Kapil’s crazy day out in Kent

India’s win in the 1983 World Cup marked a turning point in cricket history. But they may not have been able to upset West Indies in the final if it had not been for an extraordinary victory over Zimbabwe a week earlier in the unlikely surroundings of Tunbridge Wells. In a piece for the summer 2019 edition of The Nightwatchman, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan revisits an amazing day in the garden of England.


Jan Traylen had never been to the Nevill Ground in Tunbridge Wells before June 18 1983.

He has never been there since.

Traylen, now 65 and retired, is not sure how he got to the venue that sunny Saturday morning, 36 years ago. Maybe he rode the train from London, he says. Or, more likely, he rode his Honda 404 – “a 400cc, four-cylinder machine” – onto whose side he had strapped his gear.

In his armoury were a Nikon SE camera and an “old lens, 500 millimetre, f5.6 aperture” that he could unscrew in the middle to collapse into two halves. “I remember I had to lift up the front of the lens in order to make the focus ring turn,” he says with a chuckle. “Otherwise it jammed.”

Traylen also brought along a set of Kodachrome transparencies for shooting in colour – “like slide films you put in a projector” – and an Ilford film for clicking in black and white.

Traylen was at Tunbridge Wells because Patrick Eagar, whom he worked for, was at Lord’s to shoot West Indies v Australia in the 19th match of the third Prudential Cup. Eagar, the pre-eminent cricket photographer at the time, had asked Traylen to cover match 20: between Zimbabwe – playing in their first World Cup – and India – who had won a grand total of one game in the preceding two tournaments.

The Zimbabwe Cricket Union (ZCU) hadn’t been in a position to pay for the players’ travel to England. Duncan Fletcher, their captain, wrote in his autobiography Behind the Shades about raising funds through “large beer fests with all of us acting as barmen and stall-keepers… and the auctioning off of tobacco bales kindly donated by local farmers”. Most of the Indian squad came into the tournament with no real aspirations. “The plan was to go from Bombay to New York with a stopover in England,” said Kris Srikkanth, one of the openers. “Most of us were planning a vacation to the United States. Just on the way we were stopping by to play the World Cup.”

Picture: Trevor Jones, Getty Images.

By the time the teams reached Tunbridge Wells, matters had turned serious. Zimbabwe, whose players had cut their teeth in South Africa’s domestic set-up, had stunned Australia. India had beaten West Indies in their opening match and were now contenders for a semi-final slot.

“Patrick told me, ‘It’s quite pretty down there. The rhododendrons will possibly be out,’” says Traylen. “And what a sight they made! I knew Patrick expected me to walk around the ground when I was shooting at cricket matches, but I don’t think I changed my position much that day. The background is so important for photographers. And those rhododendrons were so attractive.”

About five minutes past 11 o’clock, Traylen captured a fetching Kodachrome image. Mohinder Amarnath – his head in a grille-less helmet, his torso in a halfsleeve sweater, his bat tucked in his left armpit – walks back to the pavilion. Seven Zimbabweans converge around mediumpacer Peter Rawson, who has induced an inside edge through to the wicket-keeper. Another fielder jogs to join the group, but what makes the scene so arresting is the backdrop: a thick line of shocking pink rhododendrons splashed astride the green hedgerow and an overarching green foliage. The setting stirred The Times cricket correspondent, Alan Gibson, to purr in his match report the next day: “Hearts beat and bosoms swell proudly at Tunbridge Wells as the poet has it.”

The fall of Amarnath’s wicket brought on a flurry of activity in the Indian dressing-room.

“I was in the shower after a morning work-out and was still wrapped in a towel when the third wicket fell,” Kapil Dev was to say later. “I rushed to change and put my pads on.”

In walked the new batsman, Sandeep Patil.

And ten balls later out walked Sandeep Patil, nicking a full ball from KM Curran (later of Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire, and father of three cricketing sons) to DL Houghton (batsman, wicket-keeper and goalkeeper for the Zimbabwe hockey team – good enough for Pakistan hockey captain Kaleemullah Khan to say he was the best he had played against).

