A soul-lifting Redemption Song

NIRMAL SHEKAR Did you see it?

"DID you see it, dad,?" asked the son. "Did you see it?" queried a pair of colleagues at the office. "Did you see it?" asked a bunch of friends at the club bar later in the evening. It was that kind of day.

-K. PICHUMANI

Life, and not the least sport, has quite a few did-you-see-it events/moments. But unlike life, whose where-were-you-when-it-happened moments are often awash in grief, darkly defined by pathos, sport's comparable moments are marked by triumphant glee rather than tears, by celebration rather than mourning.

Where were you when John F.Kennedy was shot? Did you see the planes crashing into the Twin Towers?

For every such question in life, in general, you have a sunny, soul-lifting "What were you doing when Kapil Dev lifted the World Cup on the Lord's balcony?" in sport. Sport may have a million losers for every single winner but television cameras have a way of zooming in on the winners, on the wide grin of success, on the ecstatic fist pumping and shirt stripping, if you want to include a current craze!

But, to me, the soul of sport is defined as much by its numbingly poignant moments as by its elevating hours of heart-warming triumph. This is precisely why no did-you-see-it day was quite like THAT DAY in my long experience in the world of sport.

And THAT DAY - the day when Kapil Dev Nikhanj, asked by Karan Thapar on BBC's Hard Talk show, if he would put his hand on his heart and say he did not indulge in match-fixing, broke down like a child that's lost its favourite toy with millions watching on television - has haunted me for a good part of two years.

Writing on sport for a living has its compensations. For, over long years, you develop a wonderful sort of immunity, a Kiplingesque equanimity which helps you treat the two imposters, triumph and disaster, just the same.

But there are some moments that are so intense and powerful that they manage to pierce the armour and singe the soul. The incomparable Muhammad Ali, climbing into the ring long after his use-by date has come and gone as a champion, lying helpless on the ropes, mouth open, eyes glazed, against his one-time sparring partner Larry Holmes; a zombie-like Ronaldo going through the motions after a night-of-horrors in the World Cup final against France in Paris in 1998; a brave, free-spirited Haryanvi with a big heart - Kapil Dev - and the finest all round record any Indian cricketer has ever managed to post, sobbing in front of television cameras on a talk show.

Kapil Dev on the podium at the awards function. Viv Richards, who gave away the award to Kapil, and Mark Nicholas, the compere, are also in the picture.-ALLSPORT

Time and again, whenever a moment of darkly riveting pathos was enacted on a big stage in sport, that picture of a choking Kapil wiping away tears from his face, would come back to haunt me. As recently as a few weeks ago, at Wimbledon, as I sat in a small, over-crowded press box in the No. 2 court, watching the peerless Pete Sampras slumped in his chair after a five-set second round loss to George Bastl, staring vacantly into the turf, the image of a sobbing Kapil reappeared on the mind's screen as if one had inadvertently pressed the rewind button.

"To overthrow idols is much more like my business," wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in Ecco Homo. It is the business of sport as well; for capricious sport, cruel sport, revels in the business of overthrowing idols.

And, believe me, it is not a pleasant sight; the dismantling of legends can be an ugly business. To watch the greatest match-winner in the history of Indian cricket being stripped bare emotionally in front of millions of television viewers could hardly have made a pretty picture.

Of course, as a hardened pro, you were never going to confuse on-field heroics with the sort of heroism you encounter in the larger picture in life. Moral failings are as much part of sport as they are of any other area of human activity. From W.G. Grace down to Rivaldo, the good and the great in sport have cheated, some in reprehensible fashion, others in more acceptable ways.

But, for this to happen to Kapil! For this to happen to a seemingly honest, refreshingly frank, wonderfully spontaneous, extraordinarily gifted athlete who's done more to boost the image of Indian cricket than perhaps any other man!

Even as millions of Kapil Dev's fans prayed for redemption, I somehow had the gut feeling that some day, some thing would happen - not merely the he's-clean certificate from a government or a sports board - to wipe away all the bitterness.

In the event, the Wisden Indian Cricketer of the Century award, which Kapil Dev won from a shortlist of 16 candidates in London last fortnight, was, to me, something of an exorcism. In one stroke, the dark image that had burned itself into my mind from the BBC talk show, suddenly disappeared and the lasting image I've always had of the man - holding up the World Cup trophy with that patented toothy grin on the Lord's balcony - reclaimed its place.

The waves of adulation touched off by such a recognition from cricket's bible may have washed away the last traces of mud left on his face from the match-fixing allegations and Kapil Dev became Kapil Dev again - giant performer, unequalled match-winner, folk hero, icon.

Kapil with his loved ones, his wife and daughter, after winning the coveted award.-N. SRIDHARAN

An emotional Kapil talked about how "touched" he was and how fortunate he was to have been singled out as the country's greatest ever cricketer. But, those who have watched the great man perform in his prime were equally moved and would always consider themselves fortunate to have followed cricket in an era in which he was an adornment to the great game.

In the world of sport, at the highest levels, there are heroes and there are winners. Very rarely do you find a combination of the two - the heroic winner. And in Indian cricket, there is no better example of this rare breed than the man from Chandigarh.

Kapil is as much a natural as a hero as he is as an athlete. Heroism is in his blood. He - more than any other great cricketer this country has produced - has always refused to look at the smaller picture, shunned the narrow perspective for the larger picture, the greater good.

This is precisely why he turned out to be such a celebrated heroic winner for a good part of the 16 years during which he played for the country. As in the case of some of the greatest heroes cricket has known, including the greatest of 'em all, Sir Garfield Sobers, numbers never mattered to Kapil.

That he captured 434 wickets and scored 5,248 runs in 131 Tests might be good enough reasons for celebrations in the community of statisticians and the ones that reduce this great sport into a numbers game. But then, as in the case of Sobers, for Kapil what mattered more was the pride he took in performing for the country, in living up to what his millions of fans expected of him.

It was the turbo-charged force of these virtues that helped Kapil reach the Himalayan peaks that he did in a remarkable career in which he never missed a Test because of an injury - why he did miss one against England to break what might have been a record sequence is not something one should be discussing in these columns at a time when Kapil himself would rather not look back in bitterness.

Of course, it is hardly a coincidence that some of Indian cricket's greatest moments have come during Kapil's days. After that surprisingly easy series victory at home against what then looked like a star-studded Pakistani touring team led by Asif Iqbal in 1979-80, India had a pretty good run - to say the least - in both Tests and one-day cricket for a good part of the 80s decade.

And in almost every Indian triumph, Kapil left his mark like a champion, not the least in that Melbourne Test victory over the mighty Australians - one of India's finest Test victories ever - in early 1981, a match in which the gifted all-rounder bowled with great heart after receiving a painkilling shot in his arm for a torn hamstring and a pulled groin muscle.

Then again, for all that he did in Test match cricket - for all the spirit and stamina and perseverence he displayed in bowling on dead Indian wickets with spectacular success - nothing that Kapil did might have captured popular imagination as much as that miraculous 175 not out he scored against Zimbabwe in the 1983 World Cup.

With the team four down for 10 on a juicy pitch in Tunbridge Wells, Kapil stepped in to change the course of Indian - and world - cricket history. India lost its fifth wicket at 17 but the great man was in the zone and he launched the sort of offensive that we seldom associate with Indian batsmen in such situations. That it was the first century by an Indian in limited overs cricket is a fact that, to this day, is rarely highlighted.

For, in the context of that championship, Kapil's was an innings that turned the underdogs into believers who would go on to upstage one of the game's greatest ever sides, led by Clive Lloyd, in the final.

Much has been said and written about that final. A lot of praise has deservedly gone to men like Krish Srikkanth and Mohinder Amarnath and even Balwinder Sandhu. But, to me, the single significant match-winning effort came from Kapil himself. The catch he took to dismiss a belligerent Viv Richards was not only a great catch but one that won the game for India. For, if Richards had been around for another half hour, you might have spotted Lloyd yet again on the Lord's balcony lifting that trophy which the West Indians seemed to claim ownership rights to! Today, as a bunch of youngsters have brought a whiff of fresh air to Indian cricket - at least in the limited overs game - and kids all over the country are busy pasting posters of Yuveraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif on their bedroom walls and dream of India winning the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, this much can be said: if this Indian team had an all-rounder with 50 per cent of Kapil's abilities, and half his heart, it would be among the favourites for the title less than a year from now.

Having said that, it must be acknowledged that Kapil was no one man army. For, in his hey day, the Indian team featured such giants as Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Visvanath and Mohinder Amarnath, to name only three.

At the Wembley Conference Hall, it was wonderful to see the great Gavaskar hug Kapil after the presentation of the award although one was a touch dismayed by the fact that the original little master's contributions were not suitably acknowledged and all he got was an award which went to the 1985 WCC winning side as India's Team of the Century.

And now, to go back to the big question....Did you see it?

Of course, we did. In the early days of colour television in India, millions of us saw a smiling Kapil Dev proudly lift the trophy that matters on the Lord's balcony. Again, last fortnight, we saw the great man hold up the trophy that crowned him as India's greatest cricketer of all time. These are the images that will stay.

As for the tears, forget it. They have long since dried. But if you do have tears, shed them now, tears of joy, to be sure.