June 18, 2008

Hallowed ground

Nestled in the Kent countryside is a patch of land that will forever be a shrine for Indian cricket fans


Pretty as a picture: a white picket fence runs along the boundary at the Nevill Ground © Jamie Alter
 

Less than an hour's train journey from London, past stops with names like Chislehurst, Petts Wood and High Broom, is the little town of Tunbridge Wells, nestled away in the Kent countryside. About a mile's walk from the station along cobblestone streets, up the residential avenue of Warwick Park, lies the Nevill Ground. Rather unobtrusively tucked away behind a row of hedges and suburbia, it lies quiet alongside its sister, the Higher Common Ground.

There's a tiny enclosure for spectators just beyond the quaint pavilion. This stand and the pavilion are rimmed by a white picket fence which gives way to the sight screen, and then the field is bordered by a thick row of trees all around, making for quite a lush view. There's an old manual scoreboard at long-on, flanked by a well-cropped row of hedges. A lady walks her golden terrier as the two teams for the match of the day, the 2nd XIs of Tunbridge Wells and Sevenoaks, begin to warm up.

It carries the look of any old minor club ground in England, but the Nevill Ground is more. It was here 25 years ago to the day, on a balmy June summer's afternoon, that one man changed the future of a whole cricketing nation, in front of a handful of spectators, while life went on outside. It was here, in the most nondescript of places, that one of the most significant innings in Indian cricket was played: Kapil Dev's marvellous unbeaten 175 against Zimbabwe in the World Cup.

Standing in front of the picturesque ground it's hard not to be overcome with emotion. It is perhaps the only English ground that an Indian will probably value more than an Englishman. They couldn't quite see the fuss about why I wanted to get to Tunbridge Wells but then they'll never understand; they haven't won a World Cup after all. Part of the charm of Tunbridge Wells is that it has become, after India's bigger victories in World Cup 83 - including the heroics at The Oval and Lord's - the forgotten ground.

While many fans can recall images from that Indian summer thanks to the televised semi-finals and historic final - Yashpal Sharma's straight drive off Ian Botham, Kirti Azad bowling Botham with a shooter, Gordon Greenidge shouldering arms to Balwinder Singh Sandhu and being bowled, Kapil's match-winning catch to dismiss Viv Richards - many more able to draw pictures from the radio, and countless numbers now able to access clips on YouTube, none but the fortunate and untraceable few present on June 18 can tell you what transpired that day because, alas, the BBC was on strike. The venue was deemed too small and India and Zimbabwe too irrelevant to merit a camera crew, and the few pictures taken by Adrian Murrell and Trevor Jones aside, there is no pictorial record. It is rumoured that one Indian spectator happened to have a camera with which he filmed Kapil's knock, but there has been no proof of this.

Standing at the edge of the field and looking back at the little pavilion, still as it was when India and Zimbabwe played here all those years ago, you can almost picture Kapil, padded up, rising to his feet and grabbing his bat when Sandeep Patil edged Peter Rawson to make it 9 for 4, then looking up to the skies as he strode out to the middle. What thoughts ravished his head as he walked past Patil? Or was he totally free?

Unable to locate fans who were there, or either of the two living reputed journalists who had covered the match for London dailies, all I had to fall back on was their reports. "Inevitably there were comparisons with Botham," wrote the Guardian's David Lacey. "In fact, Kapil Dev's innings contained a number of important differences. For a start he rose to his responsibilities as captain whereas Botham's release from the burden had been an important factor in his resurrection at Headingley two years ago."

Within ten minutes at the crease Kapil lost Yashpal to make it 17 for 5. India needed their captain to come good. Had they lost they would have been dished out in the league stage. And so he took on the bowlers, cutting and pulling Kevin Curran and Rawson and the rest to all corners of the ground.


The pavilion © Jamie Alter
 

By the time he was done, India had 266 for 8. Single-handedly Kapil scripted the definitive Indian one-day innings, showing a nerve that his team-mates would look back on for inspiration as the World Cup proceeded. He received significant support from Syed Kirmani, who made an unbeaten 24 - his most important innings ever - in a tournament-record ninth-wicket stand.

Sunil Gavaskar, who was but a phantom in that World Cup, recently reiterated that it was the best innings he'd ever seen in the limited-overs game. The late Alan Gibson of the Times wrote that its "foundations were classical" and that it reminded him of a Cardus phrase: "He put a bloom on the orthodox".

"He did hit the ball very hard but they were rhododendron-sized blooms. The strokes were correctly conceived and executed. He gave no chance," wrote Gibson.

Sixteen fours and six sixes flew from Kapil's bat. The rhododendrons were indeed in bloom but perhaps they failed to match Kapil's stroke-making. "In many ways his innings surpassed Botham's famous Edgbaston knock in that he gave no chance and, indeed, did not mishit a single ball until well past 140, and even then it was only to lob a drive into empty space while he trotted a two," wrote the Observer's John Parker.

Kapil would cap his magical day by taking the final wicket in the 31-run victory, and the rest, as they say, is history. To a generation of Indian cricket fans this match was much more than a win. It epitomised World Cup 83; it was a tribute to the spirit with which an underdog team rose magnificently to the occasion. To a much younger generation it is but a scorecard and an innings, only heard about, that contrasts with their images of Kapil - trundling in on one leg almost, to break Richard Hadlee's Test wicket record in the early 90s; crying in a BBC interview; pathetically parading the ICL at fashion events. But no matter what has happened since, we cannot begrudge the man June 1983 and the gift he gave India - the World Cup.

These days Tunbridge Wells plays hosts to club matches mostly, though Kent come here annually for one-day and four-day fixtures. It remains a small county club where cricket and life go on as self-effacingly as they did in 1983. Most of the youngsters who play here today weren't even born when Kapil graced this ground.

Fulton Paterson, a Scotsman settled in Tunbridge Wells for 20 years, says he is drawn to the ground because of what it offers. "It's just so encouraging to see kids, some under nine, some under 14, come here and play so promisingly. There's definitely a buzz around here. There's a real tradition in these parts and this ground plays its role well," says Paterson, who coaches age groups and umpires in local club matches. "And of course, you can't have a more picturesque place to play at."

There will probably never be another international match played here, and unlike Lord's, where many come to pay homage to the memories of the final when the mighty West Indies were slayed, Tunbridge Wells will remain a field of dreams. And that's the way it should be.

Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo