From the archives: Mumbai wins a batathon

The Ranji Trophy final of 1996-97 was played under lights in Gwalior. Despite the gimmicks, the contest was a dull affair: on a flat pitch, Mumbai beat Delhi on the basis of a first-innings lead.

The victorious Mumbai team with the Ranji Trophy in April, 1997.

The victorious Mumbai team with the Ranji Trophy in April, 1997. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Library

The traditionalists would have abhorred the very thought of playing the blue riband event of the Indian domestic cricket calendar, the Ranji Trophy final, on a day/night basis with floodlights, coloured clothing, black sight-screens and white balls. But the decision makers of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had by a sweeping majority decided to play the 1996-97 final at a “neutral” venue and under lights, seven months ago at the Mohali AGM.

Mumbai and Delhi played the five-day national championship final at the Roop Singh Stadium, Gwalior. Was it a success or a failure? From cricket’s point of view it has to be deemed a failure for the very reason that the day/night match infringed upon the “fundamental” aspect of the game. The which strove for six months to reach the final were compelled to adhere to an altogether different set of rules.

It was ridiculous to put through such an experiment in a championship final, with the teams forced to change the white new ball at the end of the 50th over. This proved most upsetting to the captains - Mumbai's Sanjay Manjrekar and Delhi's Ajay Sharma - less than 24 hours before the final.

That Mumbai won the title a third time in four seasons and inscribed its name on the trophy for the 33rd time is wholly due to Manjrekar’s expected decision to bat first on winning the toss and then, more importantly, allowing his team’s first innings to drag on. It was a flat pitch and Manjrekar knew the importance of a huge first innings score. But when asked about the viability of the day/night match, Manjrekar said, “Maybe from the crowd response point of view...yes. But on other aspects, the Board must have a dialogue with the players before it plans to make it a permanent feature.”

Faux pas

There was a faux pas regarding the Board’s decision to use painted (White) SG Test balls. It did not inform the teams about the actual “usage” of these balls. There was undivided opinion among the two teams’ coaches, Balwinder Sandhu and Surinder Khanna and captains Manjrekar and Sharma that the painted SG white balls were good only for practice. There were even references to the weight of the ball being increased to five and a half ounces by giving it a double coating. The Board’s decision to get the Australian brand ‘Kookabura’ in time for the match diminished some of the anxiety.

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The BCCI Joint Secretary J. Y. Lele, who was in Gwalior, said the Kookabura balls were being transported from Calcutta. Although it was speculated that a set of 17 balls were already in possession of the Gwalior District Cricket Association (GDCA), the BCCI was not keen to let the teams know of this fact fearing it may run short of stock should Delhi and Mumbai ask for some some for practice. More than the actual cost of the Kookabura balls (approximately ₹4000 each), the BCCI did not want to face an embarrassing situation.

And sure enough, there were at least a couple of instances when batsmen sought for a change of ball before the 40th over and the umpires V. K. Ramaswamy and Subroto Porel managed to find the right replacement.

The Delhi medium pacers were the first to be hit by the lack of proper seam on the Kookabura ball. What was conspicuous was the lack of movement in the air and lateral movement off the pitch. The wicket was a flat and placid one. Even someone like the experienced Atul Wassan struggled to make the most of the new ball. Robin Singh erred in trying to bowl fast, and on the Roop Singh Stadium pitch, it just about helped the batsmen to play their shots with freedom. Batsmen from both teams scored runs aplenty with the Delhi skipper Ajay Sharma and Raman Lamba becoming the first two batsmen in the championship history to cross 1000 runs in a season.

Mumbai was off to a fine start from openers Wasim Jaffer and Sulakshan Kulkami who put on 64 for the first wicket before medium pacer Feroz Ghayas struck for Delhi. That the final would turn into a ‘batathon’ was evident in the way Mumbai’s top order accumulated runs. Ghayas was one bowler who managed to keep a check on the flow of runs, but with the mandatory rule of the ball being changed after the 50th over, the captains introduced the spinners early. In the event, off spinner Nikhil Chopra had to bowl to a defensive line.

