October 06, 2006

The Don of Mumbai’s famed cricket league

By H Natarajan

In place of the once 40,000 square feet palatial bungalow, with a private tennis court and cricket ground, stands a 22-storied skyscraper. The owner of that bungalow now occupies the duplex penthouse of the high rise – Woodlands - that dwarfs other towering landmarks in and around Mumbai’s elitist Pedder Road.

The view from the open-aired patio in the swank penthouse is both surreal and stunning; the setting sun, like an orange ball of flame, melts into the Arabian Sea, painting the horizon with exotic colors and soothing frayed nerves. The view, through the sliding glass, inside the house, is one of tasty opulence - paintings of great masters, antiques of every kind, period furniture, glittering cricket artifacts, among which are a painting of WG Grace, a bronze bust of Clarrie Grimmett and framed photo of Sir Don Bradman, signed by the legend himself. But the single biggest treasure of this household is the genuine humility of the residents.

The patriarch of the family is Madhav Apte – a venerable personality in both corporate and sporting circles. I had gone to meet to him to appreciate the importance of Mumbai’s famed wet-weather cricket tournament, the Dr HD Kanga League – the topic of my column last week - in which he is a legend. Apte played every single year since its inception in 1948 till he retired in 2002 at the age of 70.

Apte was the last of the dinosaur in the Kanga. He continued long after even his son Vaman – a former captain of Bombay University and India player in squash – quit playing the championship. Apte’s decision to retire was impromptu. “Even my wife was unaware and I had to do some answering!”

He was hit on the ribs at the non-striker’s end by a powerful shot from striker Shishir Hattangadi. “For a few seconds I could not even breathe. I played a few overs, but my mind was not there. Not much later, I failed to respond in time to a single and was run out.” A hairline fracture was his farewell memorabilia.

Apte’s loved sports – be it cricket, tennis, badminton or squash. Apte won the Western India squash as a veteran, a championship that he also won as a junior and senior. He was a good tournament-level tennis player and still plays badminton every day. But Kanga, he says, was closer to his heart because it challenged the technical skills.

Life in cricket began for Apte as a leg spin-googly bowler. He established a Giles Shield Shield - Mumbai’s Inter-Junior Schools cricket – record, capturing 10 wickets for 10 runs for Wilson against Robert Money in 1944. By the time he entered the portals of cricket-rich Elphinstone College four years later, his bowling had fallen apart. But destiny helped him forge a link with Vinoo Mankad.

“Elphinstone had a good variety of fast bowlers and we used to use four news balls a day,” he recalled. “A new ball, those days, would cost Rs 2 while we had Rs 500 as our season’s budget. I was 15 plus then - a bowler who had lost his bowling skills, was no batsman and scared of fast bowling. But the desire to play for college was very high.”

Vinoo Mankad, Elphinstone’s coach, asked young Apte if he would be interested in opening the innings. Apte was then an unpretentious No 10 batsman, but he accepted the offer for survival. Four years later he was good enough to open the innings for India with his guru!

The climb up, however, was not easy. Though he had a very good time in the Inter-collegiate and Inter-University cricket in 1951 and 1952, breaking into the Bombay Ranji Trophy side was difficult. Recalls Apte: “The Bombay team then boasted of stalwarts like Vijay Merchant, Rusi Modi, Vinoo Mankad, Vijay Manjrekar, Dattu Phadkar, Gulabrai Ramchand, Madhav Mantri, Subhash Gupte, Ranga Sohoni, Ramnath Kenny and Sadhu Shinde. But four days before the match against Saurashtra, Merchant was sidelined by a knee injury in practice and I got my chance. I scored a hundred on my debut. Then, in the second match (against Gujarat), I missed my century by seven runs, wrongly declared caught behind. I missed the third match because of jaundice, but in the fourth, against Holkar in the final, I scored 98 in first innings. But during the course of the innings I suffered cramps for the first and only time in my life. I was batting on 68 when I went up to Mantri and said: ‘George I am getting cramps.’ Mantri replied: ‘Don’t show it. CK (Nayudu, the chairman of the selection committee) is a fitness fiend.’

Apte was a huge success in Tests. His average of 49.27 is sixth in the all-time Indian list of batsmen with a minimum of 500 Test runs, below Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Vinod Kambli, Virender Sehwag and Sunil Gavaskar. It’s the selection quirks of his time that his career lasted just seven Tests and one season, spread across two overseas series, despite proving himself at every point in both at Test and domestic level.

But even today Apte does not allow bitterness to imbue his spotless face that has a perpetual smile. He never looks stressed out despite being a busy industrialist and always has time for sports.

“Physical fitness was never an issue. I still don’t need reading glasses. Maybe if I had to wear glasses, I may have given up.” He says he would like to believe he was not a burden on his side and recalls a game in 2001 when on a rain-affected wicket against CCI he helped Jolly avert defeat by batting out 40 critical minutes after his team was tottering at 40 for six - not bad for a 69-year old.

Apte is saddened that somewhere along the lines, the spirit has gone out of the game. “Respect for fellow players, umpire and the game itself. I can understand the mantra of give 100% or being competitive but not at the cost of spirit. The cultural change of sledging is unacceptable. I think it’s the influence of television.”

He wistfully looks back to the times when the game was played far differently. “Let me relate to you an incident that happened in 1953. I was batting on 99, with Vinoo Mankad at the other end, in the third Test at Port of Spain. Gerry Gomez, who was bowling round the wicket, beat me twice as I missed trying to cut the ball. I could well have been caught behind. Sir Frank Worrell, God bless his soul, who was in the slip came up to me and said: ‘Cool, young man. Have patience and you will get to your hundred.’ ”

Though Apte wore several high-profile hats over the years – chairman of the Apte Group of Industries, Sheriff of Mumbai, CCI president, to name a few – Kanga remained among high priorities. He often arrived in the wee hours from corporate commitments in London and Singapore to play Kanga game hours later.

His record tally of 5000-plus runs may not seem much considering his time span in Kanga, but the quantum needs to be seen in perspective: Firstly, only runs in the A Division are tracked and Jolly have not always been in the premier group. Secondly, matches are invariably low-scoring. Thirdly, rains wash away a good chunk of games and, lastly, business commitments restricted his playing.

How will Kanga League remember this legend? The best tribute one can pay Apte is by rephrasing the words of the great poet Shelly: “If monsoon comes, can Apte be far behind?”

Sadly, an epic that lasted over five decades came to an end. Kanga without Apte is not quite the same.