Kapil Dev wasn’t quite walking into the last-chance saloon when he made his way to the middle of the Nevill Ground at Tunbridge Wells on Saturday 8 June 1983, but India’s World Cup campaign had definitely reached a crossroads. India were 9/4 when Dev arrived at the crease. Sadly, for their supporters, that was what the scorecard read, rather than the odds on an Indian victory.
What followed was the very definition of a captain’s innings. Not only was it a match-winning contribution, Dev’s display in Kent turned the course of the tournament. From this point on, the Indian juggernaut had momentum and belief. If they could get out a scrape like this, anything was possible.
Some may argue that Zimbabwe were one of the weaker teams in the 1983 World Cup, but they had already claimed the scalp of Australia in the group stage and, after Dev had elected to bat first at Tunbridge Wells, they exploited the helpful conditions and looked ready to slay another giant.
The carnage started after just two deliveries, Peter Rawson dismissing Sunil Gavaskar without a run on the board. Kris Srikkanth also departed without troubling the scorers, removed by Kevin Curran, and when Rawson accounted for Mohinder Amarnath (five) and Curran dealt with Sandeep Patil (one), India were in tatters at 9/4.
Surely things could only get better? Not at first. Rawson had Yashpal Sharma caught behind to reduce India to 17/5. “When India lost their fifth wicket at Tunbridge Wells on Saturday morning with the score at 17, the day’s main issue appeared to concern the fate of the picnic lunches,” wrote David Lacey in the Guardian. “Was it worth fetching them from the car park or might it be better to enjoy them at leisure a little later, on the North Downs perhaps or by the sea?”
Fortunately, Dev found a willing partner in Roger Binny. Putting on 60 for the sixth wicket, the pair steadied the ship. But when Binny and Ravi Shastri fell in quick succession, at 78/7 it looked as if India would not get through their 60 overs.
Through it all, Dev remained in the middle, accumulating runs carefully at first in an attempt to rebuild the innings. “It was a calculated assault rather than an inspired slog,” wrote Lacey. The restrained nature of the innings in the initial phase is highlighted by the fact that it took to the 26th over for Kapil to reach his first 50. Gradually, he went through the gears, his next 50 coming in 13 overs, and the third in just 10, extremely rapid by the standard of the day.
Beating Glenn Turner’s previous World Cup record score – 171 not out for New Zealand against East Africa in 1975 – Dev’s unbeaten 175 catapulted India’s total to 266/8, dream territory just a few hours earlier. He hit 16 fours and cleared the ropes six times in an 138-ball innings that was achieved at the frightening strike rate of 126.81.
It’s one thing smashing a quick century when your team is coasting; Dev’s runs came when his team needed them most. The importance of the innings was emphasised as the Zimbabwean reply progressed. India kept taking wickets, but Curran’s fine 73 edged Zimbabwe closer. Eventually, India won by 31 runs. Without Dev’s contribution, Zimbabwe would have seriously derailed India’s hopes of winning the World Cup.
India followed up their victory over Zimbabwe with a crushing 118-run win over Australia, with Lal and Binny taking four wickets apiece. The momentum was building. A semi-final triumph over England continued India’s shock run, and when the mighty West Indies were toppled by 43 runs in the final at Lord’s, the nation was ready to party.
The transformation from 66/1 outsiders to World Cup winners was complete. Celebrations throughout the country continued into the early hours of the morning, thousands lining the streets as fireworks filled the night sky. The Times reported that some observers compared the scenes to the night India gained independence.
It could have been so different, though, had Dev not played that memorable innings at Tunbridge Wells. His 175 not out against Zimbabwe proved a tipping point for Indian cricket and, from that moment on, there was no holding India back. “No one could foresee then [when India were 17/5] that a week later India would be winning the whole tournament; indeed, qualification for the semi-final was in grave doubt.” The report in Wisden stressed the precarious position India found themselves in on June 18. Dev changed that and, in one innings, he shaped the future of the tournament and the sport.