Architects of that historic win: (from left) EAS Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Gundappa Viswanath, Brijesh Patel. Photo Courtesy: Prasanna (AFP), Chandra, Viswanath (Getty Images), Brijesh (Brijesh Patel Cricket Academy Facebook page)
Architects of that historic win: (from left): EAS Prasanna (© AFP), Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (© Getty Images), Gundappa Viswanath (© Getty Images), Brijesh Patel (photo courtesy: Brijesh Patel Cricket Academy Facebook page)

March 17, 1974. Bombay were strolling towards their 16th Ranji Trophy title on the trot — an occurrence the country had accepted on an annual basis. Then, as things looked all set in the semi-final at Bangalore, Gundappa Viswanath and Brijesh Patel slammed hundreds, EAS Prasanna bowled the ball of his life, Ajit Wadekar slipped, and history was written. Abhishek Mukherjee re-lives Karnataka’s first step to their maiden Ranji title.

“Karnataka did the near-impossible,” wrote Mihir Bose in A History of Indian Cricket. It was not an exaggeration, for Bombay had lifted the Ranji Trophy for the 15 previous seasons as captaincy changed hands from Madhav Apte to Ajit Wadekar via Polly Umrigar, Bapu Nadkarni, Manohar Hardikar, and Sudhir Naik. They had not lost a single match since they conceded a match against Baroda in December 1957. This was March 1974.

Karnataka had their stars: in EAS Prasanna and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar they had two of the finest spinners in contemporary world cricket; Gundappa Viswanath was their answer to Sunil Gavaskar; they had two exciting batsman in Brijesh Patel and Sudhakar Rao; in Vijay Kumar they had a quality all-rounder; K Lakshman was the left-arm spinner of choice to support Prasanna and Chandra; and in Syed Kirmani they had a livewire behind the stumps.

But then, there have been good sides in the past decade-and-a-half, but none of them have been able to topple Bombay. Not one of the 22 men that took field that day at Chinnaswamy had made their First-Class debut when the defending Ranji Trophy champion was a team other than Bombay.

The pro and the protégé

Prasanna decided to bat on what looked like a pitch that might turn later in the match. At his prime, Abdul Ismail was genuinely quick, and was unfortunate to miss out on a Test cap. His 8-season long First-Class career would yield 244 wickets at a frugal 18.04.

Here, too, he drew first blood, having Vijay Kumar out for a duck. It was, however, not an easy dismissal. Gavaskar recollected in Sunny Days: “Ismail’s first ball, an out-swinger, was edged by Vijay Kumar straight to me. I fumbled with the simple catch, but luckily the ball stuck in my lap.”

[Note: Gavaskar’s memory seems to have failed him here. The scoreboard mentions the fall of wicket as 10 for 1, so it could not have been the first ball of the match — more so, since there were 8 extras in the innings.]

Then India’s ‘Other Little Master’ emerged from the pavilion, and was as good as dismissed first ball. Ramachandra Guha recollected in The States of Indian Cricket: An Anecdotal History: “The first delivery he [Viswanath] received was a sharp in-swinger, which hit him low on the back leg, in front of middle stump. On the theory that one did not give a genius out first ball, the umpire (whose name I have forgotten) let him bat on.”

[Note: The umpire who followed Guha’s impeccable ‘theory’ was one of Sunil Banerjee and Bhairab Ganguli.]

Gavaskar was not as amused: “Viswanath let go at the next ball but the third delivery, he played back, missed and was hit on the pads at ankle height. Surprisingly, the umpire gave him not out.”

Makarand Waingankar later wrote in The Times of India: “In walked local hero Gundappa Viswanath… another lovely outswinger which he left alone in style. The next ball had the wily Ismail slip-in a sharp inswinger. It rapped the shin of the back leg, plumb in front of the wicket. The umpire’s hand was slowly rising but perhaps the weight of Viswanath’s reputation made it suddenly drop down. The decision was loud and clear; not out. During the drinks break, Viswanath said: ‘Sorry Abdul, I was plumb but no one walks for leg before decisions.’”

[Note: Though Gavaskar mentions it was the first ball Viswanath faced and Waingankar and Guha, the second ball, it is more or less evident that the leg-before appeal was plumb, more so because Guha was a staunch Karnataka supporter.]

Then he brought his home ground alive with an assortment of drives and cuts as he outscored teenager Sanjay Desai, who held fort at one end. The 30,000-strong crowd (Guha’s estimation; yes, Ranji Trophy did attract people in the 1970s) applauded in unison as he brought up his fifty.

Then Padmakar Shivalkar, Bombay’s man for all seasons and a legend of Indian domestic cricket, sent Desai on his way. Young Brijesh walked out.

Brijesh came from a cricketing family: his uncles Krishnakant, Bhupendra, and Mukesh had all played for Karnataka. The pedigree was there, and it showed as he opened up in an assortment of strokes that made his illustrious senior partner take a backseat.

