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Kapil Dev, born on January 6, 1959, was perhaps the greatest all-round cricketer to be produced by India. Arunabha Sengupta writes about a personal experience of the man’s genius.
Kapil Dev was always present, in every cricket-crazy consciousness. One just had to close one’s eyes and the graceful, lithe run up could be seen, the leap before the delivery, head tilted to the left, right hand close to the chest, left raised in front of the face, and then the left arm extended outwards as the right coming around to send down the only quality fast-paced deliveries in the country.
All through the 1980s, with more cricket being telecast, one found almost every cricket pitch, from coaching centres to school games, full of bowling actions that were almost exact replicas of the great man’s. Yes, Indians could bowl pace, successfully, and Kapil Dev had shown the way. And anyone with more than a few paces in his run up seemed to follow in his excellent steps, at least as far as running up to the wicket was concerned. Almost every young lad in the country aspiring to bowl pace at any level of the game emulated the action.
Looking back, the matches we used to play in school were like parodies of the great game as we saw it. There were batsmen with scrupulously selected white floppy hats on their heads, jumping lightly as they stood in the non-striker’s end, who walked out to tap the pitch and remove dust with their right foot before taking their stance in the standard Sunil Gavaskar manner. There were a few, like yours truly, who touched the peak of their caps, their top of their pads and then kept looking alternately at the grip and the approaching bowler in a crazy copy of the curious mannerisms of Dilip Vengsarkar. There were even boys who spread their feet as wide as possible before crouching over the bat, emulating all that should have been avoided in Krishnamachari Srikkanth’s batsmanship. But, all of us faced medium paced bowling sent down in the same action. It varied between excellent to ordinary copies of Kapil’s smooth run up and delivery.
From the early eighties, some occasionally tried to model their run up on Malcolm Marshall, although few managed the pace. One or two made a decent caricature of Imran Khan. But by and large, the template remained uniformly Kapil Dev.
Kapil’s magic continued when India batted. The fall of the fifth wicket was always much awaited, greeted with rousing cheers. The enormously popular hero would walk in, look back at the sun, and then stride to the wicket. Unlike his bowling, his batting was seldom imitated. The array of strokes was strictly his own, from the scorching square cut to the searing cover drive to the agricultural pull stroke, in the manner of Lord Nataraj doing the cosmic Tandav dance. Kapil at the crease was the height of adrenaline pumping excitement. He was not just admired, he was adored. However brief his forays to the wicket, his game never failed to electrify the crowds.
I had watched him often enough – on television and in the stands. During the phase I saw him at Eden Gardens, his bowling had temporarily lost its edge, his penchant for the banana-swing was a thing of the past. But with the bat, one pull stroke essayed off a young, charging Wasim Akram left me wondering about the enormous reservoirs of talent in the man. And then there were the movements as he prowled in the field.
After his seasons for Northamptonshire, he preferred spending more time in the slips, but I used to wait for him to move to cover or mid-on. The anticipation and athleticism while cutting off a stroke, and then the whooshing arrow like return to the wicket-keeper, often after a full turn – there was an incredible animal-like grace about those actions. India had fielders like Mohammad Azharuddin and Maninder Singh. For a few blessed seasons, they had Laxman Sivaramakrishnan as well. But, Kapil Dev was special in a different way. Every act of brilliance on the field spoke of a raw, natural genius.
Yet, in spite of all my memories of the man in white, and some in Indian blues towards the end of his career, the fondest recollections are of the man in a green tee-shirt and blue jeans. That was the high point of my young days and I am sure I can speak for about a few hundred of my school chums.
The all-rounder in street clothes
That day in the early 1990s, Kapil Dev had come down to our school. It was part of an advertising campaign for a soft drink company, with Kapil visiting schools around the country, spending a few moments with the young cricketers on the field.
The announcement had been made a week in advance, and the day had started with the simultaneous anticipation of hundreds of young hearts. Yes, the morning saw us in our classes, but not one of the mathematical equations or chemistry formulae managed to make any impression. The teachers did not really try too hard to wage a losing battle. Except for a few, all knew the lure of Kapil Dev.
And then the word got around that he had arrived. The serious excitement that bristled and grew was kept on the tight leash of discipline as expected in a Roman Catholic institution. We had to get into neat lines and walk down the stairs as on any normal day, no matter how huge the moment was for us. Even the walk to the school cricket ground was made in efficient order, although the souls of the hundreds stretched yearningly out towards the arena, necks craned ahead as anatomically possible, eyes swept the periphery and squinted beyond, trying to get a glimpse of the great man.
We finally spotted his strapping form, but surprisingly not in his cricketing gear. He was standing in the middle of the field, dressed in his tee-shirt and jeans, talking to an official of the soft-drink firm as our games teacher hovered nearby in a frenzy. The great man wore sneakers not really meant for serious sports. I could also see a leather belt around his waist. The pitch was prepared, the wicket set, the couple of star batsmen of our school padded up to face the legend. But, on seeing his outfit, I wondered if Kapil was going to indulge in any cricket.
But, already our games teacher was shouting instructions. The on-looking crowd of students were made to stand in a circle around the ground. Star members of the cricket team were already in the ground taking up fielding positions. The games teacher handpicked some of us from the school athletic team. “Outfield. Retrieve the balls. Especially when he bats,” he barked out his orders. I took my position beyond the cover point.
