May 7, 1991. On the final day of the Ranji Trophy final, young Sachin Tendulkar hit a stunning 96 before Dilip Vengsarkar essayed a majestic unbeaten 139. Yet, Haryana clinched the match by 2 runs in a spectacular finish. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the day which saw Vengsarkar break down in tears on the field.
Plenty at stake
After an interminable hour and a half that cost an exorbitant 83 runs, Salil Ankola’s outswinger nicked the edge of the bat of the Haryana No. 11 Yogendra Bhandari. Behind the stumps Chandrakant Pandit reached for it and parried it into the air. From the first slip Dilip Vengsarkar moved forward and clutched the ball as if his life depended on it.
Indeed a lot did hinge on that last wicket. The Bombay men rushed back to the pavilion, eager to get back and start off on a near impossible chase. There were 355 to get, off 190 minutes and 20 mandatory overs, against a bowling attack that would be started by Kapil Dev and Chetan Sharma. But, it was the Ranji Trophy final, and every soul brought up in Bombay craved to win the cup with a burning passion.
Besides, there was much to play for. The team for the forthcoming tour to Australia had not yet been selected. There were a number of aspirants. And at least one of them was clinging on to his last slice of hope.
Vengsarkar was 35. For much of the eighties he had been the premier batsman of India, and for a dream period of two years the best in the world. But now, he was battling an uphill battle against the twin opponents of age and a gamut of young batsmen. His form had taken a beating in the international arena. Even in England, the land of his most celebrated successes, the report of his willow had been muffled in the 1990 tour. The elegance and class had never been in question, but the net results had been negative. Till that point, he was by no means a certainty for the voyage Down Under. The final innings in the championship could well be his last chance.
And then there was Kapil Dev, the champion all-rounder. He had taken Haryana to the title round with five wickets and a century against Bengal in the semi-final. He had won more or less every laurel in the international arena, but the shelf of domestic triumphs still lacked that elusive Ranji Trophy. He dearly wanted to win. He knew he was up against phenomenal talent. Bombay was led by the young Sanjay Manjrekar, and an 18-year-old middle order batsman in their ranks went by the name of Sachin Tendulkar. But Kapil believed he had the team to challenge the best. Apart from Chetan Sharma, the side included the young guns Vijay Yadav and Ajay Jadeja. There was the prolific Amarjeet Kaypee. And at the end of the third innings, the balance was tilted in favour of the northern state.
THE CROWD WATCHED IN SILENCE, MANY CHOKING UP THEMSELVES, DISTRAUGHT AT THE SIGHT OF THIS GALLANT HERO WHOSE LAST DEED WAS LEFT UNDONE.
The preceding drama
As Lalchand Rajput and Shishir Hattangadi walked out to open the second innings there were palpitating hearts in both the ranks. The previous day had seen some sensational turns of fortunes. And now, although Haryana held the upper hand, Bombay were in with a chance – something that had seemed impossible at this time on the previous day.
The third day had ended with the match immaculately poised. It seemed to be the age old tussle for the first innings lead. Haryana, buoyed by veteran Deepak Sharma’s 199, and a brace of 90s by Ajay Jadeja and Chetan Sharma, had piled up 522. Bombay had ended the third day on 322 for 4, two generations of great Indian batsmanship on display at the two ends. Vengsarkar and Tendulkar were together, having already put on 78 runs.
However, the initial burst on the fourth morning had proved well-nigh decisive. Chetan Sharma had dismissed Tendulkar on the overnight score. Kapil had bowled Vengsarkar after a fascinating duel, the Bombay batsman shouldering arms to one that swung in. The Haryana captain had claimed two more wickets and Bombay had withered away for 410. With a 122 run first innings lead, all that the Haryana batsman needed to do was to play out time. It was the time tested way of the 1980s and the scores indicated that the wicket was a featherbed. But this match was designed in a very special cricketing heaven.
In that blistering heat of May, Raju Kulkarni, debutant Abey Kuruvilla and Ankola ran in tirelessly, used astutely by Manjrekar in short spells. Sanjay Patil, the left arm spinner who had notched up 85 as night-watchman in the first innings, pegged away at the wickets.
Towards the end of the fourth day, it seemed that Bombay lacked a second spinner. There was no one who turned the ball from the off and Bhandari had claimed five first innings wickets for Haryana. And Shishir Hattangadi was introduced with spectacular effect, enjoying every moment of his spell, removing the dangerous late order duo of Yadav and Sharma. By stumps, Bombay had come right back into the game.
And now started the chase just before lunch on the final day.
The Tendulkar effect
The beginning could not have been worse. Hattangadi fell early. Manjrekar walked out to essay some blistering strokes before both he and Rajput were out at the same score. It was 34 for 3 when Tendulkar walked in with Vengsarkar after lunch. The target, 355, seemed well beyond impossible. Only, no one had said so to the young Indian prodigy. In fact, a sizeable portion of the crowd had left the ground. Some of them would hurry back. The rest would rue the reckless decision for the rest of their lives.
