By Suresh Menon
Whoever wins the Ranji Trophy this week, it will remain a game of might-have-beens. No country treats their national championship with the contempt that India does. The fixtures committee of the cricket board could not have been unaware of the fact that the first Test in Bangladesh was set to begin two days after the Ranji final. Whichever teams got into the final would then have to play without their top players who would be on national duty.
Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to see a Tendulkar versus Dravid showdown this year – two great players who hold the world record for having played 122 Test matches together, but have not played against each other often enough on the domestic circuit? How would Karnataka’s new pace sensation Abhimanyu Mithun fare against Tendulkar? Or Mumbai left arm spinner Iqbal Abdulla against Dravid? Youngsters mature rapidly when they play against the best, and a good chance was lost here.
When the two teams met in 1974, the top players of the country, Sunil Gavaskar, Ajit Wadekar, Eknath Solkar, Ashok Mankad faced off against Gundappa Vishwanath, Brijesh Patel, Syed Kirmani, Erapally Prasanna and B S Chandrasekhar. That was the bulk of the team which toured England that season.
That semifinal brought to an end Mumbai’s 15-year reign as champions. More, it sent a message to the other teams that Mumbai could be beaten, and was thus a psychological game-changer on the domestic scene.
Three decades later, my memories of that match revolve around three events, two fortuitous and one close to genius. Karnataka’s first innings 385 was built around two centuries, 162 by G R Vishwanath and 106 by Patel. Yet it might not have been. Off the first delivery he faced, the maestro seemed to be caught plumb in front. The umpire’s index finger remained firmly in his pocket. Vishy was a legendary walker, but not so foolish as to walk for a likely leg before!
The moment of genius was the dismissal of Gavaskar. The opener had got to 30 when the off spinner Prasanna flighted one causing him to stretch forward to defend. The ball suddenly dipped and went the other way to flick the off bail. The great batsman had been beaten in defence!
Sitting in the stands along with other schoolboys, I clapped and whistled and then clapped some more. Next man in had a triple century against the same bowling in an earlier match. This was Ajit Wadekar who, in partnership with Ashok Mankad threatened to take the game away.
And then came the second fortuitous event. Wadekar slipped in going for a single and failed to beat Sudhakar Rao’s throw. Years later he was to blame it on “new shoes”, and had Karnataka known then, they would have sent him a lifetime supply of shoes for authoring that turning point in the match. Prasanna had five wickets, Chandra four, and Mumbai barely crossed 300.
Karnataka asked for a day’s postponement of the final against Rajasthan in Jaipur and got it (these things were handled with common sense those days). The team was accompanied by a bunch of fans (the group photograph has them) who stayed at the ground overnight.
This time the heroes were the youngsters. Opener Vijaykumar (66), Vijayakrishna (71), A V Jayaprakash (55) made up for the failures of Vishy and Patel. And just when Hanumant Singh (83) seemed set to upset all calculations, Prasanna summoned the new ball and Vijaykumar claimed four wickets for nine runs; Prasanna himself had nine wickets for the match, as Karnataka won comfortably by 185 runs.