Monday, September 8, 2014

My favourite team: Karnataka

V Ramnarayan

As someone who rubbed shoulders with some of the most charismatic personalities in domestic cricket of the 1970s, I loved the Hyderabad cricket team of the period. The 1975-76 season, when I made my first class debut, was particularly memorable as my teammates included MAK Pataudi and Abbas Ali Baig, both in their last season, our captain ML Jaisimha and Syed Abid Ali, each a fantastic cricketer and fabulous character. With abundant talent at our disposal, however, we somehow managed to not win the Ranji Trophy in the two decades Jaisimha led us.

My respect and admiration, therefore, went to another glamorous side in the South Zone, Karnataka, which actually won the title a few times, toppling Bombay from its high perch for the first time a couple of seasons before my first. In March 1974, it prevailed over Bombay in the semifinal by virtue of a 78-run first innings lead. Two master batsmen, the wristy Little Master GR Vishwanath (162), and that king of domestic cricket, Brijesh Patel (106), starred in that triumph, while spin twins Prasanna and Chandrasekhar were outstanding while defending a total of 385. Prasanna’s floater that removed Gavaskar’s off bail was the magical delivery of the match. The victory was no mean achievement, as Bombay’s batting line-up included the likes of Ajit Wadekar, run out for 62 and Ashok Mankad, who made 84.

In the final that season, Karnataka beat Rajasthan fairly easily in the end, but not without a few alarms early on. Both Vishwanath and Patel failed, but its dashing all rounders came to the fore: VS Vijayakumar who opened both the batting and the bowling, left arm spinner and hard hitting batsman B Vijayakrishna and medium pacer-batsman AV Jayaprakash