The lush green surroundings, white wooden pickets, quaint pavilion, manual score board and the perfect hedges make Nevill Ground quintessentially an English cricket venue. It’s picturesque, soothing to the eyes and watching cricket on a typical English summer day can be absolute bliss. But for an Indian cricket fan, the ground means much more than that. A visit here is no less than a spiritual journey for him or her.
As you take a recce of the ground, it’s hard not to be overcome by emotion as you recall the tales narrated to you by your elder generation. As you imagine those moments, you get goosebumps. It was here some 36 years ago that an Indian played an innings that is significant in more ways than one. To the day, it remains the most defining day in Indian cricket, paving the way for it to become the game’s superpower that it is today. Kapil Dev’s 138-ball 175 not only helped India escape from being humiliated by minnows Zimbabwe but the knock was also instrumental in the team’s progress in the tournament, eventually emerging champions of the world for the first time. The team, with 66-1 odds, had become the talk of the cricketing world.
Unfortunately, you don’t find any reference or record to this epochal day at the ground. There’s not a single picture of the match, nor are they able to locate the score board. Quite unusual for an English cricket venue who otherwise take great pride in preserving their history. Former England stumper Paul Downton, who toured India in 1984 and is now the director of the Kent County Cricket Club, was almost apologetic for the ground not maintaining any record of the match. He personally checks all the photos and contacts every person who could possibly possess some memorabilia of the match and then assures to mail if he comes across anything.
The match wasn’t telecast either on TV with BBC crew going on strike on June 18, 1983 and this has only added to the mystic of the innings and turning the ground into a sort of cricket pilgrimage spot for the Indian fans. Incidentally, this was the only international played at this ground.
It was a typical English summer day on Thursday here at Tunbridge Wells, the quaint little town in Kent. The old-timers were in high spirits, guzzling beer and enjoying the Kent County Cricket Club’s domination of Nottinghamshire. Among the crowd were two elderly men who had the privilege of watching Kapil’s innings. Bruce Standring lives just across the stadium and he witnessed the epic innings with his eight-year-old younger daughter.
“It was absolutely electric,” he recalls when you approach him. “It was an overcast day, but we were stunned to see India slip to 17/5 against Zimbabwe. It was as though some kind of explosion was happening, wickets falling one after the other. It was jaw-dropping. I never expected that but then what unfolded was unbelievable. The crowd went berserk, they had never seen something similar before. It was some innings.”
Standring, quite tragically, lost his daughter some years ago to cancer but he is happy that he brought her to the match that day.
Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club President Carl Openshaw says the crowd was predominantly English who lapped up every moment of it. “He (Kapil) peppered the straight fence (opposite the pavilion) with one boundary after another,” he tells you. “The game developed as the day went by because everybody here had been expecting an easy Indian win but were quite surprised to see how Zimbabwe troubled the Indian batsmen.
“What were they like 17/5 and then 70-odd for six? Then Kapil came and after a few balls, he suddenly started hitting all over! The sixes started raining all around the ground. They made 270-plus runs. Zimbabwe made a very good effort to win the match but in the end 270-plus runs were too many. But for Kapil Dev, the game would have been over by lunch. Mind you, if they hadn’t won, I don’t think they would have qualified for the semifinals and won the World Cup.
“Unlike today when you see so many Indian fans for their matches in England, back then it was predominantly English crowd. There’s a sizable Indian population in Tunbridge Wells today but not so many in 1983. But who doesn’t enjoy good cricket? It became a memorable game,” says Openshaw.
The Nevill Ground is over 100 years’ old but has managed to retain its character and charm just as Kapil’s knock has remained the folklore of Indian cricket.