The People’s Cricketer: Kapil Dev
The 1980s were heady days. I received a phone call from my younger brother asking me to look up Kapil Dev who was part of the Indian touring team to Australia in 1981.
My younger sibling, the more talented cricketer, had developed a friendship with Kapil while playing for the University team in Chandigarh. I was to discover that everything about Kapil Dev, the cricketer, was preordained. It was in May 1981, some four months before the Indians were to tour Australia. I was going up the escalator at the Taj Hotel in Delhi and I heard this voice: “Hi, Vinay.” It was Kapil going down the escalator and though we had not met before the recognition was instant and it was palpably warm. It was as if we had known each other forever. We hugged, as Punjabi’s are wont to do, and so began a friendship that defined my summers of 1981 and 1985-86.
In that month in May I had the satisfaction of meeting two of the greatest athletes I have known. Kapil was one but the other was Muhammad Ali. I walked up to him in the foyer of the hotel and shook his hand. He had big hands. Bigger than I have ever seen. But he did not crush you in the handshake. There was gentleness in his eye that spoke of a warrior with compassion.
Kapil never forgot. He had a memory that was formed by the hard yards of never having anything served on a plate. He always remembered having to scrape the 500 rupees to buy a bat from Bedi. There was no bitterness. Just an acceptance that this was the way things were. … Kapil Dev has no time for self serving officialdom. He would have done it differently. His English was not always Shakespeare but the meaning was never ambiguous. He spoke his mind and wore his heart on his sleeve. That was his logo. He would have taken Harbhajan to the Australian dressing room and sat him down with Symonds. “Now you two monkeys sort this out”.
In 1981 the Australian and Indian teams stayed at the Travelodge Motel in Rushcutters Bay. Not five star but appropriate in those early days of cricketers ‘emancipation. The day before the Sydney Test I took my ten year old son to pick up Kapil for a day of sightseeing. My son only wanted to meet his idol, the great Dennis Lillee. Kapil was not piqued. He knocked on Dennis Lillee’s door and my son came face to face with his hero. Kim Hughes and Rod Marsh ambled over and so too did Greg Chappell. But my son only had eyes for Lillee. It must have inspired him because he took 7 for 12 next weekend in an under 12’s school match.
Kapil Dev was and still is an iconoclast. He redefined Indian cricket and continues to grow as a legend. He shattered the mould which portrayed India and Indians as passive and Gandhian. As a young man and an aspiring fast bowler he railed against administrators dismissive of men with attitude. His asking for an extra chapatti is part of folklore and I can attest to his appetite as a young man carrying India’s pace bowling. His birthday fell on the week of the Sydney Test and we had a roast turkey as his treat. I have never seen a bird demolished with such relish and alacrity. These same administrators feared him then and continue to look over their shoulders. Kapil was a rebel with a cause. Look at me he screamed through his broad Haryana teeth. Here was a warrior who threw down the gauntlet every time he had a ball or bat in his hand. Or faced with a succulent turkey!
Kapil arrived a decade after the other Indian legend Sunny Gavaskar and for a while these two colossuses underpinned Indian cricket. Their respect for each other was an acceptance of the other’s cricketing greatness. They were different and yet they were similar. Different in their personalities. Gavaskar was the perfectionist. The supreme technician with the classic high elbow and genius moulded from simplicity. The head still and the eyes trance like in their concentration. Kapil Dev was the natural. The gifted athlete who seemed to have decoded the formula that unlocked split second timing. The innate mechanism that picked the gaps where none existed. As Allan Border will testify, after he was bowled between bat and pad shouldering arms in Adelaide in December of 1985. Kapil had phoned me the previous day and said “I will show Border. Does he think I am a medium pacer? He keeps coming forward.” Sure enough the next day Kapil tested AB with some short stuff and when he had him hesitant on the crease slipped in his natural outswinger. AB was horrified to see the ball hold its line and hit the top of off stump. The rest had been angling away from him to the slips. Kapil really rated Allan Border and I know he got immense satisfaction from that dismissal.