Jaffer, who must be in the short list of the selectors, made another confident half century. But the men to hog the limelight were Jatin Paranjpe, Manjrekar, Amol Muzumdar and Vinod Kambli.

sanjay-manjrekar

Mumbai captain Sanjay Manjrekar with the Ranji Trophy after defeating Delhi in the final (on the basis of a first-innings lead) - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Paranjpe and Kambli were forceful and assertive while Manjrekar and Muzumdar were calm and assured. Their main priority was to build the innings so that Delhi would have a formidable task on hand.

Anchor role

More than a decade of experience in first-class cricket has taught Manjrekar not to give up. He has come up with some useful knocks this season, the most important one being the 114 against Madhya Pradesh in the semifinal. He preferred to play the anchor role this time. The first of Mumbai’s big partnerships was between Manjrekar and Paranjpe who raised 173 for the third wicket. The third new ball did the trick for Delhi as Ghayas nipped one back to trap Manjrekar (78, 228 mts, 201b, 7x4), who was squaring up to defend, leg before.

There were fleeting moments on the second afternoon when Delhi struck effective blows to upset Mumbai’s plans. Paranjpe’s dismissal at 284 (Manjrekar fell at 281) was a bonus for Delhi. After making 111 (289 mts, 242b, 15x4) the left-handed batsman ducked into a short ball from Wassan, but did not drop his wrists to keep the bat away from danger. With the bat held up, there is always the possibility of the short ball taking the edge. Wassan’s delivery brushed the back of the toe of the bat for wicketkeeper Vijay Dahiya to complete a good catch.

Delhi's joy (two wickets off 11 balls) soon turned into a nightmare of sorts. Dahiya first spilled a low catch after which Kambli went on a rampage. The left-hander, a big hit in Gwalior, tore the bowling. Kambli took a heavy toll of Robin Singh and Feroz Ghayas and moved close to his second century of the season. Kambli and Muzumdar added 113 for the fifth wicket with Kambli’s contribution being 89. Kambli struck a spectacular six over midwicket besides hitting 15 fours. Delhi was much relieved when Chopra had him leg-before.

By the second night, Mumbai had gone past the 500-run mark. There has often been a question mark over Muzumdar’s temperament after his great debut against Haryana four seasons ago, but this season he has come back strongly with four centuries. In fact, he has played a crucial role in the Mumbai middle-order right through the season.

At Indore, he scored a brilliant 125 against Madhya Pradesh and in the final he came up with a classic 144 (449 mts, 324b, 12x4). Most of his fours were struck through mid-off and the cover region.

On the third day evening, Delhi looked at overhauling Mumbai’s high first-innings score of 630 with a great deal of apprehension. The pitch may have been still inclined towards batsmen, but the very thought of overhauling a high first-innings score - which was also a target to win the title - was a daunting prospect. Delhi had two batsmen - Raman Lamba and Sharma - with the ability to stay at the crease and amass runs. The two had been Delhi’s chief run-getters in the semifinal against Maharashtra at Pune. More significantly, Delhi had totalled over 650 against Maharashtra.

Lamba was looking forward to going past Woorkeri Raman’s championship aggregate of 1018 runs, while Sharma was in search of his 27th championship century that would take him past Brijesh Patel’s 26 hundreds. Mumbai’s basic strategy was to bowl a good line and length and wait patiently for the batsmen to make mistakes. There was an opportunity to see the early exit of Lamba, but Kambli reprieved him at point, with the batsman on six.

After this lapse, Lamba stroked freely on the off-side and Delhi cruised along with the half-century stand between Lamba and Dahiya coming in under 12 overs. Ajit Agarkar was assigned the job of trapping Lamba on the shuffle. Agarkar can be quite nippy and has proved to be a partnership breaker. On this occasion he scalped Dahiya, who was beaten by sheer pace. But he tried to bowl too fast and in the process hurt his back to be ruled out of the match. This limited Mumbai’s bowling attack to four bowlers - Paras Mhambrey, Manish Patel, leg-spinner Sairaj Bahutule and left-hand spinner Nilesh Kulkarni.

