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October 5, 1999


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Time of the messiah

Harsha Bhogle

There is a temptation to believe, when a great chance knocks at the door, that the messiah has arrived: that darkness will never set foot in our land again. It is a good feeling, it creates a nice, warm glow around and for some time, it suspends reality.

But that is also the problem with messiahs. They are very good for bedtime tales, but they are not for real. And maybe that is something we need to store away in our mind as we welcome the return of Kapil Dev to Indian cricket.

He was bound to come back, because cricket is so wonderfully addictive and in many ways, nothing better could have happened to Indian cricket. In an atmosphere, though, where people are dancing like the party has already begun, I hate to sound pessimistic but I do believe we need to have our feet on the ground. Indian cricket needs change from the bottom as much as at the top; a fancy carpet will add greatly to the decor, but it cannot make up for bad flooring or fautly beams.

But this is not the devil's scenario, so let's focus on what good can come out of it. More than any other cricketer in India, on par only with the Bishan Bedi and Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev has the stature to demand performance. Ordinarily, that should not be such a big factor, but on the sub-continent, our young men are too quickly tempted to raise the 'what-have-you-done' subject. Nobody can ask that of Kapil, and that is a strong opening.

I am hoping that he will also be able to demand basic fitness levels from his cricketers. Again, he is on firm ground here because in a long career, Kapil did not miss a single Test due to injury, and admitted after he had retired that it was one of his proudest achievements. Now, he needs to pass on that awareness to a generation whose physical limitations are being exposed by a constant, and mindless, schedule of playing and travelling.

There were two other aspects to his career that never received the kind of attention they should have, because they were dwarfed by his towering achievements with bat and ball. Kapil Dev was a genuinely outstanding fielder and because he moved so well on the ground, he often made difficult chances took easy. I don't remember Kapil having to make too many desperate lunges because he was invariably there on time. Several times, when fielders tumble and dive, it is only because they don't get to the ball quickly enough. Kapil could, and if he can pass on that secret to his wards, it is an addition that Indian cricket desperately needs to embellish itself with.

And Kapil Dev was a very quick learner. The true sign of promise and of learning, in any activity, is to come up with the new and the unexpected. Dilip Vengsarkar often tells the story of how every time he played Kapil, he saw a perceptible improvement. It is an ability that some people are blessed with, but it requires very hard work to do it consistently.

Wonderful as all these qualities are, my optimism stems from another that doesn't emerge from the playing field. In all the years that I have known him, I have always been struck by his ability to be disarming. I was still relatively new to the circuit in 1992 when one day, he look my hand and said, "Sit, I will read your palm." "Oh, okay," I said not so much because I thought it would be interesting as because I was scared to say anything else. And last year, when Prudential and he brought the team of 1983 together again, and I compered part of the function with him, he called the morning after to say, "Thank you." He needn't have, because I had been paid as well, but it left a wonderful, lingering thought in my mind.

With Kapil Dev, I can recall several such stories and that is why I think he will be a good influence on young and often insecure cricketers. I was quite amused, and in fact reassured, by his choice of words at his first press conference. "I want to be like an elder brother," he said and that is really the kind of relationship you want between a coach and his team. I suspect he will also have a more equal relationship with the BCCI, and given the stature and media accessibility he enjoys, he will be able to demand a lot more than his predecessors could. In a wicked moment, I actually wonder if the BCCI have bitten off more than they can chew, because Kapil will be forthright, and very difficult to get rid of should the need be felt!

If all this suggests that he is indeed the messiah that I had started off cautioning everyone against, then I must admit to a couple of reservations as well. AS someone who is larger than life in Indian cricket, there is a fear that his personality could overwhelm everyone else, that this could become Kapil Dev's India. As a cricketer, he has had his share of glory, and today's cricketers wouldn't want to be denied their share by his presence.

There would be a great temptation in the media to ascribe all success to him, and only he can prevent such a feeling from spreading. That is why the best coaches are behind-the-scenes people, and I just wonder if Kapil Dev's success can lie in being away from the media, or maybe by not being dominating ed by it.

My second reservation is that retirement hasn't produced in him the relaxed lifestyle that it has in a few others; though admittedly in many professions he would still have been considered a young man. If anything, he has become busier since giving up the game, because he has had time to get involved in many more activities. Given that, and the fact that he has been so successful at most of them, you would want to know if he can devote the time and the attention to being coach of a constantly travelling team. It is a real concern, because talented people like Kapil Dev need to have several avenues of excitement; they tend to get cloistered by just one. Remember too that he can no longer do things himself; he can no longer march out and hit four sixes to avoid the follow-on for his team. It will be frustrating at times, and I am sure he knows it.

It would be interesting as well to see how much influence he can exert over the selection committee, for he would know more about his players than the selectors would. Attitudes in the team sometimes counts for more than runs on the ground, and only the coach and the captain can assign the right value to them. From that point of view, Kapil has a good committee to work with. He goes back a long way with Madan Lal and Ashok Malhotra, and while Chandu Borde was part of the panel that so controversially dropped him in 1984, he is also known to be an admirer of Kapil's cricket.

One thing you can be certain of, though. We are in for exciting, outspoken times. Kapil has always spoken his mind, he has never allowed limitations of vocabulary to prevent him from communicating ideas, and that is something I have always admired him for. "I am Kapil, I am not the Queen. So why should I speak like her?" he has often said, and that is quite a refreshing attitude. I think we can expect similar candour in most other matters as well.

As someone from the media, I will miss Anshuman Gaekwad though. He was always co-operative, quite happy to bend the rules a bit to allow a player greater visibility before the camera. He would always pull you aside and say, "Be careful… don't do anything that will get them into trouble…" and invariably, things worked fine. I will never forget the sight of him, on a freezing morning in Birmingham after India had beaten England to qualify for the Super Six, clambering up a vertical ladder and braving the icy wind to share the team's moment of joy with a huge audience back home. It was a spontaneous gesture and it made for excellent television.

You will keep that in mind, won't you Kapil, when we pester you and your team for interviews…..?

Harsha Bhogle

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