One news item that caught the attention of the entire nation in the week that went by pertained to the hospitalisation of Kapil Dev following an heart attack and his discharge from hospital after an angioplasty. A picture showed the legendary cricketer sporting his trademark toothy grin despite being wrapped in hospital linen and surrounded by various medical devices. The outpouring of prayers and good wishes for his speedy recovery showed the love and regard with which the average cricket lover in the country holds him. It only served to reiterate the oft repeated phrase: “Kapil Dev da jawaab nahin.”
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What is it that makes this cricketer so special despite he not being in the media limelight as a coach or commentator or administrator of the game? The reason is simple: for the entire generation of cricket fans who grew up during the 1960’s and 70’s, Kapil Dev was the best thing that had happened to Indian cricket. We were known as a country of dull dour batsmen and spin bowlers. We did not even have one bowler who could hurl the red cherry at a reasonable speed. Worse, we were considered as a bunch of chicken-hearted cricketers who shied away from facing fast bowlers. We prepared pitches that offered no help to pace bowlers, where ball turned square from day one. Sides like England, West Indies and Australia, who were the heavy weights in international cricket during those days, laughed at us on this score. When we complained about intimidatory tactics adopted by Clive Lloyd at Kingston, Jamaica, in 1976, we did not win many supporters as it was considered to be a case of “squealing” by players who did not possess the nerve to face real fast bowling.
It was into this scenario that Kapil walked in like a breath of fresh air. He created an impact in the very first Test he played for the country, against Pakistan in the featherbed of a wicket at Faisalabad in October 1978. Sadiq Mohamed, the cocky Pakistani opening batsman who had walked out to bat wearing a cap, was surprised to see the pace that Kapil was generating and was forced to ask for a helmet soon after the match started. And Sadiq did not ask for it too soon as he was dealt a sharp blow on his forehead by a bouncer from Kapil within the next couple of overs. In the very next Test, skipper Bishen Bedi sent Kapil Dev as night watchman on the evening of the fourth day, only to watch aghast as the young man indulged in some merry hitting in the closing minutes of the day! Kapil did not take many wickets or score mountains of runs in his first series but the pace that he generated and the positive attitude that he brought endeared him to the followers of the game.
This love affair of Indian cricket fans with Kapil lasted throughout his playing days. They realised that he could be unpredictable and even exasperating but knew that he would always try his best. He was a cricketer who played with his “dil” and he had a large heart as well! He could inspire and motivate a bunch of average cricketers into believing that they could win the World Cup in 1983, which they proceeded to do, defeating the West Indies cricketing juggernaut. Only a cricketer who played with his heart could work this miracle.
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Kapil had to face problems on this score as many a time he found himself at the wrong end for playing cricket in his inimitable style. Cricket world would never forget the four sixers that he struck off consecutive balls while facing the bowling of Eddie Hemmings at Lords’ in 1990 to reach his century, which helped India to avoid the follow-on. But there was a flip side to this approach as well. Fans in India will recall that he was caught in the midwicket fence by Mike Gatting while trying to clear the fence off the bowling of the same bowler (Hemmings) in the semifinals of the ICC World Cup in 1987 at Mumbai, when the game was tantalisingly poised. This shot cost India the match and a place in the finals. Similarly, he had holed out to Alan Lamb when facing Pat Pocock during the Test match at Delhi in December 1984, which laid open the door for England to stage an upset victory. Kapil was dropped from the national side after this match, presumably as punishment for playing this rash shot. But, in a style typical of the man, he did not eschew this shot nor change his style, as can be seen from his success at Lords in 1990. This again is another example of playing solely by the guidance of one’s heart!
Despite his undoubted skills with the bat, Kapil was primarily a bowler. He started out as a tearaway fast bowler but soon mastered the nuances of moving the ball both ways. He was built like an ox and possessed mountains of stamina that allowed him to bowl long spells in the difficult conditions prevailing in the Indian subcontinent. But it was on tours that he came into his own, picking up wickets by the bagful. All victories achieved by the national side, both at home and abroad, during the period from 1979 till 1991 had the imprint of Kapil. In the Test match at Melbourne in February 1981, he was down with a hamstring injury but still came to the ground on the last day after taking painkilling injections to bowl the side to victory.
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As a fielder, he was brilliant in any position, both close to the bat as well as in the deep. The catch that he took to dismiss Viv Richards in the 1983 World Cup finals opened the floodgates that took India to victory. He had a wonderful sense of anticipation that helped him to move early towards the ball with swift, long strides and, hence, he never had to dive around the ground like many others. And the best part was that he made it appear ever so simple!
Kapil was not a born leader of men, nor was he a skipper who spent his time plotting the downfall of his opponents before a game. He was more of an inspirational figure, who could motivate others by his performances and the high standards that he maintained. As Richie Benaud remarked after India’s 1983 World Cup win, Kapil was not the sort of captain who would win too many matches, but no one else could inspire a bunch of cricketers more than him. To attain success regularly, a skipper is required to rely more on the brain than on his heart, which proved to be a natural disadvantage for Kapil in this area.
It is true that Kapil did not crown himself with glory towards the end of his career and his days after retirement. He should have bid adieu to international cricket after attaining the world record for taking maximum number of wickets in Test matches. Instead, he chose to continue and had to face the ignominy of being dropped from the side. His attempts at commentating did not succeed as he was not one blessed with the “gift of the gab”. His innings as the coach of the national side also ended in a fiasco with the betting and match fixing scandal breaking out and he being implicated by Manoj Prabhakar, a former colleague. The tears that flowed when he broke down in front of national television showed how sensitive and “from the dil” he remained despite all the success that came his way.
Today, Kapil remains away from active cricketing activities. The ban imposed on him by Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for being part of the Indian Cricket League (ICL) was repealed in 2012, but he is not involved with the game in any official capacity. He took up golf in 1994 and the level of success he achieved in this sport serves as an indication of his versatility.
Cricket lovers heaved a sigh of relief when Kapil returned home after a short stay in hospital, with the angioplasty improving the blood supply to his stressed cardiac muscles. It is only natural that the walls of the large and muscular heart he is blessed with needs more blood than other mortals. It would always be in the prayers of cricket lovers in India that flow of blood and oxygen remains uninterrupted to the “dil” of this “lajawaab” cricketer who played the game straight from his heart.