Johannesburg, March 13: The figure, tall and lithe, in white shirt, denims and grey bandi (waistcoat), seemed strangely familiar on unfamiliar turf — the baggage belt of the Johannesburg international airport.
The face, when it turned, deepening lines and slightly greying moustache, meant nothing to those milling around. But for millions of Indians on a June afternoon, on the Lord’s balcony, 20 summers ago, the smile on this face had fulfilled the cricketing dreams of one generation and fired those in another.
The morning before Sourav Ganguly’s India was to play its “third last” match in World Cup 2003, Kapil Dev Nikhanj, all-conquering action hero of World Cup 1983, cut a solitary travel-weary figure, 45 minutes from SuperSport Park, Centurion. “My time has passed…. I have deliberately not said much about this Cup as now it is their time. My time has gone…. Now these boys will have to play well as a team for another three matches, and….,” Kapil trails off.
It is only when talk turns to the manner in which the people seem to be rallying behind “the boys” (from customs officials at Calcutta airport warning anyone leaving for South Africa, “Dada, Cup chhara phirben na kintu”, to airport staff at Dubai breaking into a grin on spying an anxious Indian headed for Jo’burg, “Chinta mat karna ji, Sachin jita dega”) that Kapil momentarily breaks free of his self-imposed restraint.
“The boys have faced so much flak when they were playing poorly that they deserve all our support now that they are playing well. They must believe that they can beat anybody and we must believe in them to help them believe in themselves.”
With an eye on the baggage belt, Kapil continues, as if cricket talk is a compulsion, despite himself: “I haven’t been with the boys and so shouldn’t comment, but what I see and hear looks good till now. Ek josh to hai….”
Mid-sentence, the 44-year-old swoops down on his suitcase, lifts it effortlessly and swings it on to the trolley, reminiscent of those days, under a Sholay flashback dateline, when he would pick up the ball and hurl it into Syed Kirmani’s gloves in one smooth action. In moments, Kapil is just another face in a foreign crowd, striding into spaces where anonymity, not adulation, beckons.
Inside the airport, if India’s World Cup winning captain leaves one with a sense of mellow melancholy, outside, the skipper who gave South Africa glimpses of glory before delivering shame, continues to evoke a dark despair.
Ask Oupa (the cabbie who woos Asian tourists with a magic password, “Ten-dool-kaaah”, with sure success these days) about his favourite cricketer and the answer comes straighter and swifter than a Sachin straight drive: “He’s dead.”
After a pause — as the Ford Sierra whizzes past a giant South African Airways billboard of Allan Donald’s war cry-turned-whimper “We promise some early departures” — the 42-year-old Black cricket fanatic goes on: “Hansie, Hansie, he was the best. He was the boss. What a motivator….”
After the hope, the heartbreak: “Hansie, Hansie, poor guy… I remember the day he was crying on TV. He touched us deeply. I saw the guys crying for their captain when he died. He touched us all. Hansie, Hansie….”
Oupa, touching 120 kph on the R21 Freeway, seems to be chasing the shadow of a leader of men who had flattered only to cruelly deceive a nation that viewed its cricket team as a symbol of freedom and democracy, no less.
“But now, thanks to the World Cup, cricket has become big, very big, again,” smiles Oupa. “And your little guy, whose name no one can pronounce, Ten-dool-kah, is the boss.”
Oupa should know. For his little girls now wear ‘Tendulkar’ shirts when they head for the playground, bat in hand. Till not so long ago, they wore only ‘Hansie’ shirts.