Karnataka and Hyderabad have been friendly foes over the years. The 1998 semifinal featured several players who had played, or went on to play, for India, including one Rahul Dravid. The nervous energy and the heat & humidity tested the teams’ resolve and fitness, as the match went down to the wire and had an unlikely hero.
A privately-treasured 51-second footage remains the only material proof, apart from the scorecard, of one of the most thrilling finishes in Ranji Trophy history —when Karnataka beat Hyderabad by one wicket to reach the 1998 final. The film is bright but grainy, recorded from the television with a handy-cam, and the commentators’ voice comprises incoherent mutterings.
The clip consists of two deliveries. The last two balls of the game, shot from behind the batsman.
It begins abruptly. Venkatapathy Raju jumps into the frame, pitter-pattering from around the wicket, almost brushing the umpire. The camera then pans to a batsman in a white baggy shirt that’s almost twice as large as his frame. He hangs back and cuts the ball behind point with enough power to reach the fence, through a largely brown outfield. A few men in white t-shirts and tracksuits intrude on the pitch. The camera flickers to the pavilion where skipper Rahul Dravid is frantic, gesturing something at the batsmen in the middle, then high-fiving with teammates. The lens is back on Raju’s approach to the wicket. The batsman thrusts his front foot and drives him emphatically through mid-off. He turns back and smiles wistfully.
He is Dodda Ganesh, who treasures the 51-second recording. Dravid goes wild, waves his arms as furiously as Sourav Ganguly on the Lord’s balcony, but without removing his t-shirt. Ganesh is swarmed by his teammates. The footage ends as abruptly as it begins.
The story ends with the two balls. Rather, the two balls end what’s a remarkable story.
It’s the scorching Hyderabad that’s still fresh in Dravid’s memory. When the players came out of the flight, they felt they’d jumped into a furnace. Their skin was fleecing, the eyes were burning and shirts sweat-soaked. “It was unbelievably hot, dry, draining heat. I felt an immediate sympathy to our pace bowlers,” Dravid recollects to The Indian Express. A week later, soon after the match concluded, a severe heatwave swept across Andhra Pradesh and its then capital, claiming hundreds of lives and culminating in one of the harshest droughts the state endured in the last century. The intense heat prompted the organisers to shift the match from the concretised Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium to the more leafy Hyderabad Gymkhana Stadium, lined with still trees.
The heat, Dravid knew, would give an immediate advantage to Hyderabad. On two fronts. “Ours was a predominantly medium-pace-centric attack, as Anil (Kumble) was on India duty and Sunil (Joshi) had just returned to the team. So it was on (Dodda) Ganesh and Mansur (Ali Khan) to get us the wickets. Hyderabad at that time had two of the finest spinners around, Kanwaljit Singh and Venkatapathy Raju. We were the clear underdogs, I felt,” he says.
The Hyderabad spin twins had a telepathic understanding of each other’s craft. “With a bowler of Raju’s quality at the other end, you don’t have to worry. A disciplined bowler at the other end makes your job easier and the other way around. We switched roles, when he could attack, I would support, and vice versa,” says Kanwaljit.
It also meant that with the sun beating down mercilessly, the strip would deteriorate rapidly. The first sight of the pitch and the outfield confirmed Dravid’s worst fears. “I’ve never seen such a barren outfield. There was hardly any grass, and given their strengths, I knew the pitch would be incredibly difficult to bat last. If you don’t win the toss, you have already one feet out of the match,” he says.
Hyderabad’s concerns were different; missing were two of their finest-ever batsmen, Mohammad Azharuddin and VVS Laxman, away in Sharjah, where Sachin Tendulkar would whip up the Desert Storm. The latter was in the middle of his breakthrough season, having blasted 611 runs – including a triple hundred – at an average of 203. “Probably if those two were around, we could have won the Ranji Trophy,” opines Raju. But Karnataka would disagree — they were without Javagal Srinath, Kumble and Venkatesh Prasad. In the end, there was an equilibrium of sorts.
As fate played out, Hyderabad won the toss and batted first without hesitation. It was a long, tiring day in the middle, and the hosts ended the first day on 200/3. “By tea, I was so tired that I felt we had been on the field for two days. We bowled a lot of loose balls and failed to sustain pressure,” confides Ganesh.
By that time, Ganesh had played the last of his four Tests and an ODI for the country. But he was still fuelled by the dream of representing India again, and moments like these, he thought, would define him. “I thought these are the challenges I should pass to return to the team. So I analysed where I had gone wrong and realised I was bowling way too outside the off-stump. I needed to bowl more at the stumps, because the odd ball was keeping low. I also realised that bowling short intense four-five over spells was better than bowling 8-9 at one stretch,” he remembers.
