OPINION | Kapil Dev: The greatest Indian cricketer of all time
Last Sunday the great Kapil Dev turned 60, and the news stoked memories of the many times I had seen him bat, bowl and field, as well as of the one occasion when we had shared a stage. This was at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Jolly Rovers Cricket Club in Chennai, where he was invited as a former World Cup winning captain, and I in the altogether more modest capacity of a cricket fan.
I spoke before Kapil, and began by recalling the times I had seen him play. I had seen, live, every ball of his first Test hundred, against the West Indies in Delhi in 1978. I told the cricket lovers of Chennai of how, through hard drives and delicate late cuts, he got to 94 not out at stumps on the second day. On the third morning, India had to wait until Kapil got his 100 to declare: this he did in the first two balls of the first over, bowled by Norbert Phillips, one going past mid off for four and the other over square leg for six.
I then turned to Kapil the bowler, for which I used as my prime exhibit a Test match in Chennai itself, played against Pakistan in January 1980. I was there, and so were many members in the audience that evening. On the first day, and on a good wicket, Kapil demolished a high-class batting order with a superb display of swing bowling. Mudassar Nazar, Sadiq Mohammad and Zaheer Abbas were caught behind the wicket by Syed Kirmani, diving low to either side. Javed Miandad was taken by Dilip Vengsarkar at slip.
Checking the scorecard, I find that of the top five only Majid Khan did not fall to Kapil (he was run out). But in my recollection (which the older cricketers of Jolly Rovers shared) Kapil gave Majid the most trouble, beating him repeatedly, on the inside of the bat and on the outside too.
Kapil bowled even better in the second innings, getting seven wickets. I did not see that spell, being on a train to Kolkata that day. In between, he had scored 84 when India batted.
To illustrate Kapil’s fielding, I chose an example from a match everyone in the audience had watched, either live on TV or in one of its many replays. This was the catch he took to dismiss Viv Richards in the final of the 1983 World Cup. I said that as he ran back from deep midwicket Kapil had a smile on his face, for he now knew that India were in with a chance. I added that he was the only player in the team who could ever have taken that catch.
I thought I had given a decent speech, but Kapil’s was far better. He began by teasing the audience about his famously poor knowledge of English, which, he said, he was even more embarrassed about after hearing me talk.
He knew the residents of Chennai did not like Hindi forced upon them, but could he please, please, speak in that tongue? Of course, roared the audience, with me joining in the chorus.
Having set us up, Kapil then delivered an informative and witty speech in English, whose verve and expressiveness made up for any lack of grammatical orthodoxy. He told many stories, some against himself, one of them aimed directly at me. Guha thought I was smiling when running back to take that catch in the World Cup final, said Kapil, but the real reason is that I had no other choice, since I have buck teeth, which protrude outwards whether I am sad or happy, sleeping or running.
In whatever he did on the cricket field, Kapil was absolutely thrilling to watch. As a bowler, there was his smooth and accelerating run-up, the high action and the final jump, then the outswinger moving late and away to take the edge, with the occasional off cutter and sharp bouncer thrown in.
At the crease, there was the wonderfully free-flowing arc of his bat, the power and the range of his strokemaking. In the field, there was the swiftness of foot, the strong and accurate arm, and the safe, very safe, hands. It is because of his extraordinary all-round abilities that I consider Kapil Dev the finest cricketer ever born in this country.
If he indeed has a rival for this title, it is not Sachin Tendulkar or Virat Kohli, but Vinoo Mankad. A brilliant attacking batsman and an artful slow left arm spinner, like Kapil, he could command a place in the Indian side in either capacity. And Mankad was also an excellent fieldsman, at a time when most Indian players were fat and overweight, and could not be relied upon to stop or catch a cricket ball.
Vinoo Mankad was, in cricketing terms, born at the wrong time in the wrong place. The Second World War broke out when Mankad was 22, mature and fully formed as a cricketer. When the War ended six years later, he still had a decade of cricket ahead of him. However, since India played such little international cricket in those days, Mankad appeared in only 44 Tests in all. Had there been no World War and had we played (as we do now) 10 or more Tests a year, who knows what Vinoo Mankad might have achieved?
Had the shorter forms of the game been around in this time, Mankad would have been fantastic in them too. Kapil Dev was dealt a luckier hand by fate, and made the most of it. Last Sunday’s birthday boy is my nominee for the title of Greatest Indian Cricketer of All Time.
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