They are a rare breed, especially in the long run. We see many promising all rounders, with all the skills, all the gifts to make it big, but with time they either become a batsman who can bowl a bit or a bowler who can bat a bit. One skill usually overpowers the other. Every generation sees a genuine all rounder who takes the world by storm, the criterion here is to be playing international cricket as a genuine all-rounder(necessarily representing in test matches) and most importantly winning matches for the country. It got personal, the battles I mean…..the interest was not on which country won as much as it was on who won.
Keith Miller in the 50’s, Gary Sobers in the 60’s and 70’s – they were megastarts. Modern times we have Jaques Kallis, who has lasted at a decade and a half and has earned his place among the best all-roundrs the game has ever seen. Every generation is lucky to witness one such gem who can win the game with either bat or ball and takes the world by storm. But in the 80’s the cricketing fraternity had the pleasure of witnessing 4 such gems- from different backgrounds and different cultures competing against each other with a spirit like never before. These were the fantastic 4- Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee.
There is one thing that sets these people apart from the rest and that is the strong individualism. The personalities are so contrasting and so unique that they need special treatment, rather they command it. They don’t play by the rule book, they make their own way. Will, Tenacity and Hunger are three things common in all barring the cricketing talent that happens to be a prerequisite.
“We had intense rivalry amongst us. We would be playing matches in different parts of the world, every morning you’d open up a newspaper and see what the other three accomplished. What they were doing? ….It was all about catching up because one or the other would do something special every now and then” -Ian Botham’s recollection of the Fantastic Four
Needless to say the four hated to give each other an inch. That is what a healthy competition is all about.
The 4 that we are talking about hailed from different cultures altogether.
Richard Hadlee came from a cricketing family and was not as gifted as others. A gentle military medium pace bowler who struggled with his run up at the start of his career. He had an idol in Dennis Lillee. Hadlee recollects the fact that he approached cricket attempting to follow Dennis’ thought process, when in doubt what would Lillee do? It was a simple mantra that improved his bowling immensely. He had the benchmarks set up so high that reaching there would mean nothing less than being a cricketing great. Batting was not a matter of choice as much as a need. The New Zealand team always struggled with talent, blame it on the population or vast interests in other sports such as rugby soccer and outdoor/adventure sports. Cricket has never been the top sport in New Zealand. He had to bat to help the team notch up a respectable score or try to put up a fight while chasing. His batting took some time to improve. For a person who made his debut in mid-seventies, the batting did not attend significance until mid eighties. Perhaps his biggest advantage was the technically flawless and less taxing action of his which was crafted to enhance accuracy. He was the slowest of the bowlers in the World’s fastest bowler competition of 1979. The first of the 4 to reach 400 wickets and was the highest wicket taker till Kapil Dev passed his 432 scalps.
There was a time when India did not have any fast bowlers and the one’s that were picked in the team had a job to just see the shine off while bowling! Kapil broke through from times such as these. There were as many as three, if not more spinners in an Indian test team. Be it a test at home or abroad. The story of Kapil asking for more food at one of cricketing camps early in his career, citing that he was a fast bowler is well documented. Nobody knew how to handle fast bowlers in India. Nobody was there to teach him the basics. Nobody was around to understand his psychology. Add to that the dust bowl he had to bowl on to prove his worth as a pacer and the absence of another pacer at the other end to complement him. While bowling was all about toiling hard and giving in long hours, batting was the outlet where he exhibited his flamboyance and let his frustrations out. He was labelled irresponsible just for that. He is best remembered for the world cup triumph in ’83 and the spirit he infused in the dull side of his. He was a crafty swing bowler with the ability to give in long hours and was at his destructive best when batting. He taught India how to win and have confidence within.
The difference between Ian Botham and the rest of the quarter would be the fact that he belonged to a well established cricketing structure, where he was trained well and the basics were drilled into him the textbook way. Moreover, he had good fast bowlers to give him company and the conditions in England were always fantastic for a seamer. But it did little to shadow the instincts. Had a colourful life off the field.
For a pommie, Ian Botham had the spirit of an Aussie, many Australian cricketers look back at him in a lighter vein. At a time when the Ashes battles were intense as ever and the gamesmanship was at its peak, there was a need of giving it back to the opposition. It was not all about Australia for England then, the intimidating West Indies used to dismantle all in its way, but Botham stood there fighting fire with fire. It was easy to give up and easier not to fight. Will be best remembered for single handedly turning things around in 1981. It is not called ‘Botham’s Ashes’ for nothing.
The ‘Lion of Pakistan’ is a title to contend with. From the dusty streets of Lahore where he chased kites to the Oxford University squad, where being polished is quite the virtue…the transition was smooth as silk. An out of sorts bowler when he first broke into the scene, he had to work immensely on the basics to be where he was. Made a forgettable debut where he did not promise much. He came back 5 years hence in Australia faster and vastly improved. There was the charm of World series cricket. Not long afterwards, he was recognized as one of the fastest in the world. Add to that the art of reverse swing and you’ve got a lethal fast bowler. As a leader he was shy at first and domineering later on. He imposed laws and his team abode happily, because he led from the front. He had it all the good looks to die for and the charisma of a leader, top that up with his cricketing knowledge…He indeed remained the most eligible bachelor all throughout his cricketing career. Pakistan did not have many heroes and he is still one for them. But all the glamour did not come without sacrifices and obstacles. A shin injury kept him out of the game for 3 years, when in his prime. He came back post retirement to serve the nation for another 5 years and take the prized World cup as a consolation. He has been a leader on the field and off it, giving Pakistan a culture of its own- Fast Bowling runs in the blood.
The 4 gems were special to invigorate the modern game when there was no money and no sponsors. Powerful Brands of their own, they gave cricket a lot more than it took from it. The game is richer for having the Fantastic 4 in the record books.