Barely a quarter of an hour into the match, India were 9 for 4.

“Zimbabwe, under their big green hats, must have felt as omnipotent as Warwick Armstrong’s Australians…” wrote David Lacey in the following day’s match report in The Guardian.

• • •

Two hours earlier, Kapil Dev – yet to complete his first year as India’s captain – had stood “by the pickets at the Nevill Ground”, according to R Mohan, one of the three Indian journalists who were at the venue, and mulled over the toss. Batting first would give India a chance to improve their run rate and nose past Australia in the semi-final race. But the pitch was wet and, like a typical English surface, may well encourage his troupe of seamers with early purchase.

Kapil chose to bat.

Forty–five minutes later, he was walking into the wreckage that the Zimbabwean seamers had wrought. One of the Indian substitutes, Sunil Valson, had gone on a stroll around the ground when play began… only to see wickets fall from mid on, square leg, long-stop and deep point.

Sportswriter Ayaz Memon had missed an early train from London and walked into the ground at the fall of the fourth Indian wicket. “The dressing-rooms were on the way to a tent that served as the press box,” he wrote years later, “and I happened to meet Gundappa Viswanath, the great stylist… unfortunately not part of the team for this tournament, standing just outside the Indian enclosure… I asked Vishy whether I had missed something important. ‘Everything’s fine, it will be okay,’ he replied. When my eyes moved to the scoreboard, I realised that Vishy was either an incorrigible optimist or deserving of an Oscar for brilliant, understated acting.”

One of India’s batsmen, Dilip Vengsarkar, couldn’t make it as far. A Malcolm Marshall bouncer had fractured his jaw in the previous match, and he was now recovering, with seven stiches on his face, in a London hospital. He could hardly believe what he was hearing on the radio..

Dave Ellman-Brown, who later worked as treasurer, vice-president and president of the ZCU, was the Zimbabwe team manager during the World Cup. Now 80, he is retired but has vivid recollections from that June morning in Tunbridge Wells. “India had lost their fifth wicket and I got a call in our dressing-room. No mobile phones then, remember. And I go to the phone and there is someone from the BBC calling. And they wanted me to come over to their offices to talk about what had happened so far in this match. And I said, ‘I’m not coming anywhere. I got work to do here. And this game isn’t over yet.’”

The laughter from Ellman-Brown, on the phone from Harare, carries dollops of irony. For the BBC were then in the middle of a labour dispute with the Association of Broadcasting Staffs. On the same day as the IndiaZimbabwe match, the Guardian’s Dennis Barker had written of the dispute’s upshot on “one of the peak sporting weeks of the year… coverage of the Royal Ascot race meeting yesterday and today was cancelled and BBC equipment withdrawn from the track. BBC crews at three sporting venues – including Ascot – went on a 24-hour strike on Wednesday.”

In a report for Sportstar magazine, Mohan writes of “one or two cameramen” at the Nevill Ground who “decided to wind up for the day” before the start of the match. 

With India’s top order vanishing in a trice, the crowd and local administrators began to panic. Ellman-Brown remembers a local official saying: “This game is going to finish before lunch!”

Nigel Bolton, 19 at the time and working for the local council, was at the match along with his colleagues. “For Tunbridge Wells to actually have a World Cup match was a real privilege,” he says over the phone from his hometown. “The ground was full of marquees and hospitality tents. And the magnificent rhododendrons were out in full bloom. There was a huge crowd that day – I can’t remember how large but there were times when the ground held around 10,000.

“Early in the match, there was a lot of disappointment. People at the ground felt short-changed. Here we had this really prestigious match… and it was going to be over so quickly.”

• • •

One of the greatest innings of modern times began 18 minutes past 11 o’clock with no television camera to record its brilliance. A bareheaded Kapil Dev, in a full-sleeve sweater and droopy moustache, “squinted up at the sun”, wrote R Mohan in Sportstar, as he walked in to bat.

