Irani Cup: a launch pad for higher acclaim

An annual feature of the Indian cricket season since 1959-60, it helped the likes of Dilip Vengsarkar and Sachin Tendulkar break into the big league.

Sachin Tendulkar acknowledges the cheers after making a century for Rest of India against Delhi, in the Irani Trophy cricket match at the Wankhede Stadium in Bombay on November 07, 1989. Tendulkar, who was selected for the Pakistan tour at 16 years and seven months after his good performances in this match, waged a lone battle to score an unbeaten 103 in a losing cause in the second innings.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

In my days, no one understood the seriousness of the Irani Cup. We thought it was just another game between the Ranji Trophy champions and Rest of India. We did not know that it was going to be a main feature of the future.

— Madhav Apte, who played the inaugural Irani Cup for Bombay against the Lala Amarnath-led Rest of India.

The Zal Irani Cup, founded some five-and-a-half decades ago, has generally been seen by cricketers — of proven merit in the Ranji Trophy and the inter-zonal Duleep Trophy — as a launch pad for higher acclaim and probably a place in the Indian team. Bombay’s Dilip Vengsarkar and Sachin Tendulkar covered themselves with glory in their first Irani Cup match and announced their arrival into the big league of Indian cricket.

Just 16, and when Mumbai’s junior cricketers were competing in the inter-school Harris and Giles Shield, Tendulkar made 39 and an unbeaten 103 against a Delhi attack comprising Atul Wassan, Madan Lal, Sanjeev Sharma, Maninder Singh and Kirti Azad at the Wankhede Stadium in November 1989. Soon, Tendulkar was on his way to Pakistan to make his Test debut against the likes of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Imran Khan. The great Tendulkar story unfolded with the Irani Cup, so they say.

In the same match, MRF Pace Foundation’s Vivek Razdan (played for Tamil Nadu and Delhi) and Rajiv Seth (played in the Ranji Trophy for Bengal and Orissa) were fast-tracked straight into the Rest of India team because the chairman of the national selection committee, Raj Singh Dungarpur, thought that the talented duo needed to be tested before the tour of Pakistan. Razdan played two Tests against Pakistan at Faisalabad and Sialkot, and took 5/79 in the second innings at the Jinnah Stadium in Sialkot, which turned out to be his last appearance for India.

Thirteen years before Tendulkar became known as the ‘teenaged wonder’, Vengsarkar, playing only his second first class match for Bombay against Rest of India at the Civil Lines ground in Nagpur, made a sensational 110 with 11 fours and seven sixes against an attack that contained India’s finest finger spinners in Erapalli Prasanna and Bishen Singh Bedi. Vengsarkar was rewarded with a place in the Indian team for a four-day match against Sri Lanka at Hyderabad, and also on the tour to New Zealand and the West Indies in 1976.

Relevance

Winning the Irani Cup is seen as a prestigious feat by a majority of modern-day cricketers. But Madhav Apte, who played the inaugural Irani Cup for Bombay against the Lala Amarnath-led Rest of India, revealed that players of the first match did not know the reason why the Ranji Trophy winner versus Rest was started in the 1959-60 season. The match was played at the end of the season, though.

“Frankly, no one understood the seriousness of the Irani Cup. We thought it was just another game between the Ranji Trophy champions and the Rest of India. We did not know that it was going to be a main feature of the future. There was no crowd to see the match, and I think the match was played at the Railway Stadium, not the Feroz Shah Kotla, where I played my last Test match,” said Apte, who opened the Bombay innings with Sudhakar Adhikari, and made scores of 98 and 70.

Apte, now 83, said the Irani Cup was not considered an important match in those days; a reason why Rest skipper Lala Amarnath was allowed to bowl 11 overs in the first innings and 12th man Prem Bhatia was allowed to bat in both innings — at No. 9 in the first innings and at No. 3 in second innings — of the first Irani Cup. In subsequent years, the Irani Cup became a selection trial, and the likes of Vengsarkar and Tendulkar made the most of it.