Kapil Dev. Photo: AFP
Kapil Dev. Photo: AFP

When chasing records makes you limp

The case of Kapil Dev is a sobering example of the way great athletes sometimes end up demeaning themselves when chasing records

Jhulan Goswami is a tall, strong woman with a bowling action that’s smooth like silk. She runs up rhythmically, doesn’t leap too high, whirls her right arm over and hurls the ball down the pitch, her left arm ending in a classic fast-bowler’s follow-through posture, fist pointing straight up. With that action and her height, she generates pace and swing that would be a handful for any cricketer, woman or man. She has put that smooth action to service for India for a decade-and-a-half now, through ten Tests, 60 T20 games and 154 ODIs.

For female cricketers, who play less often and get much less attention than their men counterparts, that’s a long career, itself a tribute to her fitness and athleticism. Goswami is truly one of Indian cricket’s stalwarts, the leader of the team’s bowling attack for several years. 

If that introduction is starting to sound like a caveat or a disclaimer, that’s a good guess. Goswami made sporting headlines last week during a ODI in South Africa. She became the women’s game’s highest wicket-taker. In her 153rd game, she took her 181st wicket, beating Australia’s Cathryn Fitzpatrick’s record.

Impressive? Undoubtedly. And it’s arguably more impressive if you look more closely at her career. She has an overall average of 21.94. She bettered that number in 4 of her first 8 years playing for India, but in 6 of the last 8 years. That’s a pretty good indication that she’s bowling better as she gets older. That 21.94 stacks up pretty well against the top ten wicket takers in women’s ODIs; if you ranked those ten ladies by their averages, Goswami would be No. 6. On these counts and others, she is a fine bowler and a huge asset to her Indian team.

Yet here’s the thing: the record is really a tribute to Goswami’s long career, above all. She broke the mark in her 153rd match for India. Only two women have played more ODIs: England’s Charlotte Edwards, 191, and Goswami’s India captain Mithali Raj, 176. If you play so many games, you’re bound to break some aggregated record like this or the other. Maybe more than one. And while that’s impressive by itself, it’s worth retaining some perspective; thus the caveat.

This perspective: The woman Goswami pushed to second in the record books is Australia’s Cathryn Fitzpatrick. She racked up 180 wickets in 109 matches for Australia. That is, through her career—also 15 years—she took wickets at rate almost 50 percent faster than Goswami managed. Her average is 16.79, significantly better than Goswami’s.

What all this suggests is that what’s really worth celebrating here is not the wicket count, but that Goswami has played and performed in so many matches over so long. Any sportsperson will confirm that it’s not easy to keep your fitness, motivation and skills going; and yet Goswami has done just that. I find that, and not her wicket-count, remarkable.

Remember, there was a previous time we celebrated an Indian breaking a wicket-count record. In early 1994, Kapil Dev broke Sir Richard Hadlee’s record of 431 Test wickets. Much celebration in India, of course. But if you looked more closely at Kapil’s achievement, it wasn’t too much of a compliment to him. 

Hadlee took his 431 wickets in 86 Tests. Kapil got to 432 in his 130th Test. That is, Hadlee took his Test wickets almost exactly 50% faster than Kapil did.

But it gets worse. Kapil fairly limped—no other word fits—to the record. It had been over two years, and 15 Tests, since he had last taken five wickets in a Test innings. In fact, in his last 31 Tests, he took only two five-fors. In his first 31? Eight such. In the next 31? Another 10. In other words, by any reasonable measure, Kapil didn’t deserve his place in the Indian team of early 1994.

Except that he was chasing Hadlee’s record.

He actually equalled it in his 129th Test. That was a match against a weak Sri Lankan team in Bangalore. At the start of the fourth day, Sri Lanka had only three wickets left and needed 131 runs just to make India bat again. Coincidentally, Kapil needed just three wickets to pass Hadlee. With only tailenders to bowl to, the stage was set for Kapil. Captain Azharuddin even asked Anil Kumble to bowl wide of the stumps to increase Kapil’s chances of taking a wicket—which Kapil even acknowledges, gratefully, in his autobiography. Except that Anil Kumble somehow got the first wicket that morning. Now Kapil Dev could only equal the record in this Test—and would have to be given at least one more Test to break it.

He duly got the two remaining Lankan tailenders. He played the next Test against Sri Lanka, duly got his record with his solitary wicket of that match—and only played once more for India. Limping, indeed. A superb bowler in his prime, Kapil demeaned himself—no other word fits—and that reputation by how he pursued Hadlee’s record. That’s what an obsession with mere numbers can do.

Still, let’s be clear: there’s simply no comparison to Jhulan Goswami. But I’d like to suggest that what happened with Kapil is what can happen when we chase and celebrate mere numbers.

I mentioned India’s captain Mithali Raj above, the long-time rock of India’s batting. At 176 ODIs, you’d expect she has racked up a large number of runs. Indeed she has: 5,719 runs, and she is currently second on the list of ODI runmakers. No. 1 is the recently retired Charlotte Edwards, with 5,992 in 191 ODIs. Raj’s average is 51.52, compared to Edwards’ 38.16. And here’s the thing: Raj will almost certainly beat Edwards’s 5,992; but more than that, at the rate Raj is making her runs, she will almost certainly beat it in less than 191 ODIs.

No limping there. And that would be a record to celebrate.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Jukebox Mathemagic: Always One More Dance.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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