If there is one Indian cricketer today who is also an athlete in the true sense of the word; he is a fast bowler, Kapil Dev Nikhanj. Nobody has ever called him by his surname, which is mentioned here merely for the record. He is the fastest bowler in the country today. Yet they left him behind when they sent the team to Australia. Not yet 19, the selectors must have thought it was still too early to put him into international cricket.
Fast bowlers are a breed apart from other cricketers. In our country, they are also a rare breed. They are men of sweat and toil, hostility and hatred in action. So he is young Kapil, a guileless unspoiled youth. In dressing rooms, I have seen impish opponents spiriting away his cup of tea from the saucer held in one of his strong-fingered hands and draining the content down their own throats, with Kapil looking on in wordless indulgence.
Many a big-made man has been known to be like that. He is the youngest of three timber-trading brothers. Kapil Dev is also the shortest of the three six-footers, standing just above that height in his socks, besides his physique, he has also inherited from his father the typically Punjabi obsession with “khuraq” (diet). Being the youngest in the family, he is treated with that certain indulgence that is the right Of Indian children bringing up the rear. Like numerous other Punjabi families, the Nikhanjs also possess their own buffalo to tap an abundant supply of milk.
Kapil Dev trains on milk and butter chiefly, but “my mother and brothers never tire of feeding me with the best of other kinds of food.” No wonder he is lavish with his expenditure of energy. Born on January 6, 1959, Kapil is a pure made-in-Chandigarh product. If Kapil Dev is such a fine fast bowler, it is because of a fusion of an athlete and a cricketer in him.
Way back in 1974, he won the 200 and 400 meters in a Chandigarh meet, but his heart had already been won over by cricket. As part of his training, he does lightweight training under the expert eye of coach Nagra and goes on cross-country runs twice a week, coaxing “any friend, or anyone else I can get hold of, to keep me company.” When Kapil made a first mark in school cricket as a fast bowler. He was slim and tall. Now, weighing 74 Kg, he is broader in the shoulders and hips. The filling out from adolescent hips, the adult is not yet over.
Famous sportsmen owe it to someone or the other for their discovery. Someone comes into their lives who put them on the road to fame and the realization of their destiny. Kapil Dev is lucky that a few years ago. Mr. P. Mehra, former Cricket Board president decided to take a holiday in Simla. On his way back to Delhi. Mr. M.M.L. Jain, then secretary of the Haryana Cricket Association asked Mr. Mehra to have a look at a couple of young fast bowlers in Chandigarh. He could not have asked a better man.
In 1971, he came under the care of Coach Desh Prem a former Southern Punjab batsman as Kapil Dev grew older. Azad initiated him in the finer points, like the away swerve and variation of pace. He also impressed his pupil with the need to improve his batting if he intended to go up in the game. A keen learner Kapil today is a good enough bat for knocks of 30 to 50 runs in any class of cricket.
He has saved games or raced against the clock to win matches for his side. Kapil saw a turf wicket for the first time in his life on a visit to Delhi to play the hot weather tournament. That was in 1972. To this day he has not forgotten the thrill of that experience which he was fortunate to get at Ferozeshah Kotla, though by default, since Ravinder Chadha, the present Haryana captain, was then busy with his medical examinations. From Haryana Colts to the Ranji Trophy was a short hop.
He made his Ranji Trophy debut in 1975 against Punjab at Rohtak where he had figures of 6 for 39 and 2 for 58 as his contribution to Haryana’s innings wins over Punjab. To date, he has taken 54 Ranji wickets in 12 matches. The “Haryana Express” returned to Rohtak two years later to record his career-best feat of 8 for 38 and 3 for 33 in the match against services. Mark you, the pitch had nothing to do with his success. If anything, it was a batsman’s wicket.
Kapil Dev ran through the Services innings into a 70-minute spell during which he bowled 59 balls of sustained pace. Services might be considered weak opposition. But the previous season Kapil had figures of seven for 20 against Bengal in the knock-out round match at Rai — a feat which sent the Bengal innings crashing for 59. Besides his 12 Ranji Trophy matches, Kapil has also had the experience of playing in the Cooch Behar (schools), Vizzy (universities), and C. K. Nayudu (under 22) trophy competitions.
The first time he took 10 or more wickets in a match was in 1976 for North Zone universities against West in the final of the 1976 tournament at Hyderabad. A good fielder, Kapil is an ideal team man — a player any captain would love to have. When my team needs a wicket and my captain wants a certain thing done a certain way, I become impatient to achieve it. That is when I throw everything I have into the attack.” Fast bowling, as I said earlier, is vengeance in action. When Suresh Sharma a fast bowler, came in to bat at number ten in Punjab’s second innings at Rohtak. Kapil remembered the thrashing Suresh had given him in the first innings in a defiant knock of 82.
Smoldering within, Kapil Dev rubbed the ball on his flannels with more than usual vigor, came thundering down to the crease, and released an extra-fast one to get his man’s first ball. That is the type of kick that gives a fast bowler the devilish joy he is always after, and, when the day is over, the sleep of fulfillment. Kapil seldom goes home unfulfilled from a day of cricket.