Updated: January 9, 2017 11:48:23 am
Sometime in the prelude to the Maharashtra state polls in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed a bullet train connecting Mumbai and Ahmedabad, the biggest city in Gujarat.
The proposal promptly met a sharp retort from MNS chief and Maratha strongman Raj Thackeray: “Why will our people go there? Dhokla is available here also.” Such verbal virulence generally permeates the poll campaigns in the state, especially in Mumbai, which has an influential Gujarati votebank.
The antagonism, which often peaks before polls, has a well-documented socio-political premise, the most referenced point of reference being the Mahagujarat movement in the 1950s.
Thankfully though, the us-and-them discord has never steamed into the realm of sport, especially cricket, primarily for the reason that they have been at the diametrically opposite ends of the cricketing spectrum. Mumbai have lorded over domestic cricket for decades, winning more accolades and titles than all other sides put together.
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They have won 41 of the 82 editions of the Ranji Trophy, to go with 14 Irani Trophy triumphs too. As many as 60 of their cricketers have represented the country, their combined Test cap would be quite a mind-boggling number. Three of their finest – Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar – have between them 100 Test hundreds and 30,000-odd Tests runs. They seamlessly fit into the frame of Jonathan Swift’s Brobdingnagians, the fictional 60-feet giants.
If so, Gujarat are the Lilliputians, the imaginary midgets of domestic cricket. Leave alone winning Ranji Trophy multiple times, they have reached the final just once before, that was as far back in 1951, which they lost to Holkar despite the efforts of arguably the greatest cricketer they have produced, the irrepressible Jasu Patel, who reeled off 152, his only first-class hundred.
The international cricketers they have produced and the matches they’d played can be counted without expending your mathematical aptitude or the joints of your fingers. Their most identifiable cricketer of modern-times is perhaps Parthiv Patel, and he has played only 23 Tests and 38 ODIs. Jasu Patel, for all his wizardry, featured in only seven Tests; Nari Contractor’s career was cruelly culled out by a Charlie Griffith bouncer. The great Vinoo Mankad, though born in Jamnagar, spent sunnier days with Bombay, among a host of other domestic sides.
For several decades in domestic cricket, they were just an unimposing hurdle for superpowers such as Mumbai to leap over. For Mumbai, a Gujarat match was a sign of good things to come. Mumbai’s unbeaten streak of 56 matches began against Gujarat in 1958. Their second longest streak of 49 too began against Gujarat in 1972. The most recent of their unbeaten streak-35, between 1991 and 1996 started against Gujarat. The greatest of their icons, Sachin Tendulkar, began his First Class career against the same side, and duly heralded his arrival with a hundred. Mumbai would never perhaps approached a Ranji campaign with the priority of beating Gujarat. It was plain ho-hum, mundane even, lacking the hype or gloss of high-profile match-ups.
It’s fair to say that Gujarat never figured in Mumbai’s scheme, in as much as the same way Mumbai was seldom a priority for Gujarat. Their twain seldom met. A particular stat sums this up – not one of Mumbai’s 46 Ranji finals has come against Gujarat. Neither a semifinal. This perhaps explains the utter lack of antipathy between the two sides, despite a chronicled history of sociopolitical friction.
But the 2015-16 season could the starting point of a more throbbing rivalry. You can say this season was perhaps a one-off, wherein they enjoyed slices of luck, like a relatively weaker opponent in the quarterfinal, Odisha. But if you were a keen, and detached, observer of the two sides this season, you’d be struck by the similarities of them. Gujarat have shown the very traits of tenacity and ruthless sangfroid that have symbolised Mumbai cricket.
They have bossed over opponents, churned out wins, clung on to matches and have bounced back from the brink. The most recent instance of the latter was the semifinal, wherein they conceded first-innings lead only to put up a strong second-innings performance and beat Jharkhand by a comprehensive margin of 123 runs.
In the quarterfinals against Odisha, they were teetering at 71 for 6 at one juncture before they recovered to post 263 on a dicey surface, which eventually proved to be a match-defining moment, as they progressed on the back of their first-innings lead. They were bundled out for 187 against Railways at Lalhi, but won the match by 294 runs. In junctures where they have blinked in the past they have shown considerable steel.
The seeds of resurgence were sown by the recurring trauma of the past itself, feels coach Vijay Patel. “In the last three four years, we have crashed out of the group stages in the most heartbreaking fashions. Last year, we just needed to ensure that we didn’t concede lead in the final group game against Mumbai. We did and we lost out on run-rate. In 2014, we just needed to ensure we didn’t lose against Mumbai. We even got first innings lead, but in the end lost the match by 18 runs,” he said.
From the setbacks was forged a sense of belief, a sense of desperation that gradually welded into determination. “We realised it was just a mental block. If we could do so well in the first phase of the group games, there was no reason we couldn’t sustain it till the end. We also came into the season not with the aim to reach the knockout but play 11 matches-eight group games and three knockout games,” he said.
A catalyst to their self-belief was the match against Mumbai in Hubli, where they eked out a narrow first-innings lead. “That was among the several turning points of our campaign this season. Getting the better of Mumbai gave us the belief that we could go a long way in this campaign,” he said.
Moreover, typical of Mumbai, contributions have come from different quarters for Gujarat. While Samit Gohel and Priyank Panchal were doubtlessly the twin pillars of the batting, the rest like Pathiv Patel, Chirag Gandhi, Manpreet Juneja, Bhargav Merai and even Axar Patel have contributed in dire. And to supplement the experienced fast-bowling pair of Jasprit Bumrah and RP Singh, they had brigade of young seamers such as Rush Kalaria and Hardik Patel, with 46 scalps between them.
Again like Mumbai, they had an unlikely player chipping in with a valuable knock or a match-changing spell. For example, RP Singh belted a valuable 40 in their first innings against Jharkhand.
Gandhi and Kalaria stitched a 154-run partnership for the seventh wicket against Odisha. So much so that the Mumbai players will be struck by the very Mumbai-ness of the Gujarat side. And Mumbai players would know that to clinch their 42nd title they have to rein over an opponent that has shown the very same virtues as theirs.
And finally, a rivalry that has so far manisfested on socio-political and ethnic lines could surge forth into the realm of sports too.
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