Along came Kapil Dev

Gulu Ezekiel and Vijay Lokapally | Updated on October 16, 2020

A new era: Kapil Dev established himself as a genuine ‘quickie’ in his Test debut against Pakistan in 1978 THE HINDU ARCHIVES   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

India did not have a fast bowler, cricket pundits once lamented. And then came a lad from Haryana

I loved to bowl.

This was the reason why I could bowl with the new ball or the old ball and any stage of the contest. It was my love for bowling that helped me stay focused.

— Kapil Dev

It was 1978, the venue Ferozeshah Kotla ground, the occasion a benefit match for former Indian Test batsman Abbas Ali Baig. The game was to feature some of the greatest players of that time: Zaheer Abbas, Majid Khan, Conrad Hunte, Ian Chappell, Asif Iqbal, Imran Khan, David Hookes and Mushtaq Mohammad. As if that was not enough to draw the crowds, the newspapers exhorted cricket fans to throng the venue to watch a new bowling sensation — a fast bowler called Kapil Dev. ‘India’s prayers for a fast bowler have been answered,’ claimed a senior official of the Board from Delhi. ‘Kapil is the man to watch,’ he declared. However, Kapil Dev had not descended on the scene overnight. He had made his first-class debut for Haryana in 1975 at Rohtak. He had batted at No 11 but claimed six Punjab wickets for 39 runs. Skipper Rajinder Goel, one of the finest left-arm spinners in Indian cricket, never tired of praising Kapil’s performance on debut. ‘Kapil was fresh and was a talent that we all noticed in that match. He had the fire and I must say that I was not wrong in my assessment at the end of the match. He was destined to be a big player on the international stage,’ Goel recalled. The match was a ‘sweet reminder’ that Kapil had arrived, and with a bang! Since then Kapil had made rapid progress and was being talked about in cricket circles.

To return to the 1978 match at Kotla. It was an exceptionally hot April day. The atmosphere was electric, as the spectators waited with eager anticipation, to see this young sensation come in to bowl. A roar went up as Kapil ran in, his long strides and athletic body exuding energy and grace. ‘Oye! What a fast ball!’ exclaimed an elderly spectator. ‘Never seen an Indian bowl so fast,’ he went on. It was a docile pitch, a festival match but Kapil went flat out with every ball. He was not one to take any game lightly. Among Kapil’s victims that day were Majid Khan and Hunte. When Khan’s middle-stump went flying Kapil had announced his arrival in style. He came in for praise from Hunte and Chappell too.

The bowler was in the news for his exploits not just with the new ball, but also with his bat as one who could score quick runs and play some lofty shots. He had impressed the selectors through the season so it was no surprise when six months later he was selected to make his Test debut against Pakistan at Faisalabad. It was the beginning of an era during which Kapil wrote the script with his all round skills. It was also the beginning of India’s campaign to unearth fast bowlers and give respect to its pace attack. One incident, at the start of the series, signified the importance of Kapil’s presence in the Indian team. Pakistan opener Sadiq Mohammad, younger brother of Hanif Mohammad and Mushtaq Mohammad, strode to the Faisalabad pitch in a cap, showing utter disregard for Kapil’s pace. As partner Majid watched from the other end, Sadiq soon realised his folly and promptly asked for a helmet. It was perhaps the first time an Indian bowler had compelled a rival batsman to wear a helmet. Kapil had won a minor battle when one of his rising deliveries struck Sadiq on the helmet. Kapil had established himself as a genuine ‘quickie’.

Kapil was a self-made bowler. He claims that, ‘Before playing in the Faisalabad Test I had never watched a Test match. Not even on television.’ To prove himself to be a fast bowler, all he knew was that he had to sprint from a distance, run in fast, and hurl the ball at the batsman. ‘Never with the intention to hurt the batsman, though,’ Kapil said. He was not a bowler with the searing pace of Fred Trueman, Wesley Hall, Andy Roberts, Jeff Thomson, but he had taken the first steps in charting his journey.

Another more personal reason for his determination to succeed goes back to when he was at a national camp a couple of years before his debut Test appearance. Kapil had asked for extra rotis because he was a fast bowler. The coach dismissed him with a terse ‘There are no fast bowlers in India!’ That comment became the trigger for him to prove he was one.

Speed Merchants: The Story of Indian Pace Bowling (1880s-2019); by Gulu Ezekiel and Vijay Lokapally; Bloomsbury; non-fiction; ₹499


By the time Kapil emerged on the scene in 1978, Indian cricket was witnessing a transition. The careers of India’s famous spin trio Bishan Singh Bedi, EAS Prasanna and BS Chandrasekhar were on the wane. Prasanna’s career came to an end in the 1978 series against Pakistan while Bedi and Chandrasekhar bowed out within a year, both playing their farewell Tests in the away series against England.

S Venkataraghavan, the right-arm off-spinner and one of the spin quartet, continued to play for a couple more years. He was appointed as captain but not for long. Venkataraghavan, who had led India in a Test against the West Indies at Delhi in 1975, returned to replace Bedi for the four-Test 1979 series in England. Venkataraghavan lost his captaincy at the end of the England series to Sunil Gavaskar and paved the way for Indian cricket’s thrust in a new direction. India now had two men to lead the charge — opening batsman Gavaskar and opening bowler Kapil Dev.

(Excerpted with permission from Speed Merchants: The Story of Indian Pace Bowling (1880s-2019) published by Bloomsbury this month)

Gulu Ezekiel is a senior sports journalist, and Vijay Lokapally, former deputy editor sports, The Hindu, has covered cricket for over three decades

Published on October 16, 2020

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