When Kepler Wessels Hit Kapil Dev With His Bat

In 1992, Kapil Dev was Indian cricket’s magical star, lauded for accomplishments with the bat and ball and admired for his dabang style. He played hard but a smile never left his rugged face. He batted like a millionaire, and his outswing was lethal.

It was apparent he was a rare talent, destined to boss the game, not be a mere participant. A great entertainer, he enjoyed what he did and gave joy to those who watched.

In the 1992 tour of South Africa, expectations were high from Kapil – the bowling spearhead was to dismiss batsmen, and the all-rounder was to hold the middle order together. But the script went awry. Kapil was not at his best and did not produce numbers that matched his high standards.

There was, however, a moment of pure genius, a flash of brilliance in the Port Elizabeth Test. Up against Allan Donald bowling at serious pace on a track that caused the ball to spit off the surface, the top Indian batting collapsed in an embarrassing heap to be a miserable 6 down for 31 at one stage.

Kapil refused to be subdued by the carnage and his response was to launch a spectacular, single-handed counter-attack. He slammed 129 (the next best score, a modest 17) in a free spirited innings of character and defiance. The team managed a total of 215.

The most memorable part of the story is the time when Kapil ran out Peter Kirsten at the non striker’s end, after warning him twice, in a Test. I remember Kirsten, upon being declared out, storming into the pavilion, red-faced and angry, projecting himself as an aggrieved martyr, a victim who had suffered major injustice.

The facts of the controversial runout were quite different, though. Kirsten, the non-striker was prone to go for a walk as Kapil ran in, taking an illegal start. Kapil, noticing this, warned him –twice– and on the third occasion took the bails off. The umpire, following the rules of cricket, ruled Kirsten runout.

The SA team thought this was ‘unfair’ and against the ‘spirit of the game.’ The Indian team thought this stand was rubbish because the so-called ‘spirit’ was violated when Kirsten, the non striker, despite repeated warnings, took an unfair start .

The runout triggered a series of unpleasant events with Kepler Wessels hitting Kapil on the ankle with his bat while taking a run. Initially this seemed a harmless incident which happens often as batsmen collide with the bowler. But during the tea interval, an incensed Kapil offered the team a different version of what actually transpired. He was absolutely convinced Kepler hit him on purpose and the incident was a deliberate, intentional act, not an accident made out by the SA team.

Naturally, tempers ran high as an outraged Indian dressing room demanded action. Following a quick discussion, it was decided that I, the team manager, would lodge a formal complaint with the ICC match referee. Based on Kapil’s version of events, I wrote out a complaint and handed it to Clive Lloyd who looked at it as if it was a live bomb.

As it turned out, it was because deliberate physical assault or violence on the cricket field, was, by law, a serious matter. Also, this was not a frivolous charge by anyone against a nobody – this came from Kapil Dev, a high profile star, against the captain of a national team. Apart from the cricket context of the incident, this was a juicy media story worthy of space on the front page.

That evening, in the post play press conference, the media centre was understandably packed. When asked about the developments, the runout and the subsequent incident, I put out the Indian team’s position about Wessel’s deliberate act and the official complaint to the match referee.

This ruffled my friend Ali Bacher, head of Cricket South Africa, who thought it was inappropriate to prejudge the case and urged restraint in the matter. I understood Ali’s concern, the last thing he wanted was controversy or negative publicity about the tour. Ali had worked incredibly hard to put this tour together and the Indian team’s visit was to have deep impact on the future direction of cricket, and the overall sport, in SA. He feared this controversy could possibly undo the good work done.

Also Read: The bond between South Africa & India

ICC referee Clive Lloyd faced an equally grim situation. During the inquiry, he struggled to make up his mind, not sure what to make of the conflicting arguments before him. Kapil presented his version forcefully, totally convinced Wessels did what he did with careful intent. Wessels refuted the charge, claiming it was an accident.

All of this left Lloyd thoroughly confused. Unable to make up his mind, he said this was a case where the word of one person is against the other. With that, he shrugged his massive shoulders and put the matter to rest.

Actually, Lloyd’s helplessness was partly because of a bizarre twist. The case rested on evidence and the key to resolving the issue was TV footage, the visuals of what happened on the field. But broadcaster SABC declined to supply the footage claiming they had no recording. This convinced nobody and only strengthened the belief that TV footage was deliberately suppressed because there was something to hide . 

Knowing the inquiry was going nowhere, I appealed to Lloyd, resting the case on logic that Kapil Dev is not the type to press imaginary charges. As a respected, senior cricketer of high integrity, he is not someone to make an insincere complaint.

Lloyd, I got the impression, knew who was in the wrong but hesitated to trust his conscience. I also got the sense, seeing him agonising about what call to take, that he was worried about a white vs black angle in case he held Wessels responsible.

Was Lloyd under pressure from the cricket establishment to brush this aside and close the matter? Or, did he lack moral courage in a tricky situation which could have exposed him to criticism? Did he, weighing different options, play safe and choose ‘well left’ instead of playing a shot?

That is difficult to tell.

This story by the former manager of the Indian cricket team, Amrit Mathur. Amrit travelled with the team on India’s first-ever tour of South Africa in 1992 and recounts what transpired after Kapil Dev’s dismissal of Peter Kirsten.


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