So Kapil Dev Ramlal Nikhanj is Wisden's Indian Cricketer of the Century. Well, could it have been anyone else? I am in no position to compare him with past greats like Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare or Vinoo Mankad. And I have the sneaking suspicion that neither were the eminent judges for the award.
This is a pity, but such is the nature of life. Fifty years from now, when someone else announces another such award, it's doubtful whether Kapil, Gavaskar or Tendulkar would stand a chance against batsmen and bowlers as yet unborn, but who will surely surpass all records set in the 20th century.
Clearly, it came down to a choice between these three greats of the last 30 years. And I think the final decision was fair. Gavaskar, great cricketer that he was, was too clinical, too controlled, too intent on not losing a match rather than winning it.
No batsman has ever achieved his technical perfection, and perhaps never will. No batsman has ever swayed away at the last moment from a bouncer with his eyes still on the ball as this diminutive genius did. In 1988, in the bicentennial test match at Lord's, the last test (though this was an unofficial one) he ever played, when he was out for 188, the BBC commentator -- Christopher Martin-Jenkins, I think -- paid the departing Gavaskar an extraordinary compliment. "If," he said, "a hundred years from now, the game of cricket is forgotten, a boy would need to only watch a film of this innings to learn all about batsmanship. For, in this innings, we have seen every cricketing stroke in the book, and every single one of them executed with perfection."
I do not believe this could be said for any other batsman ever. But in the final analysis, Gavaskar as a cricketer was too much head, not enough heart.
Tendulkar is of course more heart than head. This, in spite of the fact that in the last couple of years, he has seemed a different cricketer from we knew him to be, far more level headed, far more intent on studying the bowling for a few overs before cutting loose, far more willing to graft to put a big innings together. But outside the one-day format, he has hardly ever won a match for India.
It is not surprising that he does not figure in Wisden's list of 100 greatest test innings ever played by a batsman. Of course, Wisden limited its list to only innings played by batsmen from the winning side in a test, so Gavaskar's two greatest innings, 221 at the Oval (the match was drawn), and 96 on a viciously turning Bangalore pitch against Pakistan (India lost) do not figure either, but it only goes to prove my point about Sachin. Also, a cricketing mind he is not, as his captaincy record shows.
Kapil could also hardly be accused of being a cricketing mind. And on this aspect, Sachin and Kapil are in the august company of players like Garfield Sobers, Ian Botham, and Dennis Lillee. This was the man who, when asked what he told the team before the 1983 World Cup final, said: "I told them: let's go out and play cricket." I mean, what other game could they have played on that day, right?
Yet, with the sheer carefree joy he communicated to every viewer every time he walked out onto the green, he transformed a nation. The story of this poor boy from Chandigarh who lost his father as a child and who reached the top of the world was inspirational to thousands of young boys across the country.
I do not believe that a Harbhajan or a Zaheer or a Kaif would have dreamt their dreams if Kapil had not shown them that it could be done. Maybe he did not have the brains of a Brearley or the wiles of a Ranatunga, but a captain who bowled from one end throughout a West Indies innings with painkiller shots in his knees, and took nine wickets, was surely not an ordinary captain. Which other player, let alone a captain, would have had the commitment and the guts to take the risk?
But then Kapil was an utterly uncircumscribed natural. Like Sachin, he loved to play and he played. He was the boy, one of whose first scoring shots in international cricket was an overboundary. His first test century was also achieved with a six. Every time he came out twirling his bat and paused to look up at the sun, the fielding side would feel an involuntary unease. There was almost no target that this man did not have the potential to achieve, no feat that he could not perform, once he set his mind -- or rather, heart -- to it.
Most of the time, he left the job half-done, getting caught in the deep for 17 or 24 when India needed a century from him, and we cursed him for that, but we always knew that Kapil would be angrier with himself than we could ever be with him. And when he played well and won matches, he spread happiness, and millions of Indian hearts glowed. He was salt of the earth, toothy smile, atrocious English and all, and his simple charm was in some way quintessentially Indian.
Of course, now that Kapil has been crowned the Indian cricketer of the century, there will be charges that this is the global cricket establishment's way to signal to the world that the match fixing crisis is now resolved, over, past. In a way, Kapil's triumph is evidence that the thirty-odd judges, all great cricketers and cricket writers from across the world, do not believe that Kapil tanked matches for money.
As for me, any man who, with the team nine wickets down, sees that he has to score 24 to avoid a follow-on and proceeds to hit four consecutive sixes, is so extraordinary a player and a human being that I can't think how the award could have gone to anyone else.
(Sandipan Deb is Managing Editor, Outlook. Also see his: "I Don't Care If He Took The Money")