THE INDIAN CRICKET TEAM is still in a transitionary phase. The last vestiges of the 2011 World Cup winning squad still remain—one-day captain M S Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh—most notably. The ongoing series against Saffers may well be their last. In this churn, what is painful to watch is the shabby treatment being meted out to Ajinkya Rahane, who is being pushed up and down the batting order despite being one of the technically gifted batsmen in the team.
At Kanpur, it was nice to watch two Bombay boys or if I have to be politically correct, Mumbaikars, stitching up a big partnership, one a die-hard Maharashtrian Rahane bred on fabric of Mumbai cricket, and the other an outsider, but yet a Mumbaikar in essence, style and stereotyping. Rahane and Rohit Sharma looked good together and after a long time one saw two Mumbaikars batting for India in complete synchronicity.
Indian cricket is always hungry for the genuine article; Rahane has all the necessary ingredients required.
Cricket runs on role models; Bombay's conveyor belt certainly did as one generation followed another in trying to emulate deeds and hundreds. And then suddenly it all went out of style. There was Tendulkar and only Tendulkar. With Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane the flame can burn again, the legend of the Bombay School of batsmanship can be burnished yet again.
The Bombay School of batsmanship was a function of maidan cricket.
With the gene pool constricted and restricted, Bombay, which morphed into Mumbai also lost its mojo in cricket. The cornerstone of the Bombay School was unarguably a unique guru-shishya relationship. The Bombay gharana goes back years and years and if one looks at its genealogy, it is predicated on every era and generation producing a champion batsman or two. Sometimes more than two.
A batter with a larger-than-life persona, at one level, a true blue megastar whose body of work sometimes subsumes the great game itself. Maximum city Mumbai has an intense kinetic energy which defies the adversity that its people face in the daily hurly burly of life. Yet there is a calmness and single-mindedness of purpose, backed by a commitment to constantly raise the bar.
This was reflected in their cricket, displaying a singular khadoosness, a state of mind, an attitude, a toughness or aloofness which allowed them to be the best. And always, the art form of batsmanship was nurtured and harnessed on the maidans of cricket.
As I watched Ajinkya Rahane play close to his body and then counter attack with a rash of pulls and hooks, in my mind's eye, I thought the art form is alive and well.
The diminutive batsman with all the bearing and poise of the Bombay School looked like the genuine article, if not the finished article. Four knocks in South Africa, New Zealand, England, and most recently in Sri Lanka on pitches conducive to seam, fast bowling and spin have shown that the next little man may have arrived from the fabled stable. The joke doing the rounds, when India was put into bat on a green wicket at Lord's wasthat—we have come here to play cricket not tennis at Wimbledon.
Durban, Wellington and Lord's have shown the pugnacious but attacking batsman could be the next big thing from Bombay. Coached by Pravin Amre, himself a former member of the Bombay School, Rahane's adroit handling of the new ball is what sets him apart.
Blessed with most of the ingredients that go into making of a technically sound batsman, one can argue a handful of swallows don't make a summer. Yet, he holds out hope. I will give you a couple of instances of this obsessiveness for perfection, something that one finds missing in Mumbai boys now.
Ravi Shastri was the embodiment of running this gauntlet in flesh and mind—an outsider, a non Maharashtrian—while playing for Don Bosco, Karnataka Sporting Association or Bombay and India. Like many others of his ilk, he woke up at 5:30 a.m., took the suburban train to Azad Maidan for practice, finished up and took another train back to King's Circle to get to school every morning.
Playing to win was the only motto and putting a price on your wicket was ingrained from an early age. Middle-class Maharashtrians ran a relay race, passing the baton from one to another. I will not take you back in the Wellsian Time Machine to a distant age, but only a few decades back to remind you of this inspiring lineage.
Schools and gully cricket was the edifice of this trade, perfected on the maidans, an area around Shivaji Park and Dadar Union becoming the epicentre of this gargantuan conveyor belt of talent. These cricketers were driven and hungry. Boys besotted with the game came out of the Shivaji Park-Hindu Colony area of Dadar, looking to carve a livelihood and make their tryst with izzat and shaurat.
It is pertinent to note the Marathi enclave of Shivaji Park-Hindu Colony was a sea of talent, from the western side where Shivaji Maharaj's statue guards the vast expanse of the maidan to the eastern side where educational institutions like R A Podar and Ramnarain Ruia college and King George—now rechristened Raja Shivaji Vidyalaya—which overlooks Matunga Maidan or Major Ramesh Dadkar Kreedangan as it is called, boosted this cult of cricket.
Neophytes came from the stables of Shivaji Park Gymkhana and Dadar Union, on the other side of the railway tracks, galvanised by a fervour to become a Bombay and then India cricketer. In a way, a strange confluence of Maharashtrian middle class psyche, and sensibilities, which were bred in the congested inner city, drove this hunger.
There was an element of another Bambiya tadka in this mix—khunnas or a sense of anger emanating from arrogance—which burned deep within the pits of these cricketers coming off the assembly line. And then, it all dissipated suddenly in Bombay, but was burnished in distant parts—Karnataka, Delhi, Hyderabad, and then as part of a larger democratization process, it spread to Ranchi, UP, Odisha, Kerala, and now J&K with Parvez Rasool.
As the dying embers of Bombay cricket are getting a leg up with the emergence of Rahane, one longs for the tussle for suzerainty that existed in the cut-throat Kanga League where Dadar Union, Shivaji Park Gymkhana, Sunder CC, Parsi Cyclists, Matunga Gymkhana, National, Baronet, New Hind, United and CCI vied for supremacy, while in the Times Shield one saw seesaw contests between the Tatas, ACC, Kohinoor Mills, Cipla, Western Railway, Mafatlals and finally Nirlon battle for the crown.
That culture is all over, and hence the drying up of talent wells. History will tell you the first commoners who broke through the yoke of princely fetters in Indian cricket were maidaners—Vijay Manjrekar and Subhash Gupte. Both played for Mahim Juveniles, then Shivaji Park, and finally India. In between, they played as professionals for Rajasthan and Bengal, just as Vijay Hazare and Vinoo Mankad plied their trade, in a different age, for the Jamsaheb of Nawanagar, and the Maharajah of Baroda.
The relay race saw Vijay Merchant, Russi Modi, Vijay Hazare give way to Polly Umrigar, Vijay Manjrekar, Madhav Apte (coached in part by the legendary Duleepsinghji) who handed over the baton to Ajit Wadekar, Ashok Mankad, and Sunil Gavaskar, who passed it on to Dilip Vengsarkar, Sandeep Patil, and Ravi Shastri. The next generation saw Sanjay Manjrekar, Sachin Tendulkar, Vinod Kambli, and Pravin Amre, and then abruptly, it all ended. Amol Mazumdar never made it through, though Rohit Sharma, a Mumbaikar, but not a Maharashtrian, has given us glimpses of this great tradition.
Now Rahane ignites the same passion in all us diehard cricket junkies. Bombay cricket is the last bastion, standing for and upholding a heritage with a unique synthesis of a classical style and technical perfectitude. It is good that Amre is playing the role of a guru to his shishya Rahane to keep this flame burning. Clearly, the relay is still running, albeit after a long time.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a sports junkie, editor & author. Currently a Visiting Fellow at ORF. Disclaimer: The views expressed are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of The Fan Garage)