Our star batsman, my classmate and a close friend, took strike. He was coasting on big scores in school cricket that season. At sixteen, confidence overflows and the world is all yours to conquer. I have a suspicion that in the private corners of his heart he backed himself to face a casual Kapil. By then it was widely reported that Kapil was way past his best. He was no longer as quick, and the ability to swing the ball had dwindled. And now, as I watched from my position, it was a bit disappointing to see him about to bowl off five paces, in his street clothes.
The feeling of dejection lasted all of one delivery. The action was an abridged version of what we had grown up watching, the leap before the delivery stride less pronounced – but the arms did go through their normal routine. The bat was still completing the backlift as the ball thudded into the pads.
There was a smile on Kapil’s face as he walked back to his mark. The next ball was appreciably slower, perhaps out of genuine concern. My friend managed to get bat on ball somewhat, and diverted its course. The ball, gearing for the off stump, hit middle.
He bowled about two dozen balls that day, and the story remained more or less the same. At the cover point fence, I stood idle as ball after ball beat the bat. Some hit the woodwork. The wicketkeeper took a nifty catch and went crazy with celebration. ‘Caught me bowled Kapil’ does have an ecstatic ring to it. The few deliveries that were successfully negotiated remained the high point of the cricketing lives of the young batsmen.
There was one batsman, a left-hander, who connected a flick, and the ball sped to deep mid-wicket. Perhaps he still talks about the moment.
Next, Kapil walked across to the batting end. A few bats were held out and he chose the one closest to him. And he prepared to face the best bowlers of the school, some supposedly brisk ones, in the same tee-shirt and jeans. Without a pad, glove or even an abdominal guard. He did not bother with taking guard either, just stood there in his stance with the hint of smile on his face as our bowlers geared up.
The fastest bowler of our school started to run in. An action almost perfectly modelled on the man taking strike. What did Kapil think of facing one of his clones, I wondered. But, then, he must have witnessed this in every school he had visited during the campaign.
In all youthful enthusiasm, the bowler dug it short and wide. The moment continues to flash vividly after all these years. The bat came down in a nice little arc, connecting in a brutal square cut. Our games teacher, loitering in the deep point area for some reason, stuck out a boot in a rather tame effort to stop it. Thankfully for his toes, he missed it by some comfortable miles. The ball hurtled in my direction, and jarred my palms as I grabbed it some yards outside the short boundary. I had fielded a ball hit by Kapil Dev!
And, in the throes of the excitement, I took a couple of steps forward and sent in my return – perhaps unmindfully aping Kapil’s throwing action. It was a near perfect throw with one major glitch. I had sent it in neither to the wicket keeper nor at the bowler, but at Kapil Dev himself as he stood at the crease. No one else existed for me on the ground. The legend smiled broadly, shifted the bat to his left hand and casually caught it with his right before throwing it back to the bowler.
He batted for some three overs. Starting with drives, he hit a few strokes that thudded into the wall or were retrieved from the distant basketball courts. And then there arose a demand for sixes. He obliged, plonking his front foot down the wicket and sending two consecutive deliveries over long on, over the school walls, into the train tracks behind the premises.
Once the action was over, we made it to the assembly hall where Kapil was to address us. As we stood in the crowded hall, there was the meticulous drill of maintaining proper straight lines and class-wise arrangement.
Till now, the teachers have remained unnamed in the narrative, but there is enough literary justification for me to disclose the name of the Assistant Headmaster – the late Mr. Dias. May his good soul rest in peace. As we waited impatiently for the hero to get up on the platform and speak to us, Mr. Dias stood there instead, scrupulously directing us to get into proper lines. And thereby we heard the immortal quip of one unidentified voice from the back of the hall. “Kapil needs to get on the dais. Dias can never be Kapil.”
The muffled laughter had just about died down when the champion got up to speak, the constant smile on his face making it slightly difficult to determine whether the comment had anything to do with his expression.
He did not talk for long. The voice was earnest, earthy and natural, like each and every endeavour of his on the cricket field. There was a rush and some amount of pushing and shoving to get near the platform, to see the man from closest quarters. And Kapil responded by saying, “You know, when I was your age I always used to be back there, at the end of the hall. Near those walls.” He ended with a simple, “All the best. I love you all.”
I saw him again during his last few years as a cricketer, when his powers were nowhere near what they had once been – in whites as India played England at the Eden and then in blue during the Hero Cup. But to me, the image that remained was of the breath-taking all-rounder who batted and bowled in blue jeans and a green tee shirt, and laughed with us in his simple manner and waved cheerily with a wide smile.
Yes, once his playing days were over there were controversies, allegations – severe charges and counter charges, tears on national television, Indian Cricket League, outrage at the cold shoulder from Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). For many, he remains a hero. For some, his image has been compromised, his greatness tarnished.
Professionally or otherwise, I have had to comment about the Kapil Dev story that has been scripted over the years. I have had to be both critical and unbiased about whatever happened in his career and thereafter.
But apart from every bit of sound and fury associated with the man, there remains for me that one winter morning, my very personal recollection of the Kapil Dev, his greatness with bat and ball and earnest good humour.
The day he dazzled us with his all-round genius in his street clothes.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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