In his hands a Slazenger V12. On his mind thoughts of survival. A few minutes on, Yashpal Sharma’s dismissal left India at 17 for 5.

Walking in at No.7, Roger Binny remembers Kapil saying: “We’ve got 53 overs to go.”

Zimbabwe’s captain Duncan Fletcher had a decision to make: whether to continue with Curran and Rawson – the pair that had decapitated the Indian line-up – or to give them a rest. “Many felt that both… should have bowled their allocation [of 12 overs] uninterrupted because India were in such trouble,” wrote Fletcher. “But Rawson actually came to me and said that he was knackered. And he was not the type to shirk hard work. He was a fine bowler – the best to whom I ever stood at slip – who went on to play for Natal with distinction. He knew what he was doing. As did young Curran, who was a cricketer for whom I also had a lot of time.”

Most accounts of Kapil’s innings point to a cautious start. Binny says Kapil didn’t hit a single boundary in their 60-run partnership – of which Binny’s share was 22 in 48 balls. Some eyewitnesses remember the pitch being at the very edge of the square, which meant one of the square boundaries was considerably shorter. Kapil is said to have made the most of the longer boundary in the early part of the innings, nudging the score along with singles and twos. Binny fell with the total on 77, and Ravi Shastri was out a run later. When Madan Lal walked in at No.9, he was told to hang around till lunch.

A few overs into the Kapil-Lal partnership, Traylen shot a photograph in black and white. It captures the expansive manual scoreboard showing India at 91 for 7 in 33 overs. The bowlers currently in operation are 8 and 11 (medium-pacer Iain Butchart and off-spinner John Traicos). There is a rectangular opening at the scoreboard’s belly through which Traylen has caught a bespectacled man, presumably a scorer, jotting down notes. Below the scoreboard: parked cars and spectators, many in sunglasses, some in sunhats. Three topless men are part of this group. Two others wear a shirt and sweater. In the foreground: Kevin Curran in a full-sleeve jumper – perhaps stationed at fine leg or third man and perhaps wondering why he isn’t bowling at Kapil.

India went into lunch at 106 for 7 with Kapil on 51. According to some statisticians, including veteran Mohandas Menon, his fifty came off 72 balls.

“When Kapil came in for lunch there was nobody in the dressing-room, just a glass of orange juice on his seat,” Sunil Gavaskar revealed at a function in 2008. “None of us was in the lunchroom either. We were hiding our faces. Here was a man who had shown how we should have batted.”

Kapil later recalled his waspish mood. “They knew I was angry,” he said of his teammates. “I had to fetch my lunch myself instead of someone from the reserves bringing it for me. I later learnt it was planned by some of my mates. They wanted me to reflect on the situation in solitude.”

• • •

When play resumed, Kapil took flight. Some present remember a few meaty blows that thudded into the boundary hoardings. Others have spoken of the thunderous shots that roused the spectators relaxing in the hospitality marquees. Traylen talks of the buzz that enveloped the ground. “There were people coming back out of the pavilion to take a look, rather than settling down to read their newspapers. There’s one shot I see here,” he says scanning his photographs from that day. “Not a straight drive but straight at me. You can see him practically looking at me. The ball landed either over my head or near my tripod.”

Nigel Bolton highlights the sense of wonder that overcame many. “It must have been the first time most of us saw Kapil,” he says. “Nobody knew what he was capable of. I wonder if anyone in the world knew, at that point, what he was capable of with the bat.”

Ayaz Memon brings forth a vivid memory: “… even the fuddy-duddies in the stands became as raucous as teenagers on a night out on the tiles, guzzling down champagne, cheering on Kapil for another boundary or six.”

Ellman-Brown talks of a skier that flew in the vicinity of Grant Paterson – “deep point maybe?” – but admits that it would have been a sensational take. The Times correspondent didn’t consider it a drop though: “He did hit the ball very hard but they were rhododendronsized blooms,” wrote Alan Gibson. “The strokes were correctly conceived and executed. He gave no chance.”

Kapil, it is estimated, reached his century off 100 balls.

