on England's recent tour of the subcontinent, entitled Cricket Wallah. No English writer to that point had studied India with such clarity, sympathy, or indeed rosy prophecy, for he far-sightedly concluded that the country would become "the capital of cricket": demography, he believed, was destiny.
In one judgment alone was Cricket Wallah amiss. On the basis of the tour's two one-day internationals, Berry thought that limited-overs cricket held "no great attraction" in India. Batsmen were still technically correct, and spin bowling endured, "integral, not an adjunct" to the game, for it "suited the rhythms of Indian life". In fact, he had just watched the cricketer who, more than any other, would challenge both those appealing preconceptions.
Two-hundred and seventeen of Kapil Dev's 432 Test wickets were taken in the heat and dust of India by uncompromising toil; he brought a gaiety to batting in a team that sometimes seemed unaware that Tests were no longer timeless. Above all, by leading India to the World Cup of 1983, he turned his country's cricket priorities on their head - and all this from most inauspicious beginnings.
"There are no fast bowlers in India," 15-year-old Kapil was told when he complained about the short rations at lunch at a training camp at Brabourne Stadium in 1974. The judgment was hurtful, but not unfounded. In the last Test India had played at home, for example, the new ball had been taken by Eknath Solkar (two overs) and Sunil Gavaskar (one over), then surrendered to the slow-bowling wiles of Bedi, Chandra and Prasanna. It had not, however, been ever thus. Peer back to pre-war, pre-partition India, and the country's opening attack was probably superior to Australia's. The likes of Tim Wall and Ernie McCormick had nothing to teach Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh, except that Nissar's best years were swallowed by World War II, while Amar succumbed to pneumonia aged 30.
A "feeling of loss" pervaded Indian cricket in their wake, according to its historian Mihir Bose, which intensified over the next 40 years whenever the country's batsmen crossed paths with bowling of real pace. Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller made them suffer in Australia, Fred Trueman lorded it over them in England, and Charlie Griffiths nearly killed Nari Contractor in Barbados. Most ignominiously Clive Lloyd's pacemen set about Bedi's batsmen like sadistic thugs in a dark alley at Sabina Park in April 1976.
By that stage Kapil had been a first-class cricketer for one season, without much encouragement. In his second game for Haryana, versus Delhi, he played against Bedi, who was selling one of his Gray-Nicolls bats, and had set a reserve on it of Rs 500. With help from his friend Ashok Malhotra, Kapil scraped together Rs 475, but there were no discounts, and no gimmes either: his first tour, to Pakistan, was played on pitches apparently prepared for the diplomatic parity of drawn Tests.
From the first, nonetheless, Kapil upset cricket's prior balances of power. In Spin and Other Turns, Ramchandra Guha describes the first morning of Kapil's Test career, how in his second over the teenager sent a bouncer past the pentangle on Sadiq Mohammad's cap, "very likely the fastest delivery from an Indian bowler since independence". Sadiq's summon of a helmet was so unforeseen that it took some overs to arrive; as Guha notes: "It is a wonder there was one at the ground at all". When West Indies toured India soon after, they dished it out, as was their wont, but Kapil was no less hostile. Normally above the fray, Wisden described the Chepauk Test as "a bumper war" in which India "for once gave as good as they got". Bose believes it a hinge point in Indian cricket history.
Gavaskar, great as he was, could never rival the epic grandeur of a Viv Richards. Kapil, in an era of the international game uncommonly blessed with fast-bowling allrounders, more than held his own against them
Kapil altered also the Indian team's internal dynamics. The dominant presence in the country's cricket to that time had been Gavaskar, batting's classical sculptor: patient, implacable, self-sufficient, self-involved, peppery temper beneath a surface urbanity. Kapil provided a rival to national affection, and a new source of national self-definition. Gavaskar, great as he was, could never rival the epic grandeur of a Viv Richards. Kapil, in an era of the international game uncommonly blessed with fast-bowling allrounders, more than held his own against them.
