Legends Month: The best of Kapil Dev
As part of Legends Month on Cricket Network, look back on one of Kapil Dev's greatest performances
4 May 2018, 07:00 PM AEST
For a time, Kapil Dev Nikhanj was the most revered player in a nation that can bestow divinity upon cricketers with the same fervor it worships its millions of religious deities.
In 1992, Kapil Dev seized the crown of Test cricket's foremost wicket-taker, a feat rendered all the more meritorious by the reality he was (and remains) the only seamer from subcontinental Asia to achieve that benchmark.
It also earned him pre-eminent ranking among that era's esteemed cohort of pace bowling all-rounders, among them Sir Ian Botham (England), Sir Richard Hadlee (New Zealand) and Imran Khan (Pakistan), and in 2002 Kapil was named Wisden’s 'Indian Cricketer of the Century'.
An honour earned ahead of his teammate and captaincy rival Sunil Gavaskar and batting maestro Sachin Tendulkar who, in fairness, was at that time barely halfway through a career that would install him as the most productive batter the international game has known.
But the performances that came to define Kapil Dev's indelible contribution, to cricket and to India, played out across a fortnight in June 1983 when England hosted the third iteration of the (then) 60-over World Cup.
Come the start of that eight-team tournament, India's relationship with limited-overs cricket was about as warm as mango kulfi.
In their two previous World Cup appearances they had failed to progress beyond the group stage, and their approach to the one-day format was famously characterised in the inaugural 1975 showpiece when Gavaskar batted throughout his team's thumping loss to England at Lord's to remain 36 not out from 174 balls faced.
So when Kapil, who had replaced Gavaskar as skipper earlier in 1983, and his team started their tilt by inflicting the West Indies' first World Cup defeat, the vast machinery of Indian support stirred to life at home and was similarly awakened among the huge diaspora in Britain.
A subsequent win over Zimbabwe – who had landed the tournament’s other opening round shock by beating Australia – put India atop Group B, and two days later Kapil became the first player wearing India colours to claim a World Cup five-for (5-43) in their hefty loss to Australia.
That result also meant India’s return bout against Zimbabwe, the one and only ODI held at the quaint, rhododendron-ringed Nevill Ground in Royal Tunbridge Wells, would likely decide which team joined the mighty West Indies in the play-off round.
When India lurched to 5-17 inside the first hour that outcome appeared self-evident, with the only salvation for Kapil's men being a strike among BBC staff that guaranteed there was not a single broadcast camera on site to capture the carnage for posterity.
That quirk of history also ensured that their captain’s stunning innings – a dazzlingly counter-intuitive counter offensive that yielded 175 from 138 balls - similarly exists only in the mind's eye of those privileged to bear witness.
The then 24-year-old flayed a Zimbabwe attack, that had been eyeing a semi-final berth mere moments earlier, to the short straight and elongated square boundaries 16 times, and beyond them six more.
He set a new benchmark for the highest individual score in a World Cup match, and it remains the best by a No.6 batter in the tournament’s history.
Victory in their second hit-out against Australia lifted India to their first World Cup semi-final against their former colonial masters England, with Kapil joyously at the crease as Sandeep Patil flashed the winning boundary.
A moment that arrived in farcical scenes after over-exuberant India fans had stormed Old Trafford when scores were levelled, prompting England to stack all their fielders in close proximity of the players’ pavilion for personal safety reasons before the ultimate delivery.
The final against the West Indies at Lord's, the venue where the champions had lifted the two previous World Cups, was expected to deliver a three-peat but the world's biggest cricket nation and its battalion of fans who crammed into St John's Wood dared to dream.
A fantasy that flickered when India were sent into bat and were knocked over for 183, with a bid by their skipper to reprise his Zimbabwe heroics bringing three audacious boundaries from the first seven balls he faced before he perished chasing a fourth.
But hope rekindled when Kapil held the most crucial catch of a career that netted almost 700 international wickets and more than 9000 runs, as the titleholders' pursuit unraveled.
Sprinting towards the Clock Tower from his position at mid-wicket with the miscued pull shot from West Indies' master blaster Viv Richards swirling against the grey London sky and dropping at pace over his left shoulder, Kapil secured the chance and was immediately besieged by euphoric fans.
Richards' 33 would be his team's top score as the heavyweights stumbled and then slumped to 140 all out, and India's 43-run win triggered disbelief among most dispassionate observers but unleashed a wave of patriotic glee hitherto unknown across their cricket community.
It saw the nation enter a passionate embrace with limited-overs cricket that lingers today, instilled in Kapil's team and those that followed the belief that they were at least the equal of any cricket foe, and irreversibly altered the game's geo-politics and its global narrative.