The pair added 166 in 174 minutes before Brijesh was claimed by Ismail. By then he had scored 106, studded with 17 fours and a six. Karnataka finished the day on 291 for 3.

The next day belonged to Bombay’s spinners. Shivalkar (4 for 94) and young-leg spinner Rakesh Tandon (4 for 125) ran through the Karnataka line-up. Viswanath carved out 162 in 356 minutes with 24 boundaries, but that was about it. He and Brijesh were the only ones to make it past 30 as Karnataka, after being 281 for 2, were bowled out for 385.

There was, however, good news: Shivalkar and Tandon had both obtained turn. Could Prasanna and Chandra pull off what others have failed to in a decade-and-a-half?

Undoing the Little Master

Despite their greatness, there are moments or performances that define some cricketers more than anything else in their career. For Shane Warne, it was the Ball of the Century. For Fred Trueman, Old Trafford 1952. For Chandra, The Oval, 1971. For Derek Underwood, the same ground, 1968. For Jonty Rhodes, the run out of Inzamam-ul-Haq. For Javed Miandad, the last-ball six off Chetan Sharma. For Kapil Dev, 175 not out at Tunbridge Wells.

There may have been bigger moments in their careers. But for us, lesser mortals, fans of the sport, there have been moments that have defined them. It might not be true for everyone, but at least for Prasanna, there was one.

Gavaskar was in full flow that day, unleashing one on-drive against Prasanna after another, but little did he realise that he was playing into the hands of the wily fox. The doosra was yet to be invented, but Prasanna had a deadly floater.

Guha later wrote: “Pras fed him on his favourite on-drive, and then bowled a ball of full-length which, just as the batsman was making to drive, swerved abruptly in its flight to take the off-bail. I can still see Gavaskar clapping his hand against the bat as he left the ground, in acknowledgement of Prasanna’s wizardry.”

How good was the ball? Prasanna himself told Waingankar in an interview with The Times of India: “Sunny was a great batsman, but that particular delivery he played for a turn and lost the off-bail.”

Bose was not present at the ground, but he, too, mentioned it: “Those who saw the semi-final with Bombay talked for days about the ball from Prasanna, a floater that beat a well-set Gavaskar’s forward-defensive stroke and bowled him.”

Hyderabad off-spinner Venkatraman Ramnarayan (later a renowned columnist and cricket writer), recollected in his blog: “Prasanna’s floater that removed Gavaskar’s off-bail was the magical delivery of the match.”

Till this day Prasanna remembers the ball as his “fondest memory.”

The 323 man

Ajit Wadekar’s emergence brought back memories of the 1966-67 semi-final. Karnataka (then Mysore) had put up 341. But Wadekar had reached 120 by stumps on Day Two, taking Bombay to 347 for 2; a brutal onslaught the next day saw him reach 323 as Bombay declared on 602 for 7 — all that, in the presence of Prasanna and Chandra. A hapless Mysore had lost by an innings.

Wadekar was a giant of the Ranji Trophy. His Test numbers are ordinary (2,113 runs at 34.07, 1 hundred); his First-Class numbers, impressive (15,380 at 47.03, 36 hundreds); but his Ranji numbers read 4,388 at a stupendous 59.29 with 12 hundreds.

To some, Wadekar was more dangerous than Gavaskar at this level. He was brutal on his day, driving spinners and hooking fast bowlers with astounding ease, piling up humongous scores with a seemingly insatiable appetite for runs. His previous innings against Karnataka yielded 127, 21*, 323, 91, 29, and 15 — 606 runs at 121.20.

To top that, Wadekar was the man who had got India to dream: he won series in West Indies and England, and had beaten England at home (after England had won The Ashes in Australia and England). He was the toast of the nation.

Prasanna got rid of Ramnath Parkar, but Ashok Mankad settled down, and the flow of runs did not seem to stop. Prasanna toiled from one end, alternating between Chandra and Lakshman from the other end. The seamers, Vijay Kumar and AV Jayaprakash (later an international umpire), were forgotten.

But the pair were not separated. At stumps the score read 179 for 2 with Wadekar on 53 and Mankad, 57. They added another 19 the next morning. They needed another 186 to reach the final.

The slip

It happened very quickly. Mankad played Prasanna to point. Wadekar called for the single, but Mankad sent him back. Wadekar — an impeccable judge of the short run — had an eternity to get back. But Wadekar turned… and slipped.

Guha, present at the ground, described the dismissal vividly: “Sudhakar Rao advanced quickly from point. Ajit turned, slipped, and just failed to make the ground. And Prasanna, who had been waiting for this moment for the better part of a lifetime, was over the bails to take Sudhakar’s throw.”