Agarkar left the field after taking a fine catch at short cover that sent back Lamba who committed himself to driving Bahutule and failed to keep his shot down. Lamba looked stunned for a while. He had broken Raman’s record, but had anticipated to play an influential role in Delhi’s bid to overhaul Mumbai’s total. Mumbai was delighted to see Lamba back in the pavilion.

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Sharma had vowed after his 26th century against Maharashtra that he would get another one in the final. Sharma has been a successful campaigner against Mumbai; in fact his first century was against Mumbai. He does not lose an opportunity to come good when the conditions for batting are exemplary. Sharma's presence - after Lamba’s exit - was imperative if Delhi had any chance of challenging Mumbai.

Amol-Muzumdar

Mumbai's Amol Muzumdar (above) drives a delivery from Rahul Sanghvi during his innings of 144. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

 

Sharma adopted the best possible strategy, that is to attack the bowling. It would have been a futile exercise had he played the wait and watch game. The attacking field may have helped Sharma to gallop, but he still had to find the gaps to see his cut shots race to the fence. Mumbai had anticipated such a performance from Sharma, but had not expected someone like Ashu Dani to trouble it.

In Dani, Delhi had another batsman willing to dare the Mumbai attack. With the senior partner Sharma always urging Dani, the dapper batsman did not see any reason to keep one end safe. Bahutule, one of Mumbai’s strike bowlers this season, was struck for two straight sixes and any number of fours. The Dani-Sharma partnership exceeded expectations and at one point Delhi must have really fancied its chances of achieving a sensational win.

Manjrekar had just four bowlers to bowl 90 overs. Kambli and Jaffer provided relief for a short while, but by the fourth night Sharma and Dani had put on 293 for the third wicket which opened up the possibilities of a close finish on the fifth day.

Sharma had scored his 27th hundred and Dani also notched up his third championship hundred. Delhi finished the fourth day at 365 for two. The Mumbai coach Sandhu said, “It was Delhi’s day today, but tomorrow could be ours. We have 265 runs to defend. It will not be easy for Delhi.”

On the defensive

Mumbai went in with a defensive plan intended to check Sharma and Dani. For forty minutes on the fifth afternoon, Sharma and Dani failed to punch shots to beat the fielders on the off side when Mhambrey bowled. From the other end they were bogged down bv Kulkarni’s over-the-wicket and wide-of-the-crease leg-stump attack. When two runs short of breaking Lamba’s aggregate for the season, Sharma trying to force Mhambrey edged to keeper Kulkarni. At long last Mumbai had managed to get a wicket. Sharma made 176 (501 mts, 387b, 19x4) in a stand of 313.

Mumbai still found it difficult to slice through the middle order. Dani forged partnerships of 50 with Akash Malhotra and 71 with Chopra. But soon the pressure began to pile on Delhi, which finally succumbed to it. Dani (178, 712 mts, 519b, 4x6s, 15x4) fell to the Kulkarnis - the keeper and the bowler. Chopra who batted resolutely for two hours made his exit after making 43 runs.

Two run outs hastened Delhi’s finish. The lanky Kulkarni was rewarded with a four-wicket haul in his 74-over spell. “He (Kulkarni) bowled brilliantly. It’s not easy to bowl to that line,” said selector Shivlal Yadav.

Delhi’s first innings came to an end in the fifth mandatory over. It fell 71 runs short of Mumbai. A final which should have been contested on a sporting pitch for a fourth innings climax was fought on a batsman’s paradise. Each of the two teams had three medium pacers, but the ground authorities at the Roop Singh Stadium laid out a flat pitch. This has been the bane of Indian cricket and the reason for so many mediocre players.

( This article was first published in the Sportstar issue dated April 26, 1997)

  • Mumbai 630 ( Wasim Jaffer 58, Jatin Paranjpe 111, Sanjay Manjrekar 78, Amol Muzumdar 144, Vinod Kambli 89, Ajit Agarkar 39, Sairaj Bahutule 44) drew with Delhi 559 ( Raman Lamba 42, Ashu Dani 178, Ajay Sharma 176, Nikhil Chopra 43, Nilesh Kulkarni four for 143).
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