Regrets in cricket tend to be a meandering melancholy. They are recalled with Rashomon relish, by all the different characters they managed to sting. The 1991 Mumbai-Haryana Ranji Trophy final was one such game. It had ended with the seasoned pro and home team’s senior-most star Dilip Vengsarkar dropping down on his knees, bawling like a child, and remaining glued to the Wankhede Stadium turf for hours after the game.
Twenty eight years later, the loss still hurts the runners-up. The various ‘what ifs’ during the last day chase of 355 still get discussed by those in the Mumbai dressing room and close to 30,000 in the stands that day.
Was it the eight catches that Bombay dropped in the first innings? Could the Bombay top 3 (or penultimate 3) have chipped in more? Was Sachin hexed when driving straight to Jadeja in covers after timing the ball sweetly till then? Was it the most precious save from Amarjeet Kaypee at square leg which ended in the misunderstanding between Lalchand Rajput and Abey? What was Rajput thinking, even? Or was it that diving save at fine leg from Rajesh Puri earlier, which saved three runs at the boundary — incidentally the margin of the despondent defeat. Puri is Sachin Tendulkar’s pick.
Haryana played like cornered tigers against the traditional bullies Bombay and nicked one away — something that Kapil Dev and Vengsarkar apparently bantered about when they met in the common toilet at the Wankhede Stadium earlier on the last day. And Bombay nurses the regrets to this day, never forgetting to remember that one time, they lost.
Talk to any of the Mumbai stalwarts of the early 1990s and they are likely to best remember — vividly and regretfully — one that got away. By the way, Mumbai have won the Ranji Trophy 41 times, 15 of them in a row, and finished on the wrong side of a final just five times.
It was not just the margin of defeat – merely two runs – to Kapil Dev’s Haryana that often gives Dilip Vengsarkar nightmares even today. It’s Haryana only Ranji title till date.
“I didn’t sleep for the next three months — even when I went to England to watch some matches. My wife used to ask why I was turning and twisting at night. I told her that the defeat still hurts me. I still can’t get over it,” Vengsarkar said.
The former India captain took his team — then called Bombay — to the brink of their first national title in six years with an unbeaten 139 before a farcical run-out, involving a runner, put paid to their dream and left him high and not-so-dry in the eye. “There were six balls (14 in fact) left and (No. 11) Abey Kuruvilla wasn’t playing any big shots. I didn’t expect Lalu (Lalchand Rajput, the runner) to run,” Vengsarkar recalls about the final run-out which panned out after he cramped earlier on.
He slumped to the ground and broke down as the Haryana players celebrated.
Ranji Trophy finals can often flatter to deceive. But the class on display in 1990-91 made it an occasion to remember.
‘Never seen him cry’
Apart from Vengsarkar, Bombay — led by Sanjay Manjrekar — had in its ranks a tyro named Sachin Tendulkar along with his childhood friend Vinod Kambli. Apart from Kapil, Haryana had Ajay Jadeja and Chetan Sharma among their XI.
“I had never seen Dilip cry. I had played international cricket with him but have never seen him cry like this. That’s what the game does to a player. At such times, you need your space, time is the healer. We left Dilip alone after he came back,” Tendulkar recalls.
He was still a precocious teenager then and describes the match as if it had taken place yesterday.
“On the last day we had to score 357 runs (355) in some 50-60- odd overs. To chase it in those limited overs is not easy at all even now. Especially when they had bowlers like Kapil Dev and Chetan Sharma in the opposition team,” he remembers.
Tendulkar’s 96 (75 balls, 9×4, 5×6) was one of the highlights of the final afternoon, especially a six off Kapil as he took to the Haryana bowlers.
‘Ek baar toh jeetne de’
The assault so unnerved Haryana that even their skipper felt the tide had turned against them despite the tall target they were defending. Recalls Vengsarkar: “I remember I met Kapil in the toilet during a break. In those days, we used to have a common toilet. Kapil came and said, ‘ek baar toh jeetne de’. I said you have already won. Kapil said, ‘no, as long you are there, tab tak pata nahi re’.
Came a mile, fell short by inches
That Bombay came within three runs of the title was a minor miracle in itself. They had conceded a first-innings lead of 112, and Ajay Banerjee added to their frustration by adding 90 for the last two wickets with tail-enders Pradeep Jain and Yogendra Bhandari. It not only added to the Bombay target, but also reduced the overs and time at their disposal. In any case, a draw would have sufficed for Haryana to take the crown on first-innings lead.
When the chase eventually began, Bombay were three down in no time. Openers Rajput and Shishir Hattangadi and Manjrekar were back in the pavilion with 34 runs on the board.
It was when Vengsarkar and Tendulkar came together after lunch on the fifth day that Bombay began the comeback. The senior pro asked his batting partner to exercise caution as the team couldn’t afford another wicket at that stage. But Tendulkar was having none of it.
“Sachin batted brilliantly, out of the world. The way he played that innings was outstanding. If he had stayed for five-six overs more, we would have finished that game much earlier,” Vengsarkar looks back. “I was telling Sachin to go slow later on, but he slammed a six off Kapil. A strong hatta-katta Sachin was batting.”
Tendulkar had his own reasons for taking an aggressive approach.
