A colossus in the history of Indian cricket

WISDEN'S Indian Cricketer of the Century award has gone to a deserving winner. Kapil Dev Nikhanj is the right choice.

I have played with him, under him, and even captained him for a brief period and I can tell you that the sheer effort he put into his cricket was mind-boggling.

Kapil Dev obliges autograph hunters at the Wembley function.-N. SRIDHARAN

In the end, it probably boiled down to three candidates, Kapil, Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. There is no denying the enormous contribution made by Gavaskar, who was technically as accomplished as they come, and Tendulkar, a supreme shot-maker.

Again, I had watched Gavaskar from very close quarters, from the other end as his opening partner, and he was a batsman who could drive the bowlers to desperation, with his defence, powers of concentration, and judicious stroke-selection.

Tendulkar first played for India under my captaincy, and looking back, it is a privilege and a honour to have been his first Indian skipper. He is such a gloriously talented batsman and millions of words have already been written about his exploits with the willow.

Like Gavaskar, he has enormous strength of mind and carries the expectations of billions on his shoulders. Gavaskar and Tendulkar, in their own ways, are very special.

Yet, Kapil scores over them because he was an all-rounder of exceptional talent and strength and could win a match for the country with both the bat and the ball.

After Gavaskar, Tendulkar came along but the void following the departure of Kapil is yet to be filled. Great all-rounders are that much more difficult to unearth.

In fact, the lack of a genuine all-rounder has been haunting Indian cricket over the last several years. Put someone like Kapil in the present Indian team, and the difference he would make to the side would be enormous. But then, if wishes were horses!

One of the early match-winning performances from Kapil, that has stayed in my mind, was during the India-Pakistan Madras Test of 1979-80. He came up with a 11-wicket match haul on a batting track and produced a typically aggressive 84. I was just a budding cricketer at that time, and watching Kapil's heroic performance for the country acted as a fillip to me as well.

India won the Madras Test comprehensively and with that took a series-winning 2-0 lead. Before the series against Pakistan, which possessed the likes of Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, Asif Iqbal and Imran Khan, there was talk of India suffering a drubbing!

Apart from his shining qualities as a cricketer, Kapil is a simple, easily approachable person, always willing to help youngsters. We got along well in the Indian team, both on and off the field and the fact that both of us were entertainers probably helped us jell better.

What stood out in Kapil's cricket was that he made everything appear so easy. He was gifted naturally, and the game came easily to him. Kapil worked extremely hard though to stay at the very top.

He had a wonderful outswinger, and times without number we would rush to congratulate him after he had found the outside edge of yet another batsman. And he could bowl for hours together without tiring.

His fitness levels and stamina were remarkable and considering his workload, his long career for the most part was stunningly injury-free. Though, circumstances demanded that he be used as a stock bowler, Kapil could alter the course of a contest in a hurry.

I recall the Lord's Test of '86 vividly. The Test was meandering to a draw after the first three days, but Kapil changed it all with a wicked three-wicket burst on the fourth day. England collapsed and India not only won the Test, but eventually clinched the series as well.

It was a similar story with the willow. He was such a clean striker of the ball, both against pace and spin, that I really enjoyed the occasions when I was at the other end.

So talented was he that I have to add that had he concentrated more on his batting, he would have ended up with a Test average beyond 40. He had so many strokes that he could so effortlessly decimate an attack, but he fell to casual shots on occasions.

One of Kapil's memorable knocks was his blazing hundred in an adverse situation against Australia during that famous tied Test in Madras. The mood in the dressing room was low, the side was facing a follow-on, but skipper Kapil came up with something special.

Kapil took the fight to the Aussie bowlers, and India escaped the follow-on. And what a fantastic finish that match produced! The Indian fight-back really began with Kapil's knock.

As captain he was inspirational, and his unbeaten 175 against Zimbabwe, after India had lost five wickets for next to nothing in that famous '83 World Cup match has to be ranked among the very best ODI innings. That effort made us all believe in ourselves.

There were times when he was slightly disappointed but he did not display the feeling of hurt. In the World Championship of Cricket semifinal of '85, Kapil and Dilip Vengsarkar orchestrated a brilliant victory for India on the chase from a precarious situation.

Kapil was slightly disappointed that he did not receive the Man of the Match award that day - he had bowled splendidly as well - but did not show his emotions.

In fact, he played under both me and Mohammed Azharuddin, both of us were far junior to him in experience, but that never prevented him from giving his best. He was a team-man.

No tribute to Kapil can be complete without mentioning his fielding. He had the habit of making the most difficult of catches appear easy, and who can ever forget him running backwards, to hold that miscued lofted hit by Vivian Richards in the '83 World Cup final. It was a high pressure situation, there was so much at stake, but Kapil was so cool as he went for the catch.

It was only towards the end of his career that he took to fielding in the slips, and I am sure had he begun earlier, he would have emerged one of the finest slip fielders.

Kapil and yours truly continue to be good friends. In fact, whenever he lands in Chennai, he never fails to give me a call. We did a television programme together during the home series against England and it was good fun sharing our thoughts and views.

He was an extraordinary cricketer. I doubt whether we would be able to produce another Kapil Dev. He is a once in a lifetime cricketer.