March 24, 2006

The romance of cricket at the Brabourne

By H Natarajan

Ah, cricket at Brabourne Stadium! The romance of watching cricket at this hallowed venue is something that cannot be recreated by any other stadium in India. The old world charm that this place exudes is truly unique. One can smell the aroma of India’s rich cricketing legacy and ‘feel’ the soul of legends since the days of CK Nayudu left behind in this venerated place.

And nobody has done more to keep India’s immortal cricket monument alive at the Cricket Club of India than its president Rajsingh Dungarpur. Few can match the passion he has for the game and his abiding love for the Cricket Club of India. If Brabourne oozes of cricket from every nook and corner, it’s because of Dungarpur. If you are a cricket lover, you just cannot miss soaking in the ambience of Brabourne and be in awe of the greats and the greatness of an era bygone.

Brabourne will always be very close to my heart. It was in the East stand of this stadium that I saw my first-ever cricket match as an excited kid. It was the CK Nayudu Memorial Fund match in 1968, a game between Indian XI and an International XI comprising the likes of Dennis Amiss, Tony Greig, Keith Fletcher, Geoff Arnold etc. The Indian XI was led by the suave Hanumant Singh, one of the cricketing Royals with whom I have had the privilege interacting closely in my years as a cricket writer.

My Test ‘debut’ was also at the same venue, against Graham Dowling’s New Zealand – a game in which Chetan Chauhan, Ashok Mankad and Ajit made their Test debuts as well. In the years to come, I ‘graduated’ to getting a place in the pavilion and even meeting many of my heroes.

It was at Brabourne that Bombay – as Mumbai was known for ages – scripted many of their famous victories in the National Championship. It was Brabourne that has seen 15 Ranji Trophy finals between 1938 and 1972. Bombay figured in fourteen of these and won on every occasion.

Since Brabourne hosted its last-ever Test in 1973 Test against England, a Test in which Gundappa Vishwanath became the first Indian to score a hundred after a century on Test debut, the venue has few big matches of consequence. But it was fitting to see one of the illustrious sons of Mumbai cricket add another chapter to the venue by scoring his first ever double hundred against Australia in 1997-98. It was Dungarpur who had helped Tendulkar play for the CCI. The club’s rules did not permit an underage boy to represent it, but Dungapur spoke with the then president Madhav Apte and got the rules amended. Tendulkar’s double hundred against Shane Warne & Co. came like a thank you note for Dungarpur, Apte and the CCI.

Cricketers have a special chemistry with the Brabourne Stadium. The late Sir Frank Worrell once said that it was the only place in the world where he could watch cricket in his dressing-gown and remove it when it was his turn to bat. I have heard many, many cricketers from all over the world getting nostalgic about Brabourne. India has the Eden Garden which has its own place in history. But the gargantuan edifice of Kolkata is much like the MCG in Australia; Brabourne is more closer to Lord’s, the sanctum sanctorum of Indian cricket.

It was clash of egos between Vijay Merchant and SK Wankhede over allotment of tickets that saw Wankhede flex his political muscle to come up with a stadium just 15 minutes walking distance from Brabourne. Ironically, the Mumbai Cricket Association went on to find itself at logger heads with its sub tenant Garware Club at the Wankhede Stadium.

Wankhede has had a troubled history, right from the time it staged its first-ever Test – against Clive Lloyd’s West Indies in 1975 - despite two powerful politicians in Seshrao Wankhede and Manohar Joshi having been at the helm of the Mumbai Cricket Association. It’s the advent of a third politician, Sharad Pawar, that has seen a sea of positive changes in Mumbai and Indian cricket. While SK Wankhede will be remembered as the man who took away big time cricket from Brabourne Stadium, Sharad Pawar will be remembered as the man under whose regime Brabourne will host the biggest cricketing event since it last hosted a Test in 1975 when it will stage the final of the ICC Champions Trophy later this year.

Early next month, the CCI will also host the India-Pakistan Davis Cup Asia-Oceania Group I first round playoff. It will not only be the first time in 33 years that the two neighbours face each other in the world’s premier team tennis championship but also the first time in a long, long time that the CCI will host a big tennis tournament. In the days bygone, the CCI has played hosts to many legends and great tournament.

The Brabourne Stadium stands on a piece of land reclaimed from the Arabian Sea which the then Governor of Bombay, Lord Brabourne, presented it to the CCI in exchange for immortality. The Brabourne Stadium was officially opened on December 7, 1937 with a match between the CCI and Lord Tennyson's XI. Incidentally, Tennyson said that there was no ground like Brabourne in the entire world.

It was Anthony de Mello who suggested that the Brabourne Stadium would be the Lord's of India. Even till today the remnants of The British Raj is evident in the precincts of the upper crust club, where liveried waiters take orders from members sitting on the well-manicured lawns in wicker chairs.

Since Brabourne Stadium went into Test cricket oblivion, the venue has staged three One-Day Internationals – including the one between South Africa and the West Indies where Jonty Rhodes took an ODI record five brilliant catches. In recent times, many of touring teams play their opening match at Brabourne. It’s sort of getting to be a tradition, much like the game against Duke of Norfolk’s XI in England, the ACB Chairman's XI in Australia and Nicky Oppenheimer's XI in South Africa.

This is the venue which has seen some of the most fascinating battles in Indian cricket like the one between Vijay Hazare and Vijay Merchant. It was here that Hazare scored 309 out of 387 in the 1943 Pentangular final. Vijay scored 266 (88.6% of the partnership) of the 300 runs he added with his brother Vivek, whose contribution to the stand was 21! It was here again at this very stadium that Hazare scored 134*, 122, 155 and 146* from four Test appearances. From that time to Tendulkar’s double hundred in 1998, Brabourne has earned a sanctimonious presence in world cricket.

Let’s hope that with a set of visionaries at the helm of Indian cricket, the day is not far off when we could see Test cricket return to Brabourne. Like Lord Brabourne, immortality would be assured for the men who will make that happen.


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