March 31, 2020
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Kapil’s Devils

A cricketing hero has to exorcise the match-fixing demons that haunt him

Kapil’s Devils

It was in cricket’s glory days between the two world wars that the professional-as opposed to the gentleman or amateur-cricketer first became a regular feature in the English county championship. Those who controlled cricket and those who watched it were delighted when the pro had played long enough to transcend class barriers. And made enough money to retire on, perhaps with a pub to run in the countryside. The grand prize, as it were, for having played the Game.

Fifty years later and in a different part of the world, the hugely talented Kapil Dev Nikhanj evoked much the same reaction when, returning home after leading India to a heart-stopping win in the 1983 World Cup, he opened a hotel in Chandigarh. Here was one Indian player who would never have to go to his ‘betters’ cap-in-hand when his playing days were over, heroic exploits on the field forgotten. Nobody, naturally, deserved it more.

A decade-and-a-half later, Kapil struts the Delhi social circuit like a natural, calls his friends on his mobile from Australia just to tell them the latest ribald joke, is loyal to his buddies from Chandigarh at the same time as teeing off with the fat cats of the Delhi Golf Club, counts industrialists, media magnates and top bureaucrats among his friends and juggles his myriad business interests with a dexterity that would put the scions of India’s biggest business houses to shame. Today, the boy from Chandigarh whose fast-bowling skills earned him the sobriquet ‘Haryana Express’, whose toothy visage smiled at you from a grainy black and white television screen as he insisted that "Palmolive da jawab nahi" (inducing millions of beardless 15-year-olds to borrow their fathers’ razors), is not only a living legend for cricket buffs.

He is also the visibly tormented icon of modern Indian sport battling the biggest crisis of his life, as serious charges of bribery and match-fixing are levelled against him. The spotlight turned firmly-and mercilessly-on the man, his life and his cricket. And Kapil Dev, whether he likes it or not, has to confront his troubles in the public arena; under the harsh glare of a media fuelled by a nation’s voyeurism. It is, truly, a terrible thing to see one’s icon crumble.

Because guilty or innocent, Kapil-who’s put forward a heart-rending, emotional defence of himself in an interview to Outlook denying all allegations-is in the dock. The charges against him come from varied quarters-former cricketer Manoj Prabhakar, ex-BCCI president I.S. Bindra and the Mumbai police. Not directly, of course. As Kapil passionately argues: "I’m sick of this attempt to finish a man’s life, his career, everything he has stood for, on the basis of third person’s or fourth person’s carrying tales." Yet, there is credible ground for reporting them. In fact, each day new allegations pile up. Kapil’s cup runneth over.

Perhaps nobody wants to believe Kapil more than Indians of a certain age-journalists included-whose bedroom walls were plastered with posters of the greatest cricketer India ever produced, till not so long ago. Kapil’s, after all, has been a very live presence in countless rites of passage. But it has to be said: this business of proving guilt or innocence is not susceptible to easy answers.

For many, however, including his friends and admirers, Kapil is being vilified because he chose to cock a snook at middle class sensibilities about what is fitting and appropriate for a national sporting hero. Because here is a man whose worldly success has made him a role model for every budding cricketer who wants to be both famous and rich, in that order. In a sense, the day Dev decided that Hotel Kapil in Chandigarh was not the end of his business ambitions but their very beginning, he was setting himself up as an object for attack.

Says his doctor and close friend Ashwini Chopra: "Kapil is being made to pay for the jealousy, frustration and ambitions of others. He is a self-made man who has, over the past decade and more, signed huge endorsement and modelling deals, set up very successful businesses and played the markets well. I don’t understand how people can say he must have taken match-fixing money because he is fond of the good life; of course he is and he makes more than enough money to afford it."

This is not a Kapil many know about. The man with an active bias towards a designer wardrobe, the jet-setter who is in Melbourne one day, Los Angeles the next and finalising plans to visit Morocco by the end of the week at his New Delhi office. The hugely successful businessman (see infographic) who is fond of good food, light white wines and the occasional cigar. The first Indian cricketer to own a Mercedes (in the mid-’80s) who can be spotted whizzing around Delhi nowadays in his BMW or another of his fancy cars from a sizeable stable. Often en route to a high-society do.

