I still remember the first time; I went to see a live cricket match. It was on 24th April 1991- the game was played at the Wankhade Stadium, a Ranji Trophy Semi- Final between Mumbai and Hyderabad.
The biggest attraction for that game was an 18 year old whose reputation was growing every single day. Sachin Tendulkar had not yet scaled the peaks which would make him the greatest batsmen of this generation, but nevertheless everybody in the country was talking about him. He had played an unforgettable innings in an exhibition match in Sialkot where he had smashed Abdul Qadir for 4 sixes in one over and three months later he had scored a match saving hundred at Old Trafford against England- all this at the age of 17.
For me though the chief attraction was to watch the galaxy of stars representing both sides. My favorite cricketer Mohammad Azharrudin would not be playing as he had left for England to play county cricket. Ravi Shashtri was missing in action for the same reason. But there were some big names on both sides particularly the Mumbai team which I followed with religious affection those days. I can still remember the Mumbai team- Rajput, Hatangadi, Manjrekar(c), Vengsarkar, Tendulkar, Kambli, Pandit (wk), Kulkarni, Ankola, Patil and Mokashi. Hyderabad had Arshad Ayub and Venkatpathy Raju, who was India’s leading spinner at that point of time.
It took a fair bit of effort from me to convince my family to take me too the ground and thanks to my Aunt I was at the Wankhade stadium that morning. Mumbai was batting first and they lost two quick wickets-Hatangadi and Rajput falling early. That in a way was good news since Sachin was one wicket away from coming to the wicket. But Manjrekar and Vengsarkar dug in. Manjrekar was probably India’s best batsmen at that point of time-He had scored lot of runs against Ambrose, Walsh, Marshall and Bishop in the West Indies and then followed it up with a successful tour of Pakistan where on green wickets he had scored nearly 500 runs against Imran, Wasim and Waqar. Everything Manjrekar did looked so correct and beautiful. It was fascinating watching him bat. Vengsarkar on the other hand seemed very flamboyant. Every now and then he would unleash a great stroke and demand applause from the sparse crowd.
Hyderabad toiled hard. Arshad Ayub bowled beautifully-I remember thinking how he managed to bowl so many maidens. But Vengsarkar and Manjrekar built a huge partnership. Vengsarkar fell on the last ball of the day for a well made hundred, Sachin came to bat the next morning and scored a quick 60 and went. A young Vinod Kambli came and scored 126 and went. But Manjrekar kept batting. And amazingly he kept batting till nearly the end of the second day. He was finally dismissed for 377.
That innings by Manjrekar left a lasting impression on my mind. I still remember how he kept going on and on and how correct his technique was throughout the two days. Also watching Arshad Ayub and Venkatpathy Raju bowl to him was intriguing to say the least. The battle between two classy spin bowlers against a technically sound and classical batsmen made me fall in love with the game. Mumbai made a mountain of runs-855 I think. Hyderabad fell well short…. They made only 498.
A week later, Mumbai played an unforgettable final against Haryana. Haryana were led by Kapil Dev and they had Chetan Sharma and a young all-rounder by the name of Ajay Jadeja. Kapil was desperate for a Ranji Trophy win. Haryana dominated the first four days of the final, getting a significant first innings lead. But Bombay, thanks to their pace attack of Kulkarni, Ankola and Kuruvilla (playing his first Ranji game) fought back. The Haryana tail though wagged a bit and it meant that Bombay needed to 353 runs in about 65 overs to win the Ranji Trophy.
“Impossible- no body can score that many runs in one day,” my uncle proclaimed to me and he was right. Scoring 350 runs in 65 overs was unheard of in those days. When Bombay was reduced to 34/3 the game was virtually over. It was then that Sachin Tendulkar joined Vengsarkar at the crease. Both played knocks which I will never forget for the rest of my life.
Sachin walked to the crease with sole purpose of destroying the Haryana attack. He scored 96 in about 60 deliveries, an innings which was studded with some incredible shots. One particular shot will never be forgotten by anybody present at the Wankhade that day. Sachin charged down the track to Kapil and smashed him straight over his head for a six- the ball landing directly on the sight screen- a 17 year old smashing India’s greatest fast bowler over his head for six stunned everyobne. If ever there was a shot of discontempt that was it.
However when he had the balling at mercy, Sachin fell, hitting a full toss straight to midwicket. “Now the game is gone”, I said to myself. However young Vinod Kambli came and played a superb little cameo. Vengsarkar at this stage was batting like a master- giving the strike to the young guys and punishing the bad ball. Bombay was within 100 runs of the target when Kambli fell. The gritty Chandu Pandit couldn’t contribute much and Kulkarni and Patil were needlessly run out. Ankola too fell and at 305/9 the game was over.
Actually, it was not. Vengsarkar, who was suffering from cramps and batting with a runner, launched into a ferocious counter attack. There were some amazing hits to the fence and even Kapil couldn’t stop him. There were about 8 boundaries in 4 overs and quickly Bombay had moved pat 350. But with the score at 353 and with just two required to win, Rajput who was running for Vengsarkar got in a horrible mix up with Kuruvilla and the last Bombay wicket fell courtesy a run out.
Young Kurvilla was distraught and Vengsarkar fell on the ground, tears streaming from his eyes. It was a moment of triumph for Kapil Dev who had finally led his beloved Harayana to a Ranji Trophy win.
I often look back to these two games with great affection. The memory still lingers. These two games were primarily responsible for me getting completely hooked to the game of cricket. Subsequently, I would witness some amazing cricket moments at the Wankhade. But these two games will always remain on the top of my list of favorite cricketing moments.