September 13, 2000

A cricketing great who deserved a better end

His long career as a cricketer was marked by Herculean deeds and famous feats. For 16 long years, he bestrode Indian cricket as all rounder extraordinaire. He was the dominant figure with bat and ball who proved to be an intuitive skipper, good enough to lead the country to victory in the World Cup. A people's champion, he was the darling of the masses and when he quit playing in October 1994, he left a void that just could not be filled. In the five years that he was out of the scene, Indian cricket stumbled along to one defeat after another both in Tests and the one day arena.

During those five years, Kapil Dev was not exactly idle as business and modelling interests kept him busy. But he was away from the cricket scene and it did come as a bit of a surprise when suddenly he was considered as one of those in the running for the post of the national team's coach in succession to Anshuman Gaekwad. And even while another former Indian captain K Srikkanth was considered to be the favourite for the job on the basis of some excellent work with the Indian junior squad, Kapil Dev was suddenly back on the scene as coach. There was some commiseration for Srikkanth but given Kapil's stature the general consensus was that he was a choice few could argue with.

Of course even at that moment there were many who remembered the age old adage that great players do not necessarily make good coaches. Unfortunately Kapil proved to be the rule rather than the exception. A hard fought victory both in the Test series and the five ODI's against New Zealand saw his tenure off to a successful start. But already there were stories of friction, of differences of opinion on strategy at the team management level. India's failure to win two of the three Tests, the controversial decision not to enforce the follow on in the final game at Ahmedabad and the narrow victory in the one day series all pointed out that if Sachin Tendulkar was perhaps not the ideal captain, Kapil was not the ideal coach.

This feeling of course gathered momentum as the season progressed. The debacle in Australia followed by the reverses in the Test matches against South Africa at home all led to a growing number of cricket fans asking whether Kapil was the best person for the hot seat. In the meantime, the captaincy passed on from Tendulkar to Sourav Ganguly, but Kapil remained the coach and the Indian team went from one disaster in Sharjah to another in Dhaka.

By that time of course the match fixing scandal had blown open and suddenly Kapil found himself at the centre of the controversy. First, former BCCI president IS Bindra, in a television interview, named him as the person who had allegedly offered Rs 25 lakhs to Manoj Prabhakar to under perform in a one day match against Pakistan in Colombo in 1994. A few days later Prabhakar in an interview to a web site confirmed what Bindra had stated.

Suddenly Kapil was no longer the icon of Indian cricket. Alternating between sobbing openly and taking an aggressive stance, he defended and then counter attacked. But with more and more big names falling out of the match fixing cupboard, opinion polls hardened against Kapil. An increasing number of people wanted him to quit and the BCCI was also under pressure as the Sports Minister SS Dhindsa and his deputy Shahnawaz Hussain made it clear that those tainted by the scandal would have to quit, owning moral responsibility. Kapil had been appointed on a two year term but halfway through his tenure it became obvious that his days were numbered. If at least he had enjoyed cricketing success in his job, things might have been different. But with a poor record behind him, he could not even offer any excellent performance as a reason to stay in the post. Moreover, with so much happening - the match fixing allegations, the CBI inquiry, the IT raids, the growing opinion polls against him - Kapil could not have been in a proper frame of mind to discharge his duties.

In the final analysis, his going seemed to be a matter of time. But the denouement was arrived at in a contrived and clumsy manner. The climactic act commenced on August 18 when a disillusioned Kapil in an interview to a news agency said ``If this is what I get for being a cricketer, I don't want to be part of it. I know I am clean. I have nothing to hide. The investigations will prove that. But I am finished with cricket. It is not worth it. I took on the job last year despite my heavy business commitments because I wanted to give something back to the game. I never shirked responsibility during my playing days and will not do so now. If they want me for one more year, then fine. I will do the job to the best of my ability. But after that I will have nothing to do with cricket.'' He then took a swipe at the board for messing up the game. ``If the board had acted earlier, the game's reputation would not have suffered. It's a consequence of the board not being in the hands of professionals. It's no use having honorary people who have other jobs to do and are not accountable to anyone.''

The interview was the last straw as far as the board was concerned. The BCCI working committee meeting at Bangalore held the day after the interview was published authorised Muthiah to meet Kapil and take a decision on his tenure as coach. Muthiah who said that Kapil was `a disturbed man' had a meeting with him in New Delhi. Nothing concrete emerged and Muthiah said he would have a second meeting with him. By then the media had started speculating that a foreign coach would be appointed soon and Muthiah confirmed while attending the Asian Cricket Foundation meeting in Dubai that the board was looking out for a foreign coach. By now Kapil was obviously fed up of the whole sorry episode and he reckoned that resigning was the only honourable way out. Muthiah in a last minute twist to the drama invited him to continue as coach for the conditioning camp at Chennai. But Kapil, aware that this was only an ad hoc arrangement till the new coach was appointed, probably at the Board's AGM at Chennai on September 29, turned his back on the invitation and resigned.

The events of the last year - on and off the field - have undoubtedly diminished Kapil's stature as a cricketer. Even if he is given a clean chit by the CBI, it may not alter the damaged image. This is a pity. With the benefit of hindsight it can be said that perhaps Kapil should have listened to his heart - he was reluctant to take up the job in the first place - and not taken up the assignment as coach. Vinoo Mankad was a great all rounder but sullied his name somewhat by his uninspiring captaincy and by staying on for too long. Ramakant Desai was a fine medium pace bowler but was a bumbling selection committee chairman. Gundappa Viswanath was a classy batsman but he could not be assertive as selection committee chairman. Kapil Dev joins the ranks of such cricketers - a great player but a failure as a coach. And now that he has bid farewell to cricket and has made it clear that he will not be associated with the game in future, it is sad if he is remembered only for the events of the last one year and not for the period 1978-1994. A cricketing icon like him deserved a better end.