He is the trendy cricket star who has dabbled in football, made playing golf hip, happening and high-profile. At ease with caddies and corporate types. The latest rich and famous kid on the block. The charming extrovert whose made the transition from super-cricketer to super-businessman with consummate ease. A man who loves a flutter and is rumoured to have upped the betting stakes at the Delhi Golf Club to unheard of levels. The prize catch, in short, for every chatterati soiree.

Is this it, then? That "Kapil is being victimised"? That the Prabhakars and the Bindras, "with their (lack of) credibility and frustrations" have launched a personal vendetta against him? That his success both on and off the field has prompted those whom he had slighted or fallen out with at some stage to take a shot at ruining him? This is certainly what Kapil himself wants you to believe as he fights for his integrity.

Not all are convinced. Scoffs a former Indian cricket manager: "Look, there has been talk of Kapil being involved in match-fixing for 10 years now in cricketing circles." Sources close to Prabhakar say he is collecting documentary evidence to back his charges, while Bindra told Outlook, "I took Kapil’s name because he was like a pillar propping up (icc chief) Jagmohan Dalmiya and (WorldTel boss) Mark Mascarenhas who are the kingpins of this racket. Kapil is only the small fry, like Hansie was." Outlook too has rechecked with sources in the Mumbai police who confirm that the interrogation of a known bookie in which he allegedly admitted paying Kapil for information is on record.

In fact, the cricket circuit is buzzing with tales of Kapil’s alleged "money-mindedness". Kapil, says a pal who has been seeing him regularly ever since the story broke, shrugs it off: "I guess it’s just human nature that not everybody likes everyone else." But, says a respected journalist employed for many years by Dev Features: "Kapil always had one eye on the till. Nothing wrong in that, though at times we felt he went overboard. Like when he, on the 1991-92 tour of Australia during which he got to the 400-wicket mark, flew back to India for more than a week (while the team stayed on for the World Cup) with the footage of the event so that Dev Features could make a programme for Doordarshan. Kapil said he wanted to ensure that we got the story first, but it just was not on... leaving the team like that for such a long period in the build-up to the Cup. "

And if the journalist is to be believed, this was the tour on which the Kapil-Prabhakar problem really began. "Azharuddin was the captain and under pressure, as there was talk that Kapil would be brought back as skipper. In Delhi, Pataudi interviewed Manoj for a sports magazine. Manoj, obviously overawed by his interviewer, made some rather reckless statements against Azhar’s captaincy. There was a big uproar and I remember him blaming Kapil for using him. At that time, he had told me that ‘I can tell you things about this guy which will ruin him’, but I thought it was just an empty threat. Now, I’m not so sure." Says a long-time observer of Indian cricket, "The charges made by some Delhi players need to be taken with a pinch of salt because they have had a long-standing problem with Kapil."

However, in an environment where any mud thrown is sure to be noticed, innuendoes there are aplenty. Advertising executives in Mumbai claim that Kapil insisted on full cash payments instead of a cheque for a health drink commercial. Former colleagues recall that before the 1983 World Cup, players were given an appearance fee to attend various gatherings and Kapil always demanded he be given more than the other players. The same rumour surfaced again before the last Cup on fees for an exhibition match in Mumbai between the current team and the 1983 champions. But, as Kapil’s friends ask, "Even if for the sake of an argument these rumours are accepted as true, what’s wrong with a professional cricketer working out the best deal for himself?"

