As a bit of an old timer, I was thrilled to see Test cricket return to the venerable Brabourne stadium. As young cricket fans being initiated into the game, the majestic venue in Mumbai (then Bombay) held a special aura for us. We had read so much of its history, heard so many of the stories associated with the great matches played at the stadium - right from the time it played host to its first game in December 1937 - that for us young cricket fans it was the ground that inspired dreams.
It was the Maharaja of Patiala’s gift to Indian cricket. It was his wish that the country should have a stadium that could rival Lord’s. And from the time Lord Tennyson’s team played there in 1937 till the time it was host to its last Test in February 1973, few doubted that the hoary history and tradition associated with it, coupled with the great deeds performed on the lush green field, matched anything that unfolded on other famous cricketing venues the world over.
The Brabourne stadium might have been the Maharaja’s vision but the one who gave it shape was Anthony de Mello who, for his qualities as a dynamic administrator, is second to none. He managed to get a free allotment of land from the then Governor of Bombay, Lord Brabourne, for his ambitious plans of giving India not only a cricket stadium but a world-class one at that. When it was completed, the magnificent venue and the clubhouse became the envy of the world. Lord Brabourne himself was quoted as saying “We may have Lord’s, that will forever be the home of this great game but going around, you will not find a Cricketing Paradise as this.”
The Brabourne stadium hosted many memorable Pentangular and Ranji Trophy matches at a time when these games meant something. The first official Test was held there in December 1948 between West Indies and India and with only four sanctioned international venues in those days – Madras, Calcutta and New Delhi being the others – it was again the venue for the fifth and final Test of the same series in February 1949. And indeed the Brabourne stadium could well have been the historic ground to witness India’s first Test victory but for an umpire’s oversight. Not only did he lift the bails to signal the end the match with 1-1/2 minutes still remaining for play but he also signaled the end of the over when the last ball of what should have been the penultimate over had yet to be bowled. At that stage India needed six runs to win with two wickets in hand.
Through the forties, fifties and sixties the Brabourne stadium hosted all important national-level games besides Test matches and was acknowledged as cricket’s most substantial stronghold in Asia. It was one of the venues at which the competing teams could be housed in comfort for it was owned by the Cricket Club of India and the club house boasted the most modern facilities. Both Indian players and foreigners had nothing but praise for the amenities as well as the inimitable ambiance. Keith Miller a member of the Australian Services team in 1945 said, “There is nothing like it anywhere.”
Batsmen generally held centre stage at the venue and the fact that eleven of the 17 Tests staged before the just concluded match against Sri Lanka ended in draws substantiates this argument. Of the remaining six matches, India won four and lost two. But after the relaying of the turf in 1964 the surface became more sporting and four of the last six Tests ended in results. Overall however it is the batsmen who have more fond memories of Brabourne stadium than the bowlers. Starting with the hundreds notched up by Allan Rae and Everton Weekes in the first Test match in 1948 many Indian and visiting batsmen have notched up centuries. Vijay Hazare has the terrific record of getting three figure knocks in all the four Tests he played at the venue while Vinoo Mankad’s 223 against New Zealand in 1955-56 is the highest score at the venue. But bowlers too had their moments none more so than BS Chandrasekhar who had match figures of eleven for 235 against the world champion West Indies side in 1966-67.
The Brabourne stadium was a regular venue till 1973 when following a dispute between the CCI and the then Bombay Cricket Association the latter built its own Wankhede stadium at a place not far away. The venue named after the president of the Association SK Wankhede who later went on to become BCCI president staged its first Test in January 1975 and has been the constant venue since. With the Wankhede stadium undergoing renovation for the 2011 World Cup Test cricket returned to its original stage. With all due respect to the Wankhede stadium it is the Brabourne stadium that is more closely associated with international cricket in Mumbai. In fact it was due to host a Test against England last year, but the match was moved to Chennai following the Mumbai attacks in November. However the hallowed venue got a chance and given its rich history and tradition it was but fitting that it was a Test match to savour and one that will live in memory for long for many reasons.