September 29, 2006

A cricketing romance that faded with passage of time

H Natarajan

The importance of the Kanga League, for today’s generation, is like a Pradeep Kumar movie. They may appreciate the mellifluous and timeless songs of his romantic movies, but few will relate to the romantic himself or the movie.

The intrinsic merits of the Kanga League in honing batting skills can never be understated, but Mumbai’s once famed wet-weather cricket’s appeal for the city’s players has been lost with the passage of time.

I remember Sunil Gavaskar zipping in from abroad in the wee hours of the morning and, without caring much for his jet-lagged body, turning up for his club Dadar Union in the maidans of Mumbai. Commitment and loyalty to the club were very high in those days as was the quality of the matches.

Matches between Dadar Union and Shivaji Park Gymkhana were as fiercely fought as a Roses game between Yorkshire and Lancashire or a Mumbai-Delhi Ranji Trophy game. Thousands thronged the maidans early Sunday mornings to see the likes of Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Sanjay Manjrekar for Dadar Union or Ramakant Desai, Ajit Wadekar, or Sandeep Patil for Shivaji Park. The two clubs boasted some of the best players the city produced and, not surprisingly, they are also the two most successful teams in the premier league.

The tracks tested, teased and tormented the best of batsmen, who had to earn every run. The most powerful of shots would get embedded in the mud, resulting in no more than a single run! If Mumbai once supplied batsmen to Indian cricket by conveyor-belt methods, then Kanga League has to be credited for playing its part in the enrichment. And in the days of uncovered wickets, the importance of the Kanga League was humungous.

It was Vijay Merchant who was one of the brains behind the Kanga League. It was he mooted the idea after India’s 1946 tour of England. Merchant understood the difficulties of batting on uncovered wickets that were wet or were in the process of drying. In fact, he openly admitted that his batting proficiency on wet wickets was largely due to the confidence he gained from sharpening his skills in the Kanga League. Merchant knew what he was talking having scored 2385 runs – a thousand plus runs more than the second best batsman in the team - at an average of 74 plus on that tour.

It was a highly enlightening and educational experience for the young and inexperienced club players to rub shoulders with the likes of Merchant, Rusi Modi, Vinoo Mankad and Ajit Wadekar. The fans, on the other hand, had the opportunity of seeing their heroes at close proximity.

Even Sachin Tendulkar did not lose the opportunity to hone is precocious skills in the Kanga League, making his Kanga debut at the callow age of 12. In fact, the rules of the Cricket Club of India had to be especially amended for Tendulkar him so that he could get into the dressing room despite being underage. One of the men who instrumental in helping Tendulkar gain that privilege was Madhav Apte - a legend in the league.

The league, today, stands devalued and deglamorised by a lot of factors. Players find going to the UK and Africa far more financially beneficial. By the time they were through with their overseas engagements, the Kanga League was close to completion. Today, even a club like Dadar Union struggles to field eleven players. A few years back a long-retired Gavaskar turned out for the club following an SOS.

The cancellation of Kanga matches last Sunday meant that 11 of the 13 rounds this year met a watery grave. As per rules governing the Kanga League, a minimum of five rounds should be played for promotions and relegations to take effect – something that cannot be met in the 2006 edition.

A few years back Gavaskar lamented that matches were called off far too quickly. His said that the league was there to test batting skills on wet wickets and, thus, decision to cancel the matches should be made on the morning of the match by announcements on the radio.

Organizing a tournament as big as the Kanga League is not easy and the Mumbai Cricket Association’s focus may be on the logistics while the focus of cricketers like of Gavaskar may be on the logic of playing.

Over 1000 players are seen in action if the league is played in full force. Watching the Kanga League at the Azad Maidan, Cross Maidan, The Oval or Shivaji Park can be an unforgettable experience. There are almost 100 matches played all over the city and players could get claustrophobic for players on some grounds, with the long-off one match facing the third man of another match!

The Kanga League may have attracted the great names in Indian cricket, but it’s the less glamorous names who emerged as some of the biggest heroes in the league. Madhav Apte’s Test cricketer was sadly limited despite his grand success, but his career in the league Navratilovaesque. Apte was a dinasour, who finally called it quits three days before his 70th birthday in 2002. He had played every single year since inception of the league in 1948 and when he bid adieu, he had scored over 5,000 runs. A globe-trotting businessman, Apte, like Gavaskar, was known to arrive from overseas early in the morning to play the Kanga League.

Another enduring legend of the League is Dadar Union’s Vithal Patil. “Marshall”, as he was affectionately called, was a brilliant medium-pacer who ended his Kanga career with 759 wickets. Cricket is an all-consuming passion for this 81 year old veteran, who shaped the careers of many of Mumbai biggest names, including Gavaskar, Vengsarkar and Ravi Shastri.

There were a few others who also had memorable love affairs with the league. Dr Bahadur Langrana umpired for 51 years - he also gave free on-field homeopathic consultancy - while Mehli Irani played for five full decades. Behram Irani was the first bowler in the league to capture 700 wickets. His 743 wickets was a record till Vithal Patil posted a new high.

The Kanga League has been a great institution of learning; even someone like Polly Umrigar played in the G Division when into his 60s.

It’s sad, but true, the romance of Kanga League has faded away with time.


At 4:40 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

fascinating insight sir!


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