Prasanna was as ordinary a fielder as they made them — indeed, fielding was one of the reasons that Wadekar preferred Srinivas Venkataraghavan over him in the Test side — but he was not going to falter this time.

Wadekar had apparently been batting in new rubber-soled shoes. He later told Waingankar: “I batted with the shoes in the nets, but hadn’t run at all. I slipped on the grass while taking a run.”

Suresh Menon took a sarcastic view on this: “Years later he [Wadekar] was to blame it on ‘new shoes’, and had Karnataka known then, they would have sent him a lifetime supply of shoes for authoring that turning point in the match.”

As a disgruntled Wadekar walked back, little did he realise that it was going to be a pivotal moment in the history of Indian cricket.

Mopping up

The floodgates had opened. Prasanna had waited for this moment for years, as had the rest of India outside The City That Never Sleeps. How they had waited for that single moment! How they had wanted to see a new champion! How they had craved for a messiah to emerge — a man who would topple Bombay from their (albeit rightful) position!

Prasanna knew that he was bowling for his state. He knew he was the man the entire nation was following on All India Radio. It had to be him. And Chandra. And though the two biggest thorns were out of the way, there was still work to be done.

Sudhir Naik joined Mankad, and the pair added 33. But Prasanna was not going to relent: he ignored Lakshman as well, letting Chandra and himself pick out the batsmen one by one. From 231 for 3 Bombay slipped to 276 for 8.

Subhash Bandiwadekar, the Railways wicketkeeper who had moved to Bombay that season, decided to give the famed pair the charge. With Ismail at the other end, Bandiwadekar hit out, reaching a quickfire 33 — but it came too late in the day.

Prasanna finished with 63-21-117-5 and Chandra with 44-6-145-4. All that stood between Karnataka and a spot in the final were a few hours to bat out.

The thrill of declaring

This time the openers put up 45. Viswanath (45), Brijesh (63), and Sudhakar Rao (51) all contributed. Even Kirmani played a few strokes at the other end as Tandon (4 for 114) kept chipping away at the wickets.

As the Bombay shoulders dropped in resignation, Prasanna had one last moment of joy. He later recollected to Vedam Jaishankar of The Times of India: “We had the lead, but I wanted to have the thrill of declaring against the mighty Bombay. When we were 279 for 8, I closed the second innings and asked them to bat again.”

It was a token declaration, for there was no way Bombay was going to get 358. To make things worse, Gavaskar retired ill after scoring 16, but Parkar and Naik played out time. Bombay were out of Ranji Trophy — after 15 years.

What happened?

– Meanwhile, at Hyderabad, the hosts had been dominating proceedings with a first-innings lead of 80. They were left to chase a mere 168 in the fourth innings, but off-spinner Gajendra Shaktawat, along with Kailash Gattani, decided to intervene: a strong batting line-up, boasting of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, ML Jaisimha, Abbas Ali Baig, Kenia Jayantilal, and Abid Ali, were reduced to 110 for 8; there was a 44-run ninth-wicket stand, but Rajasthan prevailed by a 12-run margin.

– With the flesh in thorn out of the way, there was no stopping Karnataka. Prasanna (4 for 56 and 5 for 45) and Chandra (2 for 81 and 3 for 56), aided by Jayaprakash (55 and 64 not out), gave Karnataka their first Ranji title.

– Karnataka got a hero’s reception: 3,000 people, led by KSCA President M Chinnaswamy, were waiting for them at the railway station when they arrived in Bangalore. They dined with the Chief Minister that night, which also happened to be April 1 — ironically, Wadekar’s birthday. The team members were rewarded with INR 1,000 each (no typo there).

– The season also marked the beginning of Wadekar’s inexplicable disappearance from the scenario. India lost 0-3 in the 1974 tour of England. Not only was Wadekar stripped of captaincy (one must remember this was his first series defeat after three wins), he was also dropped from the side. On his return to India he played a solitary Ranji Trophy match against Saurashtra, scored 2, and retired from First-Class cricket.

– Bombay won the next three seasons of Ranji Trophy.

– Despite the elimination in 1973-74, Bombay were yet to lose a Ranji Trophy match outright since 1957-58. That happened against Gujarat in 1977-78, when they were inexplicably bowled out for 83 and 42. Prasanna led Karnataka to their second title that season.

Brief scores:

Karnataka 385 (Gundappa Viswanath 162, Brijesh Patel 106; Padmakar Shivalkar 4 for 94, Rakesh Tandon 4 for 125) and 279 for 8 decl. (Gundappa Viswanath 42, Brijesh Patel 63, Sudhakar Rao 51; Rakesh Tandon 4 for 114) drew with Bombay 307 (Ajit Wadekar 62, Ashok Mankad 84; EAS Prasanna 5 for 117, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar 4 for 145) and 84 for no loss (Ramnath Parkar 49*).

Karnataka won on first innings lead.

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