Kapil Dev ran in and sent down a slower ball. Tendulkar struck it with the full swing of a straight bat, the ball travelled in a searing arc and straight over the bowler’s head and landed in the crowd. “It was a shot of great class and his genius was there for all to see,” recalled Kapil, a decade and a half after the game.
The Haryana fielders now knew that the match was not over. Especially when Tendulkar proceeded to launch left-arm spinner Pradeep Jain straight into the crowd. It was as if the Pied Piper had played his first few notes. The word about Tendulkar’s counterattack spread across Bombay with the reverberating echoes of his strokes. People started converging to the Wankhede Stadium from all corners of the city.
The men who flocked in were in some serious physical danger, for Tendulkar continued to send the ball into the crowds. Sharma ran in from the North Stand, the dreams of the trophy lending spice and pace to his deliveries. Tendulkar flat-batted him over mid-off, some 20 feet into the air, and it was still travelling as it hit the stands.
Kapil spread his fielders along the distant boundary lines. He himself back-pedalled to the fence as the balls were bowled, marshaling his men with words and gestures, imploring them to be calm. The many men along the ropes did not really help matters. Tendulkar swung Jain for two more sixes. The target, that had seemed enormous just a few moments earlier, now seemed just a few overs away. Kapil could hardly do anything other than watch, wait and wish for the young genius to make a mistake. And that is what followed. Bhandari was blasted for three fours in an over before the young man charged down and hit a full-toss straight to cover.
Tendulkar walked back for 96 from 75 balls, with 5 sixes, essayed before the advent of extreme bats and encroaching boundary ropes.
THE ENDURING IMAGE OF THE FINAL WAS THE SIGHT OF A FORLORN VENGSARKAR CRYING UNABASHEDLY AS HE DRAGGED HIMSELF ON WOBBLY LEGS BACK TO THE DRESSING ROOM WHERE HE PROCEEDED TO SIT IN A CORNER, EYES BLOODSHOT, WITH NOT A TEAM-MATE VENTURING NEAR HIM.
Over to Vengsarkar
The stand had yielded 134. Vengsarkar had watched from the other end, steady and solid, rotating the strike masterfully. He was now joined by Tendulkar’s school chum. Vinod Kambli was supremely talented, but could he carry on the extraordinary work of Tendulkar?
With the experience of over a decade, Kapil came back into the attack, eager to press home the advantage of the prized wicket, get on top of the young Kambli. But, it was Vengsarkar who seized the initiative. His waiting game was over. Kapil strayed on the pads and the maestro launched him over midwicket for six. The chase was on.
Kambli kept the scoreboard ticking. There were close calls, strokes of fortune as he blundered in shot selection, but runs were added briskly. Everything seemed to be going Bombay’s way when Vengsarkar struck Kapil wide of long on. It was followed by an ear-splitting cry of ‘No’. Kambli, three quarters of the way down the track, hurried back to his crease. The veteran batsman at the other end was in pain. He had cramps in his thigh. And asked for a runner. Rajput trotted out.
Kapil ran in again. Eyes were strained to find out whether Vengsarkar would be hampered in his movements. The ball was not quite over-pitched, but the front foot was plonked down the wicket and the bat swung in an splendid arc. The ball sailed over long on. It was another audacious six.
When the mandatory overs started, 18,000 watched from the stands. Bombay needed 114, at 5.7. Six wickets remained to spare. The score stood at 241 for 4. The balance had shifted.
Eight runs later, Kambli pushed an innocuous gentle medium paced delivery back to Jadeja. 249 for 5. But there was depth, experience and ability in the Bombay lower order. The man who now walked in had been a good enough batsman to step into Vengsarkar’s large shoes when he had injured himself on the eve of the Madras Test of 1986-87 – the game that had ended in a tie. Pandit could be a classy player, and looked composed as he helped Vengsarkar put on 25 with risk free cricket. But then Jain snared him, and the tail was in.
Kulkarni, Ankola and Jain were all able batsmen. Vengsarkar carried on, with absolute faith in his partners. But, by now it was a tale of nerves. Wickets kept falling. At 290, Kulkarni was runout. At 300, Ankola lobbed one back to Bhandari. And At 305, off the first ball of a Bhandari over, Patil scampered across and was short of the crease at the non-striker’s end. Was it just the tail-enders? Or was Lalchand Rajput, doing all the running for Vengsarkar, feeling the heat as well? Debutant Kuruvilla walked in, immensely tall and the only real mug with the bat. There were still 50 to get. Vengsarkar was batting on 98.
The next five balls saw the famous Power bat erupt into the last ditch effort. The crack was like thunder, and the ball travelled like streaks of red lightening. “I can still hear the sounds of those strokes,” says Jatin Paranjpe, who had watched the game from the stands that day.
