By Nishad Pai Vaidya
In December 1988, a precociously-talented 15-year old announced his arrival in Indian cricket with a century on Ranji Trophy debut. Sachin Tendulkar’s exceptional cricketing talent was the talk of the town in the Mumbai circles, but the country took notice of him when he smashed a hundred against Gujarat in his very first game. Fast forward to the present day, Tendulkar – now a veteran with all possible records to his name – is playing his sixth Ranji Trophy final on the very ground where it all began. In a sense, the legend is returning to his roots.
Mumbai is the most successful team in the Ranji Trophy and they pride themselves on accumulating title after title. In many ways, Tendulkar has epitomised that spirit in the last two decades as he has been a standout performer in those crunch games. Even though national duty has kept him away on most occasions, he has answered the calls of his domestic side whenever they needed him.
Tendulkar made his Ranji Trophy debut in 1988, but had to wait until 1991 to get his first taste of the final. Haryana and Mumbai battled in the 1990-91 Ranji Trophy final and it was a cracker of a contest. Mumbai lost that game by an agonising margin of two runs to hand the title to Haryana. In the fourth innings, they were chasing a mammoth 355 to win and had stuttered upfront. Dilip Vengsarkar and Tendulkar kept Mumbai in the hunt with all their class and art. The pair put 134 on the board – 96 of which were scored by Tendulkar. It was an anti-climactic end to his innings as he was caught off a full toss bowled by a spinner.
In the years after that heartbreak, Tendulkar built his reputation at the highest level, but glory in Mumbai colours was waiting. The big moment arrived in 1995 – when the 21-year old Tendulkar led his city to the Ranji Trophy title. The burden of captaincy didn’t affect him in the final against Punjab as he stroked hundreds in both innings (140 and 139) to bat the opposition out of the contest.
A few years down the line he was to script a fairytale – one that is etched in the memory of the Mumbai cricketing fraternity. In the 1999-2000 season, Tendulkar put in a performance that defined the word legend. In the semi-final against Tamil Nadu, Mumbai faced the uphill task of overhauling the first innings score of 485. A number of Mumbai batsmen got starts, but only Tendulkar made it big. He anchored the innings and was the only ray of hope as wickets fell at the other end. At 449 for eight, Tamil Nadu may have fancied their chances of taking the lead, but the master was determined.
Tendulkar single-handedly took the score to 490 to take the slender lead – even as the last two men didn’t score a run. The opposition had placed nine fielders on the fence and yet Tendulkar got boundaries. That masterful display all but sealed Mumbai’s passage through to the final. If those heroics weren’t enough, he scored 53 and 128 in the final against Hyderabad.
In the 2000s, Tendulkar’s appearances in the Ranji Trophy were sporadic. However, in 2007 – he entered the scene for the final against Bengal and displayed all his craft and mastery. On the first morning, Mumbai found itself in trouble at 14 for two. The Bengal seamers were exploiting the early conditions and were getting movement. In walked Tendulkar and he dealt with the questions with ease. He battled the early phase and then took the attack to the opposition – scoring 105 in 129 balls. In the second innings, he scored 43 to help Mumbai build a score out of Bengal’s reach.
With all these knocks, Tendulkar had exorcised the demons of the 1990-91 final as Mumbai clinched the other titles. In 2009, they were the favourites going into the crucial clash against Uttar Pradesh and they won it by a huge margin. However, this is the only final where Tendulkar didn’t make a significant contribution. In the first innings he was out for naught – dismissed by Bhuvneshwar Kumar – whose claim to fame before playing for India was that of being the first man to dismiss Tendulkar for a duck in Indian domestic First-Class cricket.
Tendulkar has returned to the Ranji Trophy eying redemption. He is well into the twilight of his career and is trying to find his touch prior to the series against Australia. Having amassed tons of runs at the highest level and sweeping accolades, the fire still burns within the great man. He has already scored two hundreds this season and Saurashtra would be wary of his presence.
Tendulkar’s intentions on retirement aren’t very clear and this might well be his last Ranji Trophy game. With his passion and craze for the game, he might even continue in domestic cricket after international retirement. Nobody knows what is on his mind. For now, his eyes would be set on the coveted title as Mumbai take on Saurashtra in the finale at the Wankhede.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and an analyst, anchor and voice-over artist for the site’s YouTube Channel. He shot to fame by spotting a wrong replay during IPL4 which resulted in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. His insights on the game have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. He has also participated on live TV talk-shows on cricket. Nishad can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nishad_44)