Kapil himself has always maintained that in business, he doesn’t believe in "exclusivity" or playing favourites. He is willing to endorse a variety of goods, products and companies as long as it makes sound commercial sense. "During his playing days, the Indian media always underestimated his intelligence because his command over English was less than perfect. In fact, Kaps is a highly intelligent and shrewd businessman," says Sumedh Shah of PMG, who has known him for long. Friends who have sometimes told him to check the antecedents of those he comes into contact with say that Kapil has often replied: "For somebody in my position and in business at that, it’s impossible to know kaun churibaaz hai aur kaun nahi. Sab photo khichwana chahte hain, baat karna chahte hain (who is a lout and who isn’t. Everybody wants a photo, wants to talk to me). How can I refuse?"

Kapil, like most financially successful people, adopts a cut-the-crap attitude-he once rather revealingly told an interviewer that the reality is that without cash in one’s pocket, even walking into a shop abroad is an ordeal. Which is probably why the allegations that have been swirling around him of late are now extending to his business empire. The wink-wink, nudge-nudge campaign against him points to the "controversial" company he is known to have kept-from Subrata Roy of the Sahara group, to sports promoter Aushim Khetrapal of Chris Lewis fame. And speculation is rife about what caused his fall-out with Bindra, whose pet project-the Mohali stadium-was floodlit by Dev Musco, a joint venture in which Kapil has a stake. Says politico Amar Singh, who knows Dev well: "Kapil hasn’t lost his simplicity. It’s his strength. But he needs to be careful that as an icon for many, he shouldn’t let himself be promoted as a money-making machine."

However, there is another side to the story. Of a Kapil Dev who, says a senior sports photographer who once requested him on short notice to be chief guest at his child’s school function, dropped everything and rushed there because he didn’t want to disappoint the children. Of a Kapil who was the first, on seeing a photograph of a wife saluting the coffin of her husband killed in the Kargil conflict, to rush to Srinagar to boost the troops’ morale. Of a man who used his business house-Dev & Dev-to organise a celebrity exhibition match and managed to collect Rs 2 crore for the soldiers fighting in Kargil. A man who, along with that other cricketing legend Sunil Gavaskar, managed to raise a whopping Rs 75 lakh for Arjuna awardees whom a government and a people had all but forgotten. The list is endless. The stories legion.

It is around this complex, almost Jekyll and Hyde way in which Kapil is perceived that positions are now being taken after he sobbed uncontrollably on bbc’s Hardtalk programme. Look around you; talk to your friends. You will notice that those who saw Kapil on TV can broadly be divided into two categories: the cynics who say "roya, matlab paisa khaya (he cried, that means he has taken the money)". And the outraged, who perhaps outnumber the former, and who only saw their god cry. This is how legends die.

For, icons are not elected by a majority vote. They are constructed from intangibles. Such as Kapil’s free-spirited athleticism on the cricket field which infected a generation of gali cricketers who spent their youth aping that demonic leap before the final delivery stride. Such as that inspired moment atop the balcony at Lord’s when Dev sprayed an elixir-like bubbly on a nation’s psyche, forever washing away the docility of its citizens and providing one of those rare moments in sport when the game is smaller than what it has achieved. Such as that adrenalin-inducing sprint that sent King Viv back to the pavilion and exhibited a raw, potent desire-no, need-to win. Which told India, like nothing before or since, that it’s okay to want victory. That it’s okay to let it show.

Kapil Dev’s accusers are adamant that the man is guilty. He rejects the charge fiercely, even passionately, as is his wont. Either way, the revelations over the past month have meant that events are heading inexorably towards denouement. Time will tell. Meanwhile, Kapil is having to do what he has managed to avoid for the past decade-opening his life, his work, his family and friends to the prying eyes of the world. This is no way to run a business. Or lead a life, for that matter.

"Take all my money; just give me back my name," is his plaintive appeal. As he and his wife Romi, nearly two decades after they first met at the poolside of a Mumbai hotel, lean on each other more than ever before. As a nation awaits the fate of its icon. Hope alternating with fear. In every heart.

For, the picture we all carry of this deeply troubled man, is-perhaps appropriately for the age we live in-from his television interview. When the cricketing legend, the darling of the jet-set, the...dammit! sadda Kapil broke down and cried in front of millions, who didn’t cry with him? And who hasn’t cried for him ever since?

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