A time to get back the glory days of Mumbai cricket

Mumbai has always boasted of an indomitable spirit and this has reflected in its cricket too. But in recent years that never-say-die gusto has faded away. There is once again an opportunity to make the city an invincible force in the game – will Dilip Vengsarkar pull off this challenge wonders Ayaz Memon.

Dilip Vengsarkar, former India captain who recently won the office of vice-president to the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) has an avowed agenda: to make his city an invincible cricket force again.

A slew of policy decisions are underway as Vengsarkar settles into his second innings in this position. He has promulgated a Cricket Improvement Committee (CIC) to look into all aspects of the game and come up with solutions that would re-establish Mumbai’s suzerainty.

Among the foremost of these is starting a special scheme along with IDBI Federal Life Insurance Bowling Foundation to unearth bowlers who would “win matches”, so often Mumbai’s bugbear in the past couple of seasons.

Former Australian great Jeff Thomson has been roped in as talent scout-trainer-mentor. The thrust will be to find 60 fast bowlers – pace and spin — with potential to undergo training under Thomson who will collaborate with Mumbai coach Chandrakanth Pandit.

“We are looking forward to take on all opposition,” said Vengsarkar at the launch of the scheme some days back, as much in a candid show of intent as a hark back to the day when Mumbai was the standard bearer of cricket in the country.

A straightforward statistics to highlight what the latter aspect means, and which also perhaps explains Vengsarkar’s pique: Bombay (later Mumbai after the city was renamed) have won the Ranji Trophy a phenomenal 40 times in the 80-year-history of the national tournament, including the maiden one in 1934-35.

This includes a staggering run of 15 consecutive titles between 1958-59 through the 1972-73 season. This was the period which established not only the city’s hegemony over the Ranji Trophy, but also made the `Bombay school of cricket; world renowned.

Vengsarkar, who was in his formative years during this period, could not have been unaffected by Mumbai’s spectacular successes; if anything, this would have served as inspiration for him to become one of the country’s finest batsmen subsequently.

I’ll come back to whether Vengsarkar’s current measures can be a turning point in Mumbai’s cricket history for it is pertinent at this point to understand the strong ethos and tradition that defined the ‘Bombay school of cricket’, shaped its many triumphs.

The city was always ahead of the curve, so to speak, where this game is concerned. Introduction to cricket may have been multi-pronged as the English colonialists – soldiers, traders, bureaucrats and businessmen – operated from several parts of the country, but the assimilation of the sport into Indian life began in through the Parsis, mainly resident in Bombay, in the latter half of the 19th century.

The first-ever team from India to tour England was a Parsi outfit, most of the players coming from this metropolis. The Parsis too to cricket with earnest – to a large extent for getting closer to the English to improve jobs, business and social standing – but in turn took it to the masses by popularizing it through the formation of clubs and matches where public appreciation was spontaneous and participation inevitable.

That Indians were adept at the sport became quickly evident, but there was also a socio-political aspect to what was to become India’s obsession: cricket was also seen as a vehicle by the masses to match or beat the English at their own expertise, a la Lagaan.

In great measure, more serious competition from players from all over India has diminished Mumbai’s domination. But aficionados also believe that there has been a shift in the focus and ambition of young cricketers from Mumbai.

By the last decade of 19th century, an annual fixture between Europeans and Parsis (from 1895-1906) cropped up, promoted by the Governor of Bombay Presidency which was played alternatively in Bombay and Poona.

In 1907, this tournament was extended to include the Hindus and became a Triangular, which was turned into the famed Quadrangular in 1912 when the Muslims entered the fray. Subsequently, this was to turn into a Pentangular to include a team comprising the ‘Rest’.

A time to get back the glory days of Mumbai cricket

Though drawn on communal and political lines, history records that these matches/tournaments were played in an atmosphere of gaiety and celebration without compromising on serious competitiveness. They became a landmark event in the city’s calendar. The Bombay school of cricket had made its foundation.

This is not the space to write a treatise on the origins of cricket, but to establish how Bombay became the hub for the sport. By the time the Ranji Trophy started in 1934-35, the first-ever Test match in India had been played at, where else, but in this city, at Bombay Gymkhana in the season 1932-33. (Incidentally, England captain Douglas Jardine was Bombay born).

The Cricket Club of India (CCI), promoted actually in Delhi in 1933, found its most tangible and fruitful expression also in Mumbai with the construction of the Brabourne Stadium which was to become the centre for domestic and international cricket for almost 40 years before the Wankhede Stadium came up.

If all this was not enough to reiterate that Bombay was the home of cricket, there was the sustained success in the Ranji Trophy. As mentioned earlier, 40 triumphs in 79 seasons is phenomenal – unmatched by any other team in any country’s domestic cricket.

What made this possible was not just the fact that Bombay was the epicentre of the sport in India, but also the ability its players which was steeped, inevitably, in the demanding ethos of the city.

The hardship of life in Mumbai – of commute, lack of open spaces, the urge to get ahead in life – found expression in the virtuosity of the cricketers. Cricket afforded recognition; jobs, social standing and Bombay’s cricketers came to be identified by a pugnacity and unwillingness to give up which earned them the desi sobriquet of ‘khadoos’.

Loosely translated, this means unrelenting. This is what players down the years – from Vijay Merchant, through Dilip Sardesai, Bapu Nadkarni, Ajit Wadekar, Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Sachin Tendulkar to name a few household names – came to exemplify.

But it was not only these big stars that made Bombay cricket what it was. There was a time when the national side would have 6-8 players from this city and absent from Ranji Trophy duty, yet Bombay would be supreme on the domestic scene. The never-say-die approach of players earned them the respect – and fear – of all opponents.

The turning point in this story comes in the post-liberalisation era when Bombay’s (and then Mumbai) stranglehold on the Ranji Trophy was broken. The surge in fame and wealth to be made from cricket stoked the ambition of youngsters from outside of the main cricket centres like Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Calcutta, Bangalore, and Hyderabad. The era of the Dhonis, Yuvrajs, and Harbhajans had dawned.

As hinterland India was roused into action, so to speak, Mumbai cricket started slipping. While the Ranji Trophy has been won fairly regularly – more than any other side still in the past 25 years – the aura of invincibility has faded. Mumbai is no eminently beatable, by almost any team on the circuit.

In great measure, more serious competition from players from all over India has diminished Mumbai’s domination. But aficionados also believe that there has been a shift in the focus and ambition of young cricketers from Mumbai. There is a detectable slackening in effort and energy, leading to a fall in the robust, khadoos approach of earlier.

The long commutes to train and practice, seen as duty earlier, is now seen as chore, says a source in the MCA. “Kids in Mumbai today want things early and easy, but that’s not how you succeed at sport. These guys are no match for the resolve of a Dhoni,” he adds.

This is not the only reason for the decline, however. Infrastructure and coaching facilities, while improving steadily, have also not matched the growth in number of aspirants. Overall, a comprehensive visionary program to scout and harness talent has been missing.

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