Mumbai - Indian cricket's El Dorado
By H Natarajan
The symbol of domestic cricket supremacy in India is with Mumbai – yet again. It was the 37th time since the championship’s inception in 1934-35 that Mumbai won the Ranji Trophy. Not long ago, it was said that if Mumbai was strong, Indian cricket was strong. There were times in the past when almost half the Indian line-up was from Mumbai. Take the epoch-making 1971 series in England. The first seven in the batting order read: Sunil Gavaskar, Ashok Mankad, Ajit Wadekar, Gundappa Viswanath, Dilip Sardesai, Farokh Engineer, Eknath Solkar. The only non-Mumbai player in that line-up being Viswanath.
But despite Mumbai’s familiar hold on the National Championship, it has to be admitted, that it does not offer the kind of talent it used to for several decades. Many of the current India stars trace their cricketing roots to relatively smaller places like Najafgarh, Ranchi, Shreerampur, Ghaziabad and Jalandhar. It’s apparent that Mumbai is not the same potent force it once was. Even in the Ranji season that just ended, Mumbai were in deep trouble, getting nil points from their first three matches – draws against Bengal and Punjab and defeat against Hyderabad. Worse was to follow, when they were zero for five against Baroda.
But this is a moment of joy and celebration for Mumbai and it’s fitting, I thought, to focus on the positives. It’s a good time to pick an all-time great Mumbai team – a Herculean job, I can assure you. If the selectors find it an ordeal to pick 14 from the current lot, just imagine selecting a 17-member team from some of the finest jewels over 70 years!
The choice of the openers was a no-brainer. There were few that would come even close to Vijay Merchant and Sunil Gavaskar. Merchant was a colossus, whose first-class average of 71.64 is next only to the incomparable Sir Don Bradman.
One does not need even to explain the selection of Gavaskar, who would be on most people’s all-time great Test XI. His exploits, especially against the plethora of genuine quicks that hounded batsmen of his era, speaks volumes.
At No 3 would be Vijay Manjrekar. Though he batted for most part of his Test career at two-drop, Manjrekar was most successful at No 3, where he averaged 65.86 from 16 innings and also scored his highest in Tests (189*).
Taking the No 4 slot – by right – is Sachin Tendulkar. Like Gavaskar, there is nothing much that needs to be said about a player who at the peak of his prowess was widely regarded as the best batsman in the world and who was compared to Sir Don the Don himself.
Dilip Vengsarkar formed a formidable troika for India in the 70s and 80s with Gavaskar and Viswanath. When he called it a day, his 6868 runs and 17 hundreds were the second best efforts by an Indian batsman in Test matches. Vengsarkar batted at numbers 3, 4 and 5 for India and there was little to differentiate his success at these slots, but he averaged the highest at the No 5 slot. And that’s where he comes in.
Polly Umrigar, who earned the sobriquet of “Palm Tree” hitter for his big-hitting exploits in the Caribbean, comes in at No 6. Till Gavaskar arrived and bulldozed his way past all batting records, India’s Test record for the most runs, the highest number of centuries, most Test appearances, all stood to the credit of Umrigar. He also brought multiple values to the side by virtue of his bowling – medium-pace and spin - fielding and cerebral leadership.
At No 7 is Vinoo Mankad, a batsman who has batted at all numbers in Tests. Another legendary figure in this team, Mumbai was equally proficient with both bat and ball – an all-rounder of whom you could expect a double hundred and an eight-wicket haul. To this day the highest Test opening partnership stands to his joint credit with Pankaj Roy – 413 vs New Zealand at Madras in 1955-56. As a left-arm spinner he was rated by many as the finest the country has produced, which is a huge compliment considering that the nation had also produced the genius of Bishan Singh Bedi.
As a wicket-keeper, Farokh Engineer was the first choice for World XIs in his time, keeping to the likes of Bedi, Prasanna, Chandra and Venkat for India. As a batsman, he could tear apart the best bowlers in the world. And nothing exemplifies that than his innings of 94 not out before lunch on the first day of a Test against a West Indies attack of Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs. Having such a player at No 8 gives tremendous depth to the batting.
