By Austin Coutinho
There was a time, not long ago, when Mumbai used to produce world class batsmen – by almost conveyor belt methods. Mumbai was still Bombay then. What’s more, there were no academies, and there were no level ‘C’ coaches. There were neither bowling machines nor indoor nets. And there were no specialised trainers to work on either biomechanics or an individual’s cricketing specifics.
When Mumbai was still Bombay, batsmen of the calibre of Vijay Merchant, Polly Umrigar, Vijay Manjrekar, Dilip Sardesai, Ajit Wadekar, Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Sandeep Patil, Sanjay Manjrekar, Sachin Tendulkar, Vinod Kambli and many others earned their spurs playing in the city’s monsoon league. It was baptism by fire for young dilettantes, and bowlers – especially the pacy ones – enjoyed making them smell leather. Remember, there were no helmets or chest guards then. Those days, Mumbai possessed many batsmen who could have easily worn the country’s colours but were overlooked because of the city’s over abundant batting talent.
The monsoon league of the city, better known as the Dr. H.D. Kanga League played a major role in the grooming of batsmen and making fighters out of them. The wet – and sometimes cruel, drying – wickets in the league put promising batsmen on trial like nothing else did. Is it a sign of the times that today Mumbai boasts of only a couple of batsmen who can be considered for selection to the national side? Is it also a coincidence that every year, for the last decade or so, only three or four matches out of a possible thirteen in the Kanga League are played?
When I started off in the Kanga League, playing for Young Maharashtra – considered to be ‘A’ Division minnows – it gave me a close up view of the Shivaji Park Gymkhana matches across the walkway of the maidan. Ramakant Desai, bowling off his full, smooth run-up, though he was in his 40s, was a great sight. But there was nothing more enjoyable than watching Wadekar – well past his prime – batting on a bad wicket. One year, two young fast bowlers both of whom later played first class cricket were bowling with a lot of fire, and the batsmen at the crease were Ajit Wadekar and his brother Ashok Wadekar.
“Both brothers look similar, don’t they?” said a youngster watching their match from our tent.
Just then, Ashok pulled a short ball which ballooned over the Gymkhana building for a six. In the next over, Ajit Wadekar pulled a short ball that travelled like a greased bullet, parallel to the ground, hit the Gymkhana walls and rolled back to the pitch.
“That’s where they are different,” said one of our senior players. “That’s the reason only one of them is a legend!”
One of my most enduring memories of the monsoon league is of a young batsman, still wet behind the ears, making what probably was his debut at the senior level. This young, scrawny batsman – perhaps a couple of years into his teens – was opening the innings for MB Union, an ‘A’ Division club from Mumbai in the late 80s. The wicket was treacherous and batting very, very difficult. With the reputation of having troubled most star batsmen on such tracks, I had believed that this young impostor would be warming the chair in a cozy corner of the tent in a few deliveries. I was mistaken. That batsman played me out for an hour and a half, blocking short-pitched deliveries with aplomb and let those outside the off-stump go with a lot of assurance. He looked a class act and as ‘khadoos’ as they come! That player, Amol Muzumdar, went on to score more than 10,000 runs in first-class cricket. Sadly, he did not play for India.
Most bowlers who could bowl at a decent pace enjoyed the sight of batsmen hopping around and even being hit in the monsoon league. Batsmen who played with soft hands and with their bats close to their bodies survived; others just capitulated. It was not only about surviving at the wicket; it was also about not getting maimed. During my 15-odd seasons playing the league, I have seen a lot of blood being spilt, but I hardly ever remember a batsman preferring to retreat into the safety of the dressing room after being hit. It was sheer guts, especially on bad wickets.
Those were the years when the ‘Evening News’, a Times of India ‘eveninger’ used to announce the key Kanga matches on Saturdays and cricket fans used to throng the maidans at Matunga, Shivaji Park, Cross Maidan and the gymkhana grounds at Marine Drive to watch their favourite stars, on Sundays. For the last couple of decades, neither matches are played in the Kanga League nor do stars turn up for these matches. The crowds have, of course, disappeared. Batsmen, are therefore, no longer made in Mumbai!
(Austin Coutinho, Deputy Manager (CRM) with RCF, is a cartoonist and writer. A former club cricketer, he is also a cricket and football coach)
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