So began Ganesh —”one of the toughest fighters I have seen,” according to Dravid – on the second day. He came first change and ran through the middle order. From 231 for 3, Hyderabad plunged to 233 for seven. Though No.10 Narender Singh freewheeled to a counter-punching 28, swelling the total to 283, Dravid felt the score was within their grasp. Ganesh, not for the first time in the match, returned to the dressing room a hero. “There was something in him, a desire to prove his critics wrong perhaps. It was still a very good total, but if we could manage a lead of 100-120 more runs, we would have the upper hand,”says Dravid.
They seemed to be on course, after Sujith Somasundar and J Arunkumar got them off to a rollicking start. Realising that batting on the track could become progressively worse, they latched onto anything that was marginally loose. But once Kanwaljit struck rhythm, Karnataka began to lose wickets in a heap. His three-wicket burst restored the balance at stumps on the second day.
That night at the hotel, Dravid kept visualising the way he would approach his innings. “Use the feet, disrupt the length, don’t let them make use of the rough,” he told himself. But he also knew that both Kanwaljit and Raju were good enough to get wickets even without much assistance from the surface.
Soon upon resumption, Karnataka lost their last recognised batsman, Vijay Bharadwaj. But with Sunil Joshi, Dravid blunted Kanwaljit. It was an engrossing battle of wits, a master batsman encountering a masterful bowler. Dravid knew he couldn’t look to play the off-spinner out, for he could keep bowling unchanged throughout the day. Kanwaljit did bowl nearly 40 overs. Dravid endured a couple of close shaves, but soon grew in confidence and occasionally counter-attacked too. “He read me beautifully and made me think hard. He would defend soundly, but he would punish the loose balls ruthlessly. Anything tossed up, he would come down the track and defend. Anything short, he would late-cut. And he was not letting me bowl at the rough,” recollects Kanwaljit.
Finally, the virtuoso off-spinner caved in. Dravid, who had lost count of the pair of gloves and shirts he had changed, sensed liberation. Karnataka were just 50 runs short of eclipsing Hyderabad’s total. “Yeah, I thought I could play with a bit more freedom, but then I played a loose shot to get out. A rank short-ball by Danny (Daniel Manohar) and I pulled it straight to square leg where Nand Kishore took a tumbling coach. I cursed myself in the dressing room as I was the guy the team was relying to get a big hundred. I was so aghast that I kept cursing the shot until I reached the hotel.”
With Dravid gone, Kanwaljit wiped off the lower order. Though the visitors managed a 26-run lead, it was hardly a consolation as they had to bat last on what was turning out to be a wicked turner. Karnataka was feeling the heat again, both literal and metaphorical. The very thought of the heat, dust and turn had Dravid’s head whirling.
After the second day, the teams dined together at the residence of Hyderabad manager and one of their heyday stalwarts ML Jaisimha. Though both teams were South Zone powerhouses, in perpetual competition to outmatch each other, they were friendly foes outside the turf. Dravid corrects: “Even on the field, we always kept sportsmanship first. Despite this being a close match, we hardly sledged each other. The game was always played in the right spirit.”
But the next day, they would compete fiercely, Hyderabad grimly stretching their lead and Karnataka fighting to keep it within their reach. The pitch had turned into a dust bowl, and Karnataka opened with Sunil Joshi. But it was Ganesh again who put on a heroic act, out-bowling both Joshi and Bharadwaj. “I remember Rahul was thinking to open with two spinners, but I went up and snatched the new ball from him. I can easily tell you, this is easily the best I have bowled. Heat, slow pitch, but I kept pounding in. I think I bowled a long first spell at full tilt.”
Everyone of the Hyderabad top six got starts, but couldn’t cross 39. How they missed the stability of Laxman and the effervescence of Azhar! In the end, they set Karnataka 154, a target they felt was not insurmountable but defendable. “The way Kanwal was bowling, the rhythm he had struck, I thought we had a great chance of winning the match. It was a minefield to bat on, but the key was getting Dravid out cheaply,” Raju says.
Kanwaljit and Raju spent the entire evening plotting his dismissal. Finally, they arrived at a plan. The pitch was turning and there was uneven bounce too. So rather than luring him into a stroke with flighted deliveries, keep bowling faster and flatter on off-stump so that he could miss a delivery and get trapped in front. Early on, even Dravid could miss one. The intuition worked perfectly, as Kanwaljit nailed him in front of the wicket. Karnataka, after the opening stand of 43, were hurtling headlong into the abyss of defeat. Joshi was their last flame of hope but part-time offie Santosh Yadav snuffed him out. Karnataka were still 37 runs adrift with just three wickets remaining. “That’s it, I thought. Hyderabad would win this match and probably go on to win the Ranji Trophy. This was their best chance in several years,” reflects Dravid. But for Ganesh’s last stamp of heroism, captured in the 51-second reel.
A few days before the match, Ganesh had a dream. Recoiled in the corner of a room, he was weeping. The images kept recurring throughout the match. It reflected his mindset — axed from the Indian team after a disappointing series in the West Indies and unsure of whether he would get another shot in India stripes. “I was in a negative state of mind. I felt I could have done better and that was eating into me. People were saying he has the skills to play for the country but lacked the composure,” he says.
Ganesh wasn’t the only one nursing grouses. Dravid was overlooked for the one-day series as the selectors thought he batted too slowly for this format. Kanwaljit had missed out on the tour to West Indies. Though India captain Sachin Tendulkar had specifically asked for him, the selectors instead dispatched his state-mate Noel David. Raju, too, was desperately bidding for a comeback. It’s natural then that the climax of the contest was full of accumulated nervous energy. “I was all fuelled by the India snub and desperate to do anything to be back in the reckoning,” Ganesh says.
So in the direness of the situation — Karnataka were 127 for 8 when he marked his guard — Ganesh sensed a shard of hope. “If I could hit the winning runs, people would stop saying that I crack under pressure, which I did on my Test debut. I just wanted to show that I have nerves of steel,” he says.
His game-plan was simple. Knock the ball around and give the strike to P Srinivasa Murthy, who had the reputation of hitting big shots. But the latter was all at sea against Kanwaljit. So Ganesh swapped roles. “I went and told him that I will go for the big shots and just run the last ball for a single, no matter what.”
It worked for three overs, before Raju dived and stopped a single off the last ball of his over. Kanwaljit snared Murthy in the next over. In walked the now Karnataka bowling coach Mansur Ali Khan, who then had a batting average of four. Karnataka were 17 runs away. “I had to take risks, somehow find a couple of boundaries and run singles off the last ball,” remembers Ganesh.
Hyderabad would bring the field up for the last two balls. All nine outfielders were trying to save the single. Dravid sensed something historic unfurling, though he could hear his heart pounding. And then Ganesh nicked one between the wicketkeeper and slip. Ganesh thought he would run three, but the ball had enough speed to reach the boundary.
The next six balls were the longest in Ganesh’s life. Ali confidently blocked the first ball, Kanwaljit beat him with the second and third. The fourth turned big on Ali and took his glove to the short-leg fielder. “It was a dolly, hung in the air for a long time, but Danny (Manohar) somehow dropped it,” dusts up Dravid, who now surely thought the match was theirs. A nudge here, a clip there, and Karnataka was within touching distance. Seven runs to win the match. Six would suffice, as they had the first-innings lead.
In walked Raju. “We were still confident. All it takes is one ball.” A close lbw shout was turned down. Off Raju’s arm-ball that fizzed into Ali’s pads. Ali went for the big heave, but miscued it straight into the air. Raju was shouting at Manohar, who spilled it again. “We were simply destined to lose the match.” A stolen single and Karnataka was one shot away.
At the other end, Ganesh decided to take destiny into his own hands. Just one boundary, he muttered to himself and scanned the field. His eyes met the vacant space behind point. “Bowlers don’t expect tail-enders to late cut. So I did just that, waited on the back-foot and employed the late-cut. It’s the first time I played that shot in a real match. Of course, I learned it watching Dravid.”
It’s the first shot of the 51-second footage. It levelled the scores and Karnataka were through. Some of the Karnataka supporters and players thought the match was over and invaded the pitch. “Just a single”, shouted Dravid and Co. from the pavilion. But Ganesh knew knocking singles around wasn’t his stuff. He went for an ambitious off-drive. Uppish but away from the fielders. Ganesh’s mind went blank. “I had a blackout or something like that.” The next thing he remembers was weeping in the corner of the dressing room, albeit tears of joy.
Of those India hopefuls and rejects, only Dravid went on to forge a remarkable career. Raju and Joshi played a few more Tests, but as stopgaps when either Kumble or Harbhajan Singh was injured.
Raju, though, played his role in the epic 2001 Eden Gardens Test in Kolkata, where he prised out Mark Waugh with an arm-ball on the final afternoon. He was also a part of the dressing room discussion between manager Chetan Chauhan and Laxman, where the latter said he was confident of pulling off a victory when all seemed lost.
Kanwaljit lived with the regret that he could never represent India; Manohar became an international match referee, Nand Kishore an umpire; Vijay Bharadwaj had his days, but his shortcomings at the international level were exposed.
And then there was Ganesh, whose best efforts went unrequited. But if he felt so, he would just flick his fingers through the 51-second footage.
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