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An envious admiration for all things Bombay

I think Sairaj Bahutule will make many people’s list of a big hope whose international career never took off. The Challenger Trophy performance resonates  for it was a high-profile event in Indian cricket at that time and TV coverage helped immensely. But even beyond that Challenger Trophy, Bahutule was so consistent year after year for Bombay in the ’90s. I still can’t believe he made his debut as late as the Chennai ’01 test. Didn’t Rajesh Chauhan play nearly all his 21 Tests during Bahutule’s 1990s peak (’93 to ’97, he also enjoyed a great second wind between ’01-’04). Aashish Kapoor played ahead of him too. Was it because the selectors were reluctant to play two leg spinners at the same time?

I don’t know how it was for you given that you grew up with a strong Karnataka team. As a follower of Tamil Nadu, I had this envious admiration for all things Bombay in the ’90s (in fact even now). How can a team be so successful over a such a long period? What do they do in that overcrowded city?

“Session by session, season by season, Australia reveals its meaning. Australia means success; a state of being victorious.”

Rahul Bhattacharya may as well have written this about Bombay.

My father always talked of dominant Bombay in past tense, but here I was, living in the ’90s and wondering: were they more dominant than what they are now? Forget Sachin and Kambli, look at the rest of them – Muzumdar, Bahutule, Mhambrey, Kuruvilla, Agarkar, Jaffer…the list goes on. Add Sachin into the mix, then even a heartbreak like this results in conflicting emotions – a knockout loss to Bombay is devastating, but at least we lost to a Sachin special.

It’s a dangerous confession to make in the TN cricket circles for a lot of them view Bombay as some sort of illuminati which controls the Indian cricket ecosystem. In fact, this myth of the Bombay lobby has been floated around by folks from other states too. That Umpires tend to favour Bombay on close calls. That tournament schedules are tweaked to suit them. That marginal Indian selection tends to go the Bombay player’s way – this one particularly amusing considering Bahutule made his debut as late as 2001, Muzumdar never played for India, Amre got a terribly short rope, and some might argue the same for Kambli too.

When I got to live in Bombay for a few months in 2007, I was really looking forward to watching Bombay cricket from up close. I went to Marine sports (thanks to the last page ads on Cricinfo Magazine) to buy books but ended up chatting with the owner Theo Braganza about Bombay cricket for hours. He pointed to some buildings on either side of his small shop where many iconic Bombay players used to live or still lived. Then I took a cab to Shivaji Park and felt so thrilled to be breathing the same air that a future Tendulkar must be breathing in that hallowed space – only to later discover that the cab guy had dropped me at Azad Maidan. I walked along the full stretch of Marine drive visualising Ramachandra Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field come to life.

When I relocated to Bombay for work in 2010, I watched a lot of Ranji matches in my three years there with Bombay front-running, losing ground, or coming from behind. With Sachin, Rohit, Rahane and Jaffer playing or without any of them in the XI.

I don’t think getting up close with the ecosystem particularly helped me understand the greatness of Bombay more than I understood it from afar. They didn’t have the swagger of peak West Indies or the overwhelming brilliance of peak Australia. All that was apparent to me was a proud community acutely conscious of its place in cricket history and guided by a sense of practical efficiency, which seems to have been handed down a few generations.

I enjoyed reading Sanjay Manjrekar’s book Imperfect (could have been a truly great cricket book in the hands of a good ghostwriter) particularly for his insider’s insights on Bombay cricket. He offers many anecdotes on what makes Bombay cricket thrive and what drives its strong sense of community. Like Shastri hounding him for backing out of a tricky situation in a Deodhar Trophy game. The penchant for discovering the next big talent running all the way from beat-journos to legendary cricketers. For instance, it’s hard to imagine a Sunny-like figure in any other state follow school cricket and go out of his way to write a reassuring letter to a prodigy. Just the thought of Venkatraghavan writing to Ashwin at any stage of his career makes me chuckle.

Theoretically, given the paucity of land, the low quality of life, and the sheer logistical nightmare of carrying a cricket kit in those crowded local trains in Bombay makes it so counterintuitive to understand the success of Bombay cricket.

Tamil Nadu on the other hand is blessed with generous corporate patronage and a vibrant league cricket culture. Chennai and the rest of TN offer relatively better quality of life too. For instance, if a consulting company were to be commissioned to create a top-down state cricket infrastructure to attain sustained excellence (no, I wouldn’t), they are more likely to come out with a Tamil Nadu-like model than a Bombay-like one.

How did you see Bombay growing up? Did your perspective change substantially when you covered the Ranji Trophy as a journalist?

Mahesh

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