Continuing with our series on the greatest cricketers of all time, here’s No. 15 on our list.
No. 15 – Kapil Dev
A young Kapil Dev was once included in a camp in India for the young ‘emerging talent’ of the nation. One day, during a lunch break, Kapil wasn’t satisfied with the meal that was given to the participants in the camp. The head of the camp came up to Kapil Dev and asked him, “What? You want more food?” To which, Kapil replied unrepentantly, “Yeah, I do want the food. I’m the fast bowler.” Chuckling at the response, the head of the camp said, “Oh no, we don’t produce fast bowlers in India.”
In a country which prided itself on the mystery and guile of its spinners, Kapil Dev’s brashness and pace were oddities. Never since the pre-independence era of Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh did India have a ‘pace’ attack. In Kapil’s debut series, which was a tour to Pakistan, the Indian batsmen standing in the slip cordon saw their Pakistani counterparts at the receiving end of nasty, quick bouncers. For the first time, they felt that they were part of a team that could give back to the opposition what they received from them, and Kapil Dev was the sole reason for that change. He gave the batsmen a horrid time with his pace and the Indian batsmen simply loved it. Ramchandra Guha writes in his book Spin and Other Turns how, in his second over, a teenage Kapil sent down a bouncer past Sadiq Mohammad. It was “very likely the fastest delivery by an Indian since Independence.” Such was the surprise for everyone that the call for a helmet took nearly a couple of overs to get a response.
By the end of that tour, Kapil Dev had become a celebrity not just in the team, but in the whole country, with the sense of finally having a pace spearhead being mirrored among the fans. Against West Indies, the best of not only that era but probably of all time, Kapil displayed an aggressive streak which left a permanent mark in everyone’s memory. Against their pace attack, he pulled and hooked to showcase a naturally agressive batting technique which enthralled the crowd. In those days, it was a given that after the first 5 wickets had fallen, the rest of the batsmen, mostly spinners, would depart without contributing much. Suddenly, there was this lower order batsman who could not only hold fort but do so with gusto, smashing the opposition bowling to all parts of the ground. More than anything, Kapil captured the imagination of the masses by showing them what they had been missing in their team for such a long time.
He was the first, and till date, the last genuinely fast bowling all-rounder India has had. The only player with the double of 5000 Test runs and 400 Test wickets in the whole world, he was a player who played to win, in a team that had long labeled draws as victories. When he failed to block and defend as instructed by the management and instead went for aggressive strokes, he was dropped from the team during the 1984-85 home series against England. But he made his return in the third Test of that same series at Madras (now Chennai), and what a spectacular return it was! He had to face the bustling medium-pace from Chris Cowdrey upfront. The first ball was a very wide delivery which Kapil launched into and crashed past mid-off. He then twirled his bat towards the pavilion, sending a clear message to everyone. Another series, another day: in 1990, India were facing the threat of a follow-on at Lord’s. Kapil knew only one way to respond – he smashed the off-spinner Eddie Hemmings for four sixes to bring India over the line.
Kapil’s story is not just of talent and unabashedness, but also of courage and determination. In the 3rd Test at the MCG in 1980-81, he had sustained an injury in his thigh and hamstring and was doubtful to bowl in the second innings. But Kapil Dev was never one to give in so easily. He took some painkillers and came on to bowl out the Aussies for just 83 to win India the match. His innings figures were 16.4-4-28-5. He was, truly, a genuine match-winner.
But not a single moment in his entire career was as momentous as the World Cup of 1983. It wasn’t really a Dhoni’s XI which won India the 2011 World Cup, but it was definitely a Kapil’s XI that won the Prudential Cup in 1983, beating the mighty West Indies in the final. There is no recording available of the incredible 175 that he made against Zimbabwe, which he scored after his team was reeling at 17/5. That the margin of victory was just 31 runs highlights the importance of the innings, without which India wouldn’t have been world champions. If ever a captain was to be credited for leading with example, it was Kapil Dev, who did so with considerable aplomb. His catch of Vivian Richards, who was looking to make a mockery of the meagre target in the final, was exemplary. Running backwards, with his inimitable loose strides, glancing over his shoulder just a moment before grabbing the ball with both hands, he snatched the chance from the West Indians.
Kapil’s rivalry with the great all-rounders of his era was entertaining not just for the public, but also for the rivals themselves. The clashes with Botham’s England, Imran’s Pakistan and Hadlee’s New Zealand were not just between the teams, but between these four dashing individuals as well. Every match was reduced to a comparison of who had trumped whom with his individual brilliance, with both bat and ball.
In his prime, Kapil came running in with long and loose strides, jumping and bounding all the way, reached the crease with a side-on action and delivered the ball with his wrists uncoiling. His bowling was a sight to behold, a powerful engine rushing in to knock down the stumps. He was a natural athlete who never missed a single Test match due to injury in his 16-year-long career. Kapil’s body had taken a beating over the years, but he never gave up his agressiveness.
217 wickets out of Kapil’s 434 came on the spin-friendly sub-continent pitches. Kapil reached the 300-wicket mark in 1987, but it took him 5 more years to take another 100, and another 2 to break Richard Hadlee’s record of 431 wickets. Those twilight years were immensely difficult for the Haryana Hurricane, who had lost his pace but tried very hard to effectively use his other skills with the ball.
Kapil was immensely popular with the masses of the country. He was just like a common man – he lived his life like a common person, failed like one and had arguments like one, but he went about playing with such extraordinary dedication that the nation adored him. He also had his share of controversies, however, and his distance from the national cricket establishment increased after his association with the ‘rebel’ ICL.
Kapil Dev was the odd one out in a cricketing culture which had forgotten that timeless Tests were a thing of the past and that there was life faster than just 60-70 mph. He was not just a great all-rounder for India, but the first genuine pace bowler since independence.
When his career was done, nobody could ever say again to a youngster, that India “didn’t produce fast bowlers.”
And now, here is a video showing the highlights of the 5 wicket-haul that Kapil took in 1980-81 at the MCG to win India the match:
These are the other players who have made it so far:
Read the detailed write-ups on all the players in this list here: