The quartet of all-rounders who provided massive entertainment to cricket fans in different parts of the globe, for about 25-odd years from the 70s to mid-90s – Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Ian Botham and Kapil Dev – possessed prodigious gifts.
They played the game with rare finesse and endeared themselves to the crowds with their accomplishments. Given their superb records, no praise will be too much and no tribute excessive.
As an all-rounder the great Pakistan cricketer, Imran Khan left a legacy difficult to emulate. He bowled with menacing pace for long against players adept at handling fast bowlers. After his initial phase, some injuries and other reasons kept him away from the game before making a comeback.
His clout in his country helped him return to the game at will. He could pick and choose to suit his convenience. Having played 88 Tests, his longevity – albeit with frequent breaks – in cricket for over 20 years could be unthinkable for a fast bowler now, given the overkill of cricket currently being played. At a time when the game boasted of some legendary pacers elsewhere, Imran excelled as a premier fast-bowling all-rounder. Blessed with superb batting technique and temperament, his record as a batsman may not be as good as his bowling stats. In the early 1980s against the traditional rivals, India, his fast bowling was mostly terrific.
One of his more noted peers with similarly versatile cricketing skills, Kapil Dev played the game with out-and-out aggression both as a bowler and a batter. As a fielder his ebullience in the Indian team was but seldom matched. A precocious talent, Kapil emerged as a breath of fresh air in the Indian cricketing firmament and served the team with élan and ingenuity.
Armed with a free-flowing bowling action, and a lethal out-swinger, Kapil consistently damaged batting reputations in the early 80s wherever he played. His batting was invariably explosive and on so many occasions he revived the team’s fortunes by his batting skills alone. His epic batting feats are a legion in Indian cricket annals. Seemingly born to play cricket with abundant rare natural gifts, he more often than not proved to be the savior for his team.
England in particular was lucky to have witnessed some of his heroic performances in Tests and ODIs. In conditions loaded heavily in favour of bowlers as in England, he excelled as a batsman consistently when so many others failed. He made it a habit of taking his performance to a grand level when faced with challenges, defying all odds.
Strangely, his indifferent performances mostly were triggered by a lack of challenges – so much did he thrive on pressure-cooker situations or adversities. Remember his heroic knock of unbeaten 175 in the 1983 WC in which he captained India to an unprecedented and most unexpected victory; his smashing four consecutive 6s in an over against England in a Test at Lords’ in 1990 to save India the ignominy of follow-on, is another feat to confirm his predilection for excellence when faced with huge adversities. On so many occasions he found inspiration from moments of crises. His century against Aussies in the Tied Test at Chennai is another instance among umpteen others. Given his multiple skills, his influence on the team’s performances was stupendous and his contributions added to his value to the team. A redoubtable match-winner, Kapil could alter the complexion of a match in no time.
At home, he largely rose to great heights as a bowler when, in the searing heat, pace-bowling was a staggering challenge. A gem of a player, Kapil, rightly hailed ‘The Haryana Hurricane’, played most of his Tests on the sun-baked, sub-continental pitches least suited to his brand of bowling.
Indian pitches are traditionally seen as dust-bowls, tailor-made for spin doctors of all kinds, in hot and humid conditions where pacers could break their back day in day out more in hope of success than bowl with any conviction. And it is to the huge credit to the genius of Kapil that for about 15 long years he endured such adversities and thrived in such hostile climes to make a name for his team.
Unlike the others he played under massive pressures, carried the hopes of millions of crazy followers wherever and whenever he wielded the willow. He also had to confront a hostile media and hawkish officials of the BCCI who were too anxious to fault and plot his ouster from the team. And this uniqueness marks Kapil off from the other trio.
With due respect to their remarkable prowess as cricketers, neither the swing-merchant, Richard Hadlee, nor the glamour-boy Ian Botham, unlike Kapil, had to contend with such challenges in their careers.
They played majority of their cricket in conditions markedly helpful to their bowling and given their massive skills it was only natural that they excelled. Botham has the best batting stats of the fearsome four, and the Kiwi great has the best bowling records. But a scrutiny of the playing conditions and the quality of the opposition they fared, Kapil for me ranks the best.