The second ball of the over was launched over the sight-screen. Vengsarkar had thus reached his hundred, sealing his berth in the squad to Australia. But, there was a trophy to be won. And no one in Bombay wanted it more than the man at the crease.
The third ball was dropped short, and the savage strokeplay was now sprinkled with finesse. The late cut was delicate and sent it to the fine third man fence.
The fourth ball disappeared over long-on. And the fifth rebounded off the first ‘T’ of ‘TATA ENTERPRISES’ written in bold print across the face of the roof of the Wankhede.
Off the last ball, the batsman was perhaps torn between the urge to push for a single and belt it for six. The result was a scorching straight drive that boomed into the advertising board in front of the screen. The sequence had been 6,4,6,6,4. Bombay needed 24 more.
Kapil Dev ran in, eager to knock Kuruvilla over. A full toss of deceptive pace struck him in front, with leg-before written all over it. The bowler went up, the wicket keeper, the fielders … all but the finger of the umpire. Kapil fumed. “I have never seen him so angry,” recalled Chetan Sharma later. Sharma himself was not quite amused when his climbing bouncer was called a wide two overs later. It had sailed well beyond the head of the six foot six inched Kuruvilla with ease, so he was not quite justified in his ire.
Vengsarkar off-drove, unleashing his famous stroke with punch and power, four written all over it. On the long off boundary, Rajesh Puri ran full tilt and dived. The result was a single, three vital runs saved.
With nine men stationed on the fence, Vengsarkar opted for a rather controversial ploy. The target looked eminently reachable, and he pushed for singles off the early balls of the over, sometimes the very first one. That amounted to putting a lot of faith on the debutant, the C-division cricketer, whose main job was to bowl fast from his great height. To his credit, Kuruvilla did not give his wicket away. He faced 25 balls in all, far too many according to some. But, the bowlers could not get him. “When you are nine down, sometimes you have to depend on luck to an extent,” skipper Manjrekar said after the match. “And in any case the innings Dilip played is the dream of any batsman. We can hardly criticise it.”
And the tears
The debatable tactics notwithstanding, the runs were being knocked off. Occasionally Vengsarkar pierced the army of fielders who patrolled the boundary. Once Kuruvilla managed to turn the ball to fine leg and scamper two with Rajput.
When Sharma ran in to bowl the fourth ball of the 18th mandatory over, 3 runs were required from 15 deliveries, Kuruvilla on strike. At square-leg stood Vengsarkar, knowing well that all he needed was one ball.
And then it happened. Kuruvilla managed to get some bat on it, and the ball trickled towards the short-fine leg. In a flash, Rajput was down the wicket. Unschooled in the basics of running between the wickets, the rookie was still watching the ball as Amarjeet Kaypee sprinted in. Kuruvilla’s start was way too late. Even his long, long legs could not beat the throw. The Haryana fielders erupted in a simultaneous roar of joy. Stumps and ball were ransacked as the victors rushed to the pavilion in a sprint of delight.
And slowly the eyes turned towards square-leg. Vengsarkar was no longer on his feet. He had collapsed, a broken man, sobbing helplessly. His bat, which had produced some of the most remarkable strokes in the game, was lying prone on the ground. The batsman himself was on his knees, unable to believe what had happened, unable to stop his tears.
The crowd watched in silence, many choking up themselves, distraught at the sight of this gallant hero whose last deed was left undone. Slowly the two umpires AL Narasimhan and RV Ramani approached the batsman, offering their hands, mouthing meaningless consolations like, “Well played.” One offered to carry his bat. It had been a supreme knock, an unbeaten 139 from 137 balls, studded with 9 fours and 5 stunning sixes. But now all that seemed in vain.
The medium pacer Prasad Desai emerged, a reserve player in the Bombay squad. He ran to the middle of the ground where Vengsarkar sat, and gently coaxed him to return. The tears continued to flow as he walked back, with the occasional – and one must say rather unfair – admonitions aimed at young Kuruvilla.
The Haryana dressing room was a picture of celebration, with the players breaking into frequent impromptu dance routines. The scene in the Bombay camp was quite the opposite. As H Natarajan observed in Wisden Asia, “The enduring image of the final was the sight of a forlorn Vengsarkar crying unabashedly as he dragged himself on wobbly legs back to the dressing room where he proceeded to sit in a corner, eyes bloodshot, with not a team-mate venturing near him.”
Haryana 522 (Deepak Sharma 199, Ajay Jadeja 94, Amarjeet Kaypee 45, Chetan Sharma 98; Abey Kuruvilla 4 for 128) and 242 (Ajay Banerjee 60*, Kapil Dev 41) beat Bombay 410 (Lalchand Rajput 74, Sanjay Patil 85, Sachin Tendulkar 47, Chandrakant Pandit 40; Yogendra Bhandari 5 for 116) and 352 (Dilip Vengsarkar 139*, Sachin Tendulkar 96, Vinod Kambli 45) by 2 runs.