Kapil and Sunny were both guarded and reserved among strangers but boisterous and playful among friends. They both remain unchanged in their super stardom. Kapil represents the hero that Indians love and Sunny represents the hero Indians respect and admire. Both these men nourished the boy genius Tendulkar and gave him the foundations that now see him elevated to a living deity, Sachin Tendulkar evokes awe and his deeds will, over time, ascend him into Vedic folklore.
It was the summer of 1986 and cricket’s prosperity was reflected in the choice of hotels. Both the teams were staying at the Boulevard Hotel on William Street. It is now defunct but then it was one of the more desirable five stars. It was now Kapil’s turn with the musical chairs that Indian Captaincy had become. He was entitled to a room on his own and had a suite as was befitting the Captain. But he had even less privacy than when he was sharing a room. His door was always open and his room always had at least three or four players hanging with the “man”. This was probably one of his failings as a leader but endearing as a human being. He was the player’s player.
It was noon and two days before the Test and we stopped by Azharuddin’s room. The young man was praying and we waited till he finished. Azhar reminded Kapil: “Paaji, don’t forget the bat you promised me.” Kapil was sponsored by Slazenger’s’ and made sure he had enough bats in his kit for anyone that wanted them. He was generous to a fault. To my eternal chagrin, my son refused a gift of a Slazenger bat, saying that he preferred Gray Nicholls. The double scoop at the back of the bat was what did it.
We have established that Kapil has a long memory and that he is generous but what is little known is his penchant for tomfoolery and a wicked sense of humour. Cue to the Benson and Hedges World Championship of Cricket and a semi-final pitting New Zealand against India at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Lance Cairns was butchering the Indian bowling and skied one to deep fine leg where the hapless Srikanth did the waltz of death and did not lay a hand on the ball. A tragic comedy if there ever was one. Kapil bellowed out from mid on: “Don’t worry Kris, the next one is coming to you too and I bet you drop it.” This was a scriptwriter’s dream. Sure enough the next ball off Madan Lal was skied to fine leg. Only higher and it seemed to hang forever. Srikanth must have circled thrice trying to get a feel for the trajectory. The spectators, players and umpires were a tableau vivant. Lance Cairns had stopped midpitch knowing there was a chance of a reprieve. The collective sigh of relief was accompanied by guffawing from Kapil, who was beside himself with laughter. No one was more relieved than Srikanth.
New Zealand had managed a par score of 206 and India were in a little bother with three down for 102. What followed was batting of the highest quality with Vengsarkar and Kapil putting on a hundred at better than a run a ball. Kapil hit 54 off 37 balls and not one lofted shot in there. His off driving and square cutting was particularly savage on Richard Hadlee, surprisingly their most expensive on the night. Jeremy Coney also suffered some injustice but would have acknowledged the strokeplay. It was unhurried and had a timelessness about it that was sophisticated.
The final of the World Championship saw India and Pakistan face off at the MCG. All the teams were staying at the Hilton which was just across the street. The morning of the final we walked the short distance to the ground and I had the privilege of helping Kapil carry his “coffin” We were the first at the ground and as was usual in those days the rest turned up at their leisure. Kapil insisted I sit in the dressing room with the team. I resisted then and always have. The rooms are for the players and the support staff. Even Prime Ministers should not think they deserve to be there. Being the man he was Kapil would come and sit in the member’s enclosure in Melbourne and Sydney.
I cannot end without putting on record the man’s popularity with the paying public. He was an entertainer to the core. He played because he enjoyed the game. He smiled more than any other cricketer I have seen. He was the manager of the Indian team when I last met him in Australia. We were in Adelaide and walking back from dinner around midnight on a Saturday. Rundle Mall in the centre of town was busy with happy people returning home and there must have been fifteen men and women that stopped Kapil and asked him for his signature. Kapil had been retired for a number of years but the punters remembered the entertainment he had provided.
The last word must go to the lady that turned up at Kapil’s book signing at Angus and Robertson in George Street, Sydney. She pushed a picture of Sammy Davis Jr. in front of Kapil and despite his protestations that he was not Sammy Davis, she just said: “You’ll do, love.”
by Vinay Verma
Vinay is an Australian-based cricket writer, and the Editor of Seriously Cricket Chronicles. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org to subscribe to Seriously Cricket Chronicles.
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