That’s when he swapped his Slazenger V12 for a Slazenger WG.

Shoulder-less bats were in vogue in the early ’80s, especially among bottomhanded biffers in one-day games. New Zealand all-rounder Lance Cairns had made famous the Newbery Excalibur with his 21-ball fifty at Melbourne four months earlier – an innings dotted with six towering sixes, including a one-handed swipe off Dennis Lillee that arced backward of square over the longest boundary at the MCG.

Kapil too slammed six sixes: some of which may well have been of Cairnsian immensity. Steve Niker, the former vice-chairman of Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club and one of those present that day, claims one ball cleared the clubhouse and “went into the garden of a nearby house”.

John Parker, in his report for The Observer, wrote: “No space went unvisited by the speeding ball and the Nevill Ground’s fine array of tents was cleared at least three times in his six sixes.”

Dave Houghton recalled that most of the sixes were struck over the longest boundary.

David Lacey, in The Guardian, reported: “Of his six sixes, the best was the lofted drive that dispatched a ball from Curran to the top of the tall stand at long on.”

Kapil smote his final 75 runs off 38 balls. The first one-day hundred by an Indian had rapidly turned into the highest individual score in one-dayers. Once he crossed 171, umpire Barry Meyer walked up to Kapil and informed him of the record. There was “polite applause” from the crowd when the feat was announced on the tannoy. Kapil and Syed Kirmani added 126 for the ninth wicket – a record that would stand for over a quarter of a century. No Indian would cross 175 in an ODI for 16 years. Kapil walked off the field to a stirring ovation and waiting for him at the boundary edge was Gavaskar – the other superstar in the Indian team – ready to hand him a glass of water. Thirty-six years on, Gavaskar maintained that he has yet to see a greater one-day innings.

The game was far from over though. Zimbabwe began their pursuit of India’s 266 for 8 with a confident opening stand and it took two bits of fielding brilliance – Lal hitting the stumps from the square boundary and Kapil grabbing a one-handed catch to dismiss Fletcher – to set them back. Curran made a rollicking 73 but India’s medium-pacers did enough to resist a charge in the closing overs.

India won by 31 runs.

A week later, against odds of 100-1 at the innings break, after they had folded for 183 against one of the greatest teams to take a cricket field, they won the World Cup. 

“It is a bit like the infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters eventually writing Hamlet,” wrote Matthew Engel in The Guardian, two days after the final at Lord’s. “And there were an infinite number of us typewriter types feeling like monkeys on Saturday night.”

• • •

Traylen remembers going over to Eagar’s house a day after the India-Zimbabwe match.

“You didn’t know how well you had done until you developed the film,” he says. “This was a fairly early assignment for me. I hadn’t photographed many cricket matches back then. I was always the man in the dark room making prints those days. I must admit I was fairly nervous.”

Bolton went on to become head of leisure services at Tunbridge Wells local council. “I was in charge of the sports and arts and theatre and everything in the town. And that included the Nevill Ground. In 2008, when Kapil Dev came back to commemorate the 25th year of that innings, I met him there and got to know him. He even signed my copy of the scorecard.”

A suited Kapil – shades resting on his head – walked around the ground that June day in 2008. Fielding questions from a television reporter, he recapped the early stages of the game, recalled the strong breeze that blew towards long on, the green pitch, the marquees, the parked cars… He pointed to the benches outside the pavilion where Srikkanth was forced to sit for most of the innings – forbidden to enter the dressing-room, lest it bring Kapil bad luck. “Srikkanth wasn’t even allowed to go to the toilet,” remembered Kapil. “He couldn’t move till the break.”

Kapil underplayed the value of his own innings. About the victory, though, he was unambiguous. 

“Once we won that game, we felt that we could beat anyone. From that point we became obsessed with winning. That’s why this ground will always be special for Indian cricket.

“It is here that we found belief.”

This article appears in the summer 2019 issue of The Nightwatchman, the Wisden Cricket Quarterly, in 2015. To subscribe and find out more go to www.thenightwatchman.net

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