Remember? Botham, Imran, Hadlee: all fierce rivals. You could imagine them in a western saloon. Botham would be the one chesting open the swing doors and shouting the bar, Imran the one comfortably encircled by comely belles in crinoline, Hadlee the one staring fixedly at his ice water. But that Injun, Kapil - he held aloof. He had the liveliest and least imitable action of all, a skipping, bounding run of gathering energy, and a delivery stride perfectly side-on but exploding at all angles, wrists uncoiling, arms elasticising, eyes afire. Which was part of his significance. No fast bowlers in India? Kapil could have hailed from no other country.
All that stood in the way of Kapil's bowling was his batting, full of generous arcs and fearful cleaves, signed with an exuberant pull shot that featured a chorus-line kick from his crossed front leg. At first, team-mates took Kapil's run-making more seriously than he did himself: he reached the first of eight Test hundreds in Delhi 30 years ago only because Syed Kirmani sacrificed himself, a cacophony of calls sending them to the same end.
He retained a sense of play and adventure into which even opponents sometimes entered. At the Gabba in December 1980, he launched Jeremy Coney over the roof of the Clem Jones Stand and into Stanley Street during an innings of 75 off 51 balls; the puckish New Zealander waved his white handkerchief like a flag of surrender.
Selectors were sterner, benching Kapil after the Delhi Test of December 1984, when he hit his second ball for six and his third down long-off's throat as India stumbled to defeat against England. But Kapil, for all that he accomplished, never really repented. He won the Lord's Test of June 1986 with three fours and a six off Phil Edmonds; he saved the follow-on there four years later with four consecutive sixes off Eddie Hemmings.
It was the year of the building of the Compton-Edrich Stand, and I happened to be amid a throng of ecstatic Indian supporters in temporary seating in front of it. I can still hear the glorious "thunk" of those straight drives, each faster and flatter than the last, into the building site behind us: they lent new meaning to the expression "hard-hat area".
Lord's was the venue, too, of that fabled match 26 years ago, after which Kapil could have retreated to an ashram but remained one of the most significant players who ever lived - all because of one catch. It came from the top edge of the bat of Viv Richards, then on course to be match-winner for the third consecutive World Cup final, and it looked suspiciously like providence.
'Has a more difficult catch been made to seem easier at a more critical moment in the annals of the game?' © PA Photos
Kapil had deposed Gavaskar as captain, in one of those Indian intrigues that outsiders find unintelligible, and led his country with expected spirit and unexpected smarts. Gavaskar, never a one-day natural, had had a wretched tournament, and been first to fall that day in India's ramshackle 183. West Indies in reply had charged to 50 for 1.
Now Madan Lal bowled a bouncer - a bouncer to Richards. What's Hindi for chutzpah? The crowd on the midwicket boundary began shrinking back; even Father Time ducked. In the event Richards miscued, but the ball would have fallen safe had any other fielder been stationed near the drop zone. As it was, Kapil Dev turned, ran back with the flight of the ball, loose stride eating up the distance, cast a split-second glance over his shoulder, and collected the descending ball in his fingertips - making even this look deliberate. Has a more difficult catch been made to seem easier at a more critical moment in the annals of the game?
India had won one game in two previous World Cups, against East Africa; now they won what remained their only global trophy until the Twenty20 World Championship 18 months ago. Both wins similarly tilted the cricket world off its axis. One-day cricket went forth and multiplied in the subcontinent, to the extent that the next Cup was held there four years later, just as Twenty20 did 24 years later, making India its social, cultural and financial fastness.
Kapil was part of that shift, too, shoulder to shoulder with Subhash Chandra's Indian Cricket League, while Gavaskar was firmly in the camp of the official Indian Premier League. Much else had transpired between times, but it was almost as though their unspoken rivalry had never quite ended. The ICL has floundered and the IPL prospered, so Gavaskar might consider his the last word; yet today's stylish, aggressive Indian stars, like MS Dhoni, Virender Sehwag, Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan, are more obviously Kapil's spiritual heirs.
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer