kanitkar
Hrishikesh Kanitkar gave Rajasthan the elusive success © Getty Images

Hrishikesh Kanitkar, born November 14, 1974, is usually remembered for the winning hit in the 1997-98 Independence Cup in Bangladesh. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the “outsider” who took Rajasthan to her maiden Ranji title before pulling off an encore.

Bombay were on their famous golden run from the end-1950s to the early 1970s (they won 15 Ranji titles in a row); Rajasthan, in the era of Raj Singh Dungarpur, Kishen Rungta, Hanumant Singh, and Salim Durani, locked horns with Bombay throughout the decade, reaching the final 6 times in 7 attempts between 1960-61 and 1966-67, but losing every time.

The Ranji Trophy title remained elusive, despite them reaching the final twice more. Then, as late as in 2010-11, the Land of Princes saw a messiah emerge in the form of a commoner: Hrishikesh Hemant Kanitkar, who had moved to Rajasthan from Maharashtra, led them to consecutive titles.

With a tally of 10,400 runs at 52.26 and 33 hundreds, Kanitkar was a giant of Indian domestic cricket. If only Ranji Trophy is considered, Kanitkar has a tally of 8,059 runs from his stints for Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan — which puts him behind only Wasim Jaffer and Amol Muzumdar. His 28 hundreds are behind the career counts of only Jaffer and Ajay Sharma.

His off-breaks fetched him 74 First-Class wickets as well. He was also an outstanding fielder, often plucking stupendous catches out of thin air:

Despite his domestic success Kanitkar’s international career remained innocuous. His career included 2 Tests and 34 ODIs, a solitary fifty from 31 innings, and, to his defence, 17 wickets and an economy rate of 4.78. However, Indian cricket generally remembers him for that one boundary, hit off Saqlain Mushtaq at Dhaka.

Early days

A batsman who also kept wickets, Hemant Kanitkar was a Maharashtra stalwart of the 1970s; he also played 2 Tests, the first of which started a week after his son Hrishikesh’s birth. The Kanitkars had a family business of building contractors.

Hrishikesh first made a mark as the captain of Maharashtra Under-15s, slamming 105 against Saurashtra Under-15s (he also took 5 for 102 in the match); selected for Vijay Merchant Trophy, he scored 106 against East Zone. He rose through the age-groups at a rapid pace, and eventually made it to India Under-19s.

Kanitkar made his First-Class debut in the 1994-95 Ranji Trophy against Bombay, scoring 44. Less than a month later he registered his maiden First-Class hundred — a round 100 not out against Gujarat. Two seasons later Gujarat saw him score 205. With 993 runs at 82.75 Kanitkar came third on that season’s Ranji Trophy charts, after Raman Lamba and Ajay Sharma.

His 5 hundreds in that season’s Ranji Trophy has been bettered by only VVS Laxman (8) and Kedar Jadhav (6), though several have equalled his tally. He was named an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year, and was called up to make his ODI debut shortly afterwards.

Dream start

Kanitkar made his debut against Sri Lanka at Indore — but the match was called off due to poor pitch conditions after 3 overs. For some reason he was dropped in the next match, but was picked for the Independence Cup in Bangladesh that winter. Batting in the league match against Bangladesh he hit the winning stroke; bigger things, however, were to follow.

After India and Pakistan won a final each in the best-of-three, Pakistan put up 314 for 5 in 48 overs in the decider. After an initial blitz from Sachin Tendulkar, a partnership between Sourav Ganguly and Robin Singh took India to 250 for 1 in 38 overs. Unfortunately, the National Stadium in Dhaka, originally built for football, did not have floodlights strong enough to handle cricket; the Indians batted on in the gloom. Wickets kept falling, and when Nayan Mongia was run out, India needed 9 off the final over with only the bowlers to support young Kanitkar.

Rashid Latif had saved the wily Saqlain for the final over. Pulling it off under fading lights against Saqlain’s brilliance was a nigh-impossible ask for the youngster, but Kanitkar looked calm. He pulled the first for a single, and Javagal Srinath, going for an almighty heave, got a leading edge for a couple. He went for a slog the next ball, and got away with it as the ball landed safely between three converging men at mid-on.

A steered single off the fourth ball left Kanitkar to score 3 from 2. He could have crumbled under the pressure Saqlain’s image and his inexperience, but he did not: Saqlain pitched it slightly up, and Kanitkar gave it his all as the ball vanished to the mid-wicket boundary amidst the darkness that engulfed the ground. Kanitkar had arrived.

Despite her reputation for producing quality batsmen, India seldom had a finisher till then. Kanitkar played another blitz shortly afterwards, this time scoring a 55-ball 57 against Australia at Kochi; along with Ajay Jadeja, he added 121 for the fifth wicket in 97 balls. It was the first time he was dismissed, and at this stage his career average read 81 and strike rate, 94.2. The match also saw him pick up his first ODI wicket — of Ricky Ponting, no less.

It all went downhill from there. He scored 35 in the next match (against Zimbabwe at Vadodara), but managed to reach 30 only twice more in his ODI career. He kept his penchant of scoring winning hits in finals with a boundary going when he finished off the Coca-Cola Trophy later that year against Australia at Sharjah: Tom Moody was the bowler on this occasion.

The selectors kept faith on him, but his average took a nosedive as his career progressed. There was the occasional wicket or two, but with Robin Singh almost a permanent fixture and Tendulkar, Ganguly, and Jadeja chancing their arms every now and then, Kanitkar could not really cement his place as an all-rounder.

Test debut

Following the debacle in World Cup 1999, the Indian team underwent changes, and Kanitkar found himself on the 1999-2000 Australian series — perhaps the toughest tour of the era. India had a disastrous tour, losing all 3 Tests and winning 1 out of 8 ODIs.

Kanitkar made his Test debut in the second Test at MCG. To be fair to him, he did not do too poorly. After Australia scored 405, it was a battle between Tendulkar and their bowlers; he scored 116, Anil Kumble (28) came next, and India were bowled out for 238. Kanitkar scored 11 before he was trapped leg-before by Shane Warne.

Set to chase 376, India lost VVS Laxman early, and Sadagoppan Ramesh had his thumb fractured by Brett Lee. Neither Rahul Dravid nor Sourav Ganguly lasted, and Kanitkar walked out at 110 for 4. He soon lost Tendulkar, but kept on batting, trying to his best to shield the tail.

By the time Damien Fleming got him leg-before he had scored a fine 78-ball 45, and India had painstakingly moved to 184 for 7. They lost by 180 runs. Kanitkar was retained for the last Test at SCG, where India lost by an innings and 141 runs; having scored 10 and 8, he never got another chance. His ODI career ended after that tour as well. Coming out at 11 for 2 at WACA, he scored 30 in his last match before falling to Damien Martyn. Australia cruised to a 6-wicket victory.

The long route to victory

Back to domestic cricket, Kanitkar created history in 2003-04. Playing against Services, Kanitkar — by then the captain of Maharashtra — scored 112 and a 211-ball 207 not out. He remains one of only five men to score a hundred and a double-hundred in the same Ranji Trophy match (the others being Hanumant Singh, WV Raman, Ajay Jadeja, and Ambati Rayudu).

He tried his hand at Hong Kong Super Sixes and also had a stint for Brentwood Cricket Club in Essex in 2006. He moved to Madhya Pradesh in 2008-09, and promptly scored 75 and 76 in his first 2 innings, and added a 123 against Vidarbha for good measure. After a stint of two seasons he moved to Rajasthan.

With only himself, Aakash Chopra, and Pankaj Singh as the domestic “stars” (and Ashok Menaria and Rashmi Ranjan Parida as the back-up), Kanitkar began a seemingly impossible journey to the top. The first indication of Rajasthan’s potential surfaced during the Hyderabad match when Deepak Chahar (8 for 10 on First-Class debut) and Pankaj (2 for 11) bowled unchanged to skittle the tourists for 21. Kanitkar, with a massive 193 not out, batted Hyderabad out of the match before Pankaj and Chahar led them to an innings victory.

Kanitkar’s run continued as he scored 100* (against Maharashtra in the Plate semi-final), 113 (against Mumbai in the quarter-final), 100* (against Tamil Nadu in the semi-final), and 61 (against Baroda in the final) in consecutive innings. Rajasthan won the match on first innings lead (though they could have won outright as Baroda, chasing 375, were 28 for 4 when play was called off).

It was Rajasthan’s maiden Ranji title. Later, in Out of the Blue: Rajasthan’s Road to the Ranji Trophy, Chopra praised Kanitkar: “Even the most talented side ends up underperforming if the leader is not competent. On the other hand, an able leader can get a team to punch above in weight. I knew Kanitkar to be a very stable, disciplined guy, and he displayed these characteristics on the field too. His decision-making was decisive and didn’t allow the game to drift away. He made all the right bowling changes, got the right field-placements for every bowler and, more importantly, got the bowlers to bowl to a specific plan. Even when things didn’t go according to plan, he didn’t raise his voice in anger or frustration. It was a welcome change for the youngsters of Rajasthan, for they’d been used to captains hurling abuses at them even on the grounds.”

Kanitkar led from the front, scoring 744 runs at 93 with 4 hundreds, finishing next to only Subramaniam Badrinath. Rajasthan the following season, and lightning struck twice as they lifted the Trophy again, becoming the fifth team (after Bombay, Maharashtra, Delhi, and Karnataka) to win the title in consecutive seasons. Kanitkar did not do a great job with the bat in the season, though he scored 143 against Mumbai.

He quit cricket in 2015, and signed up as coach of Goa.

 (Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)