By Suresh Menon
Over four wonderful days in Mysore last week, Indian cricket reconnected with its romantic past. With every season, the past recedes further and the romance is strengthened by distance. We remember things that never happened, recall events through the filter of fantasy. Heroes of the past are larger than life; the triumphs they authored take on a hue that current successes will take a long time to match.
Yet, except for the detail that Karnataka failed to win the title, the Ranji Trophy final was probably the best the team was involved in. Especially since unlike in the past triumphs, the heroes were future stars rather than established players. But it was more than that. For one, there was more action, more excitement than in the entire one-day tournament that was being held around the same time in Bangladesh.
The final was at the other end of the scale from the IPL – it needed no gimmicks, no hype, no commentators paid to sing its praises. Spectators didn’t have to be enticed into the stadium with promises of heart-stopping action on field and off it. There were no cheer leaders, and yet fans clung on to trees, occupied nearby structures, hung on to every available space.
More importantly – a throwback to an earlier era – they cheered good cricket from both teams. After Ajit Agarkar’s final catch, there was a stunned silence where disappointment, relief (from tension), excitement were all nicely mixed. The faces said it all. And then there was spontaneous applause, as the visiting team were given a standing ovation.
It is tempting to say that the Ranji final transported us back into a more innocent time but that would be taking it too far. This was no innocent knock in the park; some of the player behaviour was appalling. The teams played hard, and sought to take every advantage in the modern fashion. Quick reaction from the umpires and the match referee might have kept the emotions of an Agarkar in check. There was too the terrible sight of a team lining up to hurl abuse at a dismissed batsman.
But when this match is recalled years from now, it will not be the player behaviour or the official weaknesses that will be recalled, but the quality of the batting and bowling, and the spirit of the two young teams.
The highest wicket taker in the national championship is Karnataka’s debutant Abhimanyu Mithun, at 20 already one of the most energetic quick bowlers in the country. Manish Pandey, a couple of months older has the highest aggregate this season.
Now comes the difficult part – dealing with the high expectations, keeping free of injury and performing with a consistency that would make a national call-up inevitable. There is a rawness to their game which is attractive yet calls for an attempt at smoothening. By getting batsmen to hurry their shots on Indian tracks and beat them for sheer pace, Mithun has revived memories of Javagal Srinath. He will now be flooded with advice, told to move his shoulder this way and his hip that way. At 20 it is difficult to ignore advice especially if well meant, but Mithun must practice the art of nodding sagely to everybody and then focusing on the coach who understands him best.
He is only in his first season, and looks set to bring the crowds into the stadiums around the country wherever he plays. It is something that Manish Pandey, the UP-born who has made Bangalore his home since he was 15, is already doing. When he became the first Indian to make a century in the IPL, there were doubts over his first class credentials. He had an innings of 194 before his 144 in the final.
He already looks the most creative of batsmen. In the final, he played a version of the Dilshan sweep to get to his hundred, and later stood upright to the medium pacer and played what can only be described as a reverse hook. His catch to dismiss Abhishek Nayar was in the Jonty Rhodes class – so stunning, so unexpected that the third umpire had to be called in.
Not all of Pandey’s attacking shots were from the coaching book – but that does not matter so long as the defensive shots come from there.