Zaheer Khan’s success as a fast bowler in Indian cricket is next only to Kapil Dev and Javagal Srinath. And in a land not exactly known for fast bowlers, that’s saying something. Zaheer is also a handy bat whose knock of 75 batting at No 11 is the highest-ever by any batsman in Test history.
At No 10, will be Ramakant Desai, the finest Indian fast bowler since Mohammad Nissar and before the arrival of Kapil Dev. In fact, his 74 Tests wickets was the highest by an Indian fast bowler till Kapil surpassed the mark. For a short man (5’, 4”) “Tiny” Desai was very quick and troubled the most accomplished – notable among whom was the great Hanif Mohammad of Pakistan.
Completing the line-up is Subhash Gupte, arguably the finest leggie in the classical mould to ever play for India.
I tried to make my job relatively easier by picking 17 players, but it was really not much of a help as many giants still had to be left out. The first headache was to choose between two left-arm spinners Bapu Nadkarni and Paddy Shivalkar. The latter may have been the unluckiest of Indian players never to play a Test, but not playing for India was not a disqualification in picking my best-ever Mumbai team. Shivalkar was widely regarded as Mumbai’s best match-winning bowler and I could not see him omitted from the side. That meant leaving out Nadkarni. The noted economist, who once bowled 23 maidens in a row in Tests, was also a fine batsman who would have been an asset in the one-dayers, but we are picking a team for the traditional format of the game where Shivalkar brings in greater value as a strike bowler in a side loaded with batsman.
There should be very little argument with Dattu Phadkar meriting a place ahead of Karsan Ghavri and Ajit Agarkar as a quality all-rounder who can open the bowling. There was another new ball bowler I did not forget when making my selection – Abdul Ismail. He toiled diligently for Mumbai right through his playing days taking 244 first class wickets at just over 18. And like Shivalkar, he was a match winner who came close to making the Test team without actually making it.
With one spinner and a fast bowler taking up their places in the reserves, the rest of the four slots in the bench were taken up by batsmen. And there were many heavyweights in contention: Rusi Modi, Madhav Apte, Gulabrai Ramchand, Dilip Sardesai, Ajit Wadekar, Eknath Solkar, Ashok Mankad, Sandeep Patil, Ravi Shastri, Sanjay Manjrekar and Vinod Kambli. But the four who completed the team were Rusi Modi, Dilip Sardesai, Ravi Shastri and Vinod Kambli.
Rusi Modi was giant in every sense of the word. He once scored five successive hundreds in Ranji Trophy. He was also the first batsman to scored 1000 runs in a Ranji season. Dilip Sardesai was the hero who ushered in India’s cricketing Renaissance on that historic tour of the West Indies in 1971 and Ravi Shastri was one of the gutsiest players of pace that Indian cricket has ever seen, besides being an useful left-arm spinner. In fact, he could well have been the captain of the side had he been certain of a place in the formidable XI. The final place was a toss-up between Sanjay Manjrekar and Kambli, who has a fantastic record in Ranji Trophy. But in a team full of rock-solid players, I chose the flamboyance of Vinod Kambli to the solidity of the junior Manjrekar.
Mumbai is to Indian cricket what New South Wales is to Australian cricket, Barbados is to West Indies and Yorkshire is to England – a team with a rich heritage. The heroes and their heroics of Mumbai are part of cricketing folklore that has inspired several generations. As a cricket writer, I consider myself very fortunate to have had the privilege and opportunity to interact with most of the greats at some time or the other in my career.
The Dream Team
1. Sunil Gavaskar
2. Vijay Merchant
3. Vijay Manjrekar
4. Sachin Tendulkar
5. Dilip Vengsarkar
6. Polly Umrigar
7. Vinoo Mankad
8. Farokh Engineer
9. Zaheer Khan
10. Ramakant Desai
11. Subhash Gupte
12. Padmakar Shivalkar
13. Dattu Phadkar
14. Rusi Modi
15. Dilip Sardesai
16. Ravi Shastri
17. Vinod Kambli