A year before he delivered India the World Cup, Kapil Dev showcased his talents in England with both India and Northamptonshire. He was subsequently named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1983.
India’s tour of England made a quiet start to the summer. But the Test series was lent excitement by the rivalry between Ian Botham and an Indian who, by his exuberant performances, challenged the title unofficially held by Botham of being the finest contemporary all-rounder. During the series against England, Kapil Dev again proved himself a fine fast-medium bowler, but it was his batting which secured for him the player of the series award. His scores were 41, 89, 65 and 97; and every time he went in, after the first of those innings, he seemed to be on course for the fastest Test century ever made in terms of deliveries received.
Only in recent decades have Test centuries been regularly recorded in terms of deliveries as well as minutes, and it was considered that the one by Roy Fredericks off 71 balls at Perth in 1975-76 was the fastest until research discovered that Jack Gregory’s at Johannesburg in 1921-22 came from four balls fewer. Kapil Dev, in his second innings of the Lord’s Test, hit 89 off 55 balls. Although he fell short of the record then, it would be surprising if he does not break it on some occasion in his career, so quick is his eye, so clean his hitting, so laughing and cavalier his manner.
This amateurish, or at least old-fashioned, approach is readily comprehensible if seen against his background. Kapil Dev Nikhanj was born in Chandigarh, a model Welwyn Garden-type city in the northern foothills of India, which serves as the capital of Punjab and of Haryana, being on the border of the two states. Kapil Dev, a Punjabi, plays for Haryana. His official date of birth is given as January 6, 1959, although in that part of India the year of birth is not always registered at the time and can be altered to suit convenience. As it stands, however, Kapil Dev goes into history as the youngest man to have made 1,000 Test runs and taken 100 Test wickets.
His parents came from what is now Pakistan. They emigrated at Partition from near Rawalpindi – if they had not, Kapil Dev might have been opening the bowling for Pakistan with Imran Khan. After a while of wandering, Kapil Dev’s father settled in Chandigarh to become a building and timber contractor in the new city. The family business remains prosperous: in other words Kapil Dev does not play cricket for a living but for pleasure.
Batting, however, had been no pleasure for Kapil Dev in his Test matches away from home before he arrived in England last summer. Until then his average in Tests abroad was under 13, and runs had deserted him to such an extent on India’s tour of Australia and New Zealand – he made 82 runs in eleven innings, being over-careful he thinks – that some Indian critics were questioning his classification as an all-rounder. From the start, in the first Test at Lord’s, he refuted them.
By his own admission, India’s position in their first innings at Lord’s was the most awkward he faced: hounded by Bob Willis and Botham, India were 45 for five wickets. Kapil Dev had to be circumspect, but clearly the chafing shackles were going to be thrown off at the next opportunity. That came on the fourth evening, after Dilip Vengsarkar had worn down England’s bowling but India were still in arrears in the follow-on. Kapil Dev then hit 89 out of the 117 runs which India added in fifteen overs. Test cricket can have seldom seen such exuberance. His runs might have come off even fewer than 55 balls if Dilip Doshi had not been the last man in and Kapil Dev forced to neglect some runs in order to keep the strike. When he finished off his evening’s work by taking England’s first three wickets in four overs, he had enjoyed as glorious a session of play as any immortal of the game.
In the second Test at Old Trafford, Kapil Dev reached his 50 off 33 balls, well on course again for breaking the record. India, once again, were under pressure to avert the follow-on: but after Kapil had emerged at 173 for six wickets, the remaining 53 runs required were scored in even time. Towards the end of his innings of 65 he slowed down, which does not suit him or his special talent. For Kapil Dev as a batsman has the almost unique ability to launch himself straight into fourth gear, with over-drive his variation.
His cleanness of hitting and precision of timing were repeated at The Oval. Again India faced the follow-on: when Kapil Dev entered their last five wickets still had to make 147. He promptly hit, between interruptions, 97 off 92 ball in 102 minutes. When Botham offered the bait of a slower ball, the uncomplicated Kapil put it straight into the distant Vauxhall stand. During what was otherwise a promising first term of captaincy by Willis, Kapil Dev’s partnership of 130 in 27 overs with Syed Kirmani threw England into some disorder.
Before returning to Northamptonshire after the series, Kapil Dev enjoyed a mid-season working holiday in the United States, which may again exemplify his attitude to the game. When back with his county the carefree hitting continued with two whirlwind hundreds in the Championship, one on an under-prepared pitch at Eastbourne. His 50 would arrive in even time, his century – if it came – in about two hours. Dennis Brookes said he had seen no-one at Northampton with such a gift for hitting and timing since Colin Milburn.
Less to Northamptonshire’s delight, the amateur attitude – playing for the pleasure of it – has manifested itself in Kapil Dev’s bowling as well. Understandably, as India’s one quick bowler, he has been worked to the full during an intensive Test programme. It was the opportunity to take the new ball in 25 Test matches in the space of only one year and 110 days which helped him to his world record of performing the Test double in the shortest-ever time. (Botham reached his 1,000 Test runs and 100 wickets in longer time but four fewer Tests.) The last thing he needs in India’s off-season in the grind of daily bowling.
As he remains the only strike bowler on India’s horizon, Kapil Dev may soon decide to devote his energies to India’s cause to the exclusion of the county game. But even if he is lost to the English scene, he will not be forgotten after his all-round displays of rubbery exuberance, which were enough to evoke the memory of Learie Constantine.
By the end of his career, Kapil Dev had established himself as one of the greatest all-rounders of all time. He was India’s captain when they won the 1983 World Cup and played the last of his 131 Tests in 1994.