In December 1973, I took the high school examination in my home town, Dehradun. I had to join university only the next July, and needed to find something productive — or at least interesting — to do in the interim. I had two options — to take up an offer to teach at the Scindia School, Gwalior, or to spent those six months in Bangalore, practising with the Friends Union Cricket Club, Bangalore.
Had I been more pragmatic, or had I more conventional parents, I would have chosen to go to Gwalior. But I was then obsessed with cricket, playing cricket, and my parents were indulgent. So I took a bus to Delhi, where I boarded the Grand Trunk Express to Madras. From there I proceeded by the Brindavan Express to Bangalore, to deposit myself in the care of my uncle, captain of the aforementioned Friends Union Cricket Club.
In those months in Bangalore I went to the FUCC nets every afternoon. Between two and four pm, I fielded, as a procession of first-rate batsmen came in and out of the nets. In the last hour, as the lesser players came in, I would bowl my off-breaks.
Playing with the FUCC improved my cricketing skills (somewhat). Yet the greatest benefit of those months in Bangalore was something I had not anticipated — the opportunity to watch the country’s top cricketers playing the then very prestigious Ranji Trophy tournament. When I chose to go to Bangalore, Karnataka were playing their league matches in the South Zone. By the time I arrived, they had qualified for the knock-out rounds. Thus it was that, in the month of March 1974, I watched what remained, 40 years later, the most memorable matches I have seen live. These were the Ranji quarter-final, played against Delhi, and the semi-final, against Mumbai.
Both matches were played in the then half-finished KSCA Stadium, and both saw the home team win. Karnataka beat Delhi largely because we had two great slow bowlers, Prasanna and Chandrasekhar, whereas they had only one, their skipper, Bishan Bedi. And we beat Bombay only because of two human errors.
In 1974, Bombay had won the Ranji Trophy the last 15 times in succession. To this generic domination we Karnataka followers noted a more specific one: in the last decade, our team had played Bombay four times, to be badly beaten on each occasion. This time, we batted first, and lost a wicket to the second ball of the match. To me and the other 20,000 in the stands it looked as if history was repeating itself. It should have, had the umpire not been intimidated by the reputation of the man who had come in to bat. This was G.R. Viswanath. The first delivery he received was a sharp inswinger, which hit him low on the back leg, in front of middle stump. On the theory that one did not give a genius out first ball, the umpire (whose name I have forgotten) let him bat on.
Vishy went on to score a glittering 162. Brijesh Patel also scored a hundred, taking Karnataka to 385 all out. The last time Karnataka (then Mysore) had scored in excess of three hundred batting first against Bombay, Ajit Wadekar had got a triple century off his own bat. He might have on this occasion, too. He and Ashok Mankad — another masterful player of spin — were going along very nicely on the third day. They had already added 127 for the third wicket, when Mankad played a ball towards point. Wadekar made for a single, but was sent back. As he turned, he slipped. He regained his footing, but in the meantime, the fielder, who was that proud FUCC lad Sudhakar Rao, had sent a swift and accurate throw back to the bowler, the home team’s skipper, Erapalli Prasanna. Now ‘Pras’ was known to lazily drop catches in the slips, but — having waited for the moment for the past decade, and more — he was not going to drop this ball. He caught it safely, and took off the bails with Wadekar still a foot out of his ground.
Once Wadekar was gone, Pras and Chandra took care of the rest. We won comfortably on the first innings. We now travelled to Jaipur to play Rajasthan in the finals, a match I merely listened to on the radio, but always contentedly, in the knowledge that having beaten Delhi and Bombay we were going to win this one easily. And so we did.
While watching those matches at the KSCA Stadium I must have read, each morning, the Deccan Herald, then Bangalore’s premier English-language newspaper. I recently looked up the issues for those weeks in March-April 1974, to find some intriguing details I had forgotten. The report on the second day’s play of the Karnataka-Bombay match carried this headline: “Bombay wrest initiative in Ranji semi-final”. With “skipper Wadekar in excellent form”, and Mankad, also set, with him, and with Sudhir Naik, Eknath Solkar, Milind Rege and Rakesh Tandon to follow, the paper wrote that “Bombay appear to have an edge over Karnataka as far as the first innings lead is concerned”. Like the rest of us, Deccan Herald’s cricket correspondent had not reckoned with that fatal slip.
The day after Karnataka defeated Rajasthan, the Deccan Herald ran an editorial which began: “It is with pardonable pride that Karnataka hails the triumph of its cricket team which for the first time has captured the Ranji Trophy…” They singled out the skipper, writing: “To have welded quite a number of players with different temperaments and varying outlooks on the game into a formidable striking force, playing cricket in the true spirit and yet with the will to win, is no easy job. And here it is that Prasanna has magnificently acquitted himself.”
Reading those old issues of the Deccan Herald was revealing, not least for recalling how that first Ranji victory was celebrated in Bangalore. When the train carrying the players arrived at City Railway station on the morning of April 1, 1974, some 3,000 fans were there to receive them. At the front of the gathering were the city’s mayor, T.D. Naganna, and the president of the Karnataka State Cricket Association, the legendary M. Chinnaswamy. That afternoon, the governor (as it happened, a Rajasthani, Mohanlal Sukhadia) hosted them for tea, following which they proceeded for dinner at the grand banquet hall of the Vidhan Souda, where they were received by the state’s chief minister, Devaraj Urs.
At or between the events hosted by the governor and chief minister, the cricketers were given a printed invitation to attend an ‘after-dinner’ party the same day. This was issued in the name of the state industries minister, a certain S.M. Krishna. From the Vidhan Souda, Prasanna and his men, although weary, proceeded onwards to the minister’s house. When the cricketers reached they found Krishna missing, and his staff denying any knowledge of the invitation. They were, they now found, victims of a prank, this being April Fool’s Day.
A few days later, the Karnataka State Sports Council threw a reception for the cricketers, where they were presented with a cheque of Rs 1,000 each. I could find no report of either the state government or (more surprisingly) the KSCA giving them a monetary reward, and of course there was no cash prize for the Ranji Trophy winners then. (By contrast, the Karnataka team that won this year’s Ranji Trophy got Rs 2 crore from the BCCI, as well as one crore apiece from the KSCA and the state government).
Some 20 years after I watched Karnataka defeat Bombay for the first time, I met Ajit Wadekar at a reception in New Delhi. I reminded him about the match and how he had got out, adding that had he not slipped he would still be batting at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. His answer, offered with a laconic shrug of the shoulders, was: “New shoes.”