“I remember Chetan and Kapil bowling in tandem. We had hardly any runs on the board and had lost early wickets in our chase. If we wanted to go for the kill, the only option was to bat aggressively,” Tendulkar reasoned.
“I felt I should press the pedal as hard as possible. I started well and attacked everyone. I hit a couple of big shots off Kapil paaji as well. I hit him towards the pavilion for a six. Those were not the T20 days, so it was slightly different when somebody came and hit a fast bowler like that. But I was confident to go out and play some big shots.”
Twist in the script
Vengsarkar and Tendulkar had added 134 for the fourth wicket before the latter hit a full-toss straight to a fielder.
“I felt we were going at a phenomenal run rate but I got out to off-spinner Yogendra Bhandari. It was a full-toss and I thought I will place it next to cover. An easy shot, no need to hit the ball hard, but the ball went straight to Jadeja in the covers,” the younger partner remembers.
Bombay still had Kambli to come and the left-hander didn’t let the momentum slip.
“Kambli played well too but the rest choked under pressure. I think the lower order lacked temperament. We had four wickets in hand and needed to score some 40-odd runs (actually 65) in the last 10 overs. It was easy to get, but we messed it up,” Vengsarkar regrets.
The veteran argues that everybody was expected to know what needed to be done and didn’t need to be told specifically.
“There used to be no meeting those days. Everyone knew their job and only had to apply common sense.”
After Kambli was dismissed by Jadeja with the score at 249, Chandrakant Pandit, Raju Kulkarni, Salil Ankola and Sanjay Patil departed in quick succession to leave Bombay at 305/9. Even if the last wicket had fallen immediately, it would have been counted among the more memorable Ranji finals. But the drama was not over yet.
Kuruvilla had been playing in the lower leagues of Bombay cricket, and was picked to make his Ranji debut in the final on a hunch. He had already taken five wickets in the match, and now proceeded to give Vengsarkar, who soon reached his ton, valuable support.
The senior partner took to Bhandari and had a sequence of 6,4,6,6,4, in an over to get Bombay within touching distance.
“Abey stood up and that is why we reached so close,” Vengsarkar says now. “I didn’t speak to him much. I didn’t want him to feel the pressure. I gave the strike to Abey because I didn’t want him to feel inferior. He didn’t play any big shot, out ho sakta tha.”
The tide began to turn again as the target came closer, run by run.
“I felt we were in the race and can achieve the target. In the opposition tent, you can see people getting worried,” Tendulkar recalls.
“Towards the end, we started to play our strokes. There was a brilliant stop at fine leg (Rajesh Puri had stopped a boundary), I still remember. If that ball had gone for four, we would have won the game there itself. One stop was also made in the last over. It was a nail-biting finish and till the end, no one knew who was going to win. It went to the wire, every inch mattered. Till then, nobody knew that Abey could hang around with the bat.”
Cricket lovers of a later vintage would remember the 1999 World Cup semifinal between Australia and South Africa at Edgbaston, which ended in a tie after a farcical run-out.
Eight years earlier, the target had whittled to three off 15 deliveries as Chetan Sharma ran in to Kuruvilla, with Vengsarkar at square-leg and his runner Rajput at the non-striker’s end.
Vengsarkar knew he just needed one ball to get the target and there was no need to take any risk in running between the wickets. But as the ball trickled to short fine-leg, Rajput inexplicably ran halfway down the wicket as Kuruvilla’s eyes were still following the ball. When the latter began running, Amarjeet Kaypee, who had scored more than 900 runs that season, had the ball in his stand and beat the No. 11 with his throw, as Vengsarkar looked on helplessly.
“Lalu had called for a run and I just ran…..at the last moment, he said no. By that time I was mid-pitch,” Kuruvilla recalls.
Undefeated in defeat
Vengsarkar was on his knees, sobbing, with his bat prone on the ground. The crowd, which had swelled steadily through the day, saw its local hero in a river of tears. But their applause fell on deaf ears as a supreme unbeaten innings (139 in 137 balls, 9×4, 5x6s) had been in vain.
“I feel very bad till date because we had overs left. And I had to score only two runs,” he says.
Tendulkar recalls: “After Abey got run out, everyone was sad, it was a big disappointment. We were so close, it was heartbreaking without a doubt. You don’t get such games anymore. These kind of matches stay with you forever. One can even say Haryana won because of that save on the boundary by Puri.”
Prasad Desai was the Mumbai 12th man for the game and had the unenviable task of taking Vengsarkar back into the dressing room.
“Losing the Ranji final was like losing a World Cup final. It was a very big issue for all of us. In the dressing room, there was a lull, like someone had passed away. During his hundred, Vengsarkar’s bat was broken in two while trying to pull. He told me ki fek dena (throw it away). But I took it with me and got it repaired and later gave it to Amol Muzumdar,” Desai says.“When Dilip came back, he was totally blank. I prepared Electral and lemon water for him. Nobody dared to approach him.”
Desai puts the battle of the titans into perspective.
“I remember Kapil came round the wicket to Vengsarkar in first innings, and bowled him with a yorker. Having claimed the big wicket, he smashed the ball into the ground, and told Chetan, ‘tu aage (baakiyonko) dekh le.’
“In the second innings, Vengsarkar hit Kapil over long-on for six. Dilip had fumed about the first innings dismissal. That six was a message to show who is the boss.”