“Blame Kapil Dev!" goes one popular riff on the “Why is India so bad at the Olympics!!" moan that gathers momentum as each day passes without a medal. The logic here, I assume, is that if Kapil Dev hadn’t taken that spectacular catch at Lord’s in 1983, dismissing Viv Richards, India may have bottled that final. Thus Indian cricket would never have received that popular boost that later destroyed any other sport’s chance of gaining any popular or institutional momentum.
It is a good theory. And it is a popular theory. Fans of Indian football—I believe there are six or seven in Kozhikode—are often spotted slagging off cricket as they watch the other boys in blue slump to another defeat to Guam or some such. For there was a period in the 50s and 60s when Indian football seemed somewhere near the apex of Asian football. And didn’t Milkha Singh and Makhan Singh and the others revel in athletics in the 60s? And how can anyone forget the ignominious fall from grace that took place in Indian hockey since the 1980s?
Surely cricket was the demon that slayed the lesser sports?
Before we place all blame at the foot of Kapil Dev, let us glance at the landscape of Indian sports in the early 1980s.
At the 1980 Olympic Games, India won just the gold in men’s hockey. Though, as mentioned before in an Olympics despatch, that came against very weak opposition. In fact, four years earlier, in the first Olympics tournament on astro turf, India came 7th. In the Hockey World Cup, India came sixth in the Buenos Aires edition of 1978 and fifth at home in Mumbai in 1982. At the Asian Games, India came second to Pakistan four times between 1970 and 1982, and then third behind South Korea and Pakistan in 1986. The late seventies and early eighties were years with few glories for Indian hockey.
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What about football? India was runners-up at the Asian Cup in 1964. And then took two decades to qualify again in 1984 where they were eliminated in the first round losing three matches and drawing once. At the Asian Games, victory was secured in 1962 and a third place in 1970. Nothing close to victory has been achieved since. As for qualifying for the Olympics football tournament, this has not happened since 1964.
Let us look at the multi-discipline events. Our problems with the Olympics is well known. So let me just summarize by saying that between 1948 and 1996 India won a single non-hockey medal in the form of K.D. Jadhav’s wrestling bronze in Helsinki in 1952. India’s performance at the Asian Games was much better. But a steady decline followed after the edition in Jakarta in 1962, where India came third in the table with 52 medals, except at the 1982 Asiad in Delhi when India grabbed 57 medals and came fifth in the table. However, Qatar, in 2006, is the only host nation that has finished lower on the Asiad medals table. As for the Commonwealth Games, between 1966 and 1982, India finished 6th on the table every time except once, when it finished 8th.
So, and I hope this is self-evident now, between the mid-1960s and early-1980s Indian sport had turned into a desolate wasteland of disappointment and decline. The country was becoming increasingly irrelevant on the world stage of sport. A brief resurgence in tennis in the 1970s and Prakash Padukone in badminton aside, Indian sport languished in this period, lurching from mediocre result to mediocre result. Within a generation or so of the 1960s, when India sparkled in more than just hockey, the nation stood on the verge of becoming a sporting non-entity.
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And that is just when Kapil Dev plucked that ball out of the air and along with it banished the spectre of utter sporting ignominy that loomed over India. Cricket didn’t so much as invade the other sports as much as it took over parched ground long abandoned. We were, and let us not mince words, terrible at sport long before Kapil Dev. But finally here was a sport we had a chance at being contenders in.
So while it may be true that there is little space left in our collective sporting consciousness today after cricket, it is a bit disingenuous to say that cricket ruined it all. If anything, whatever sporting culture we have today is perhaps indebted to the new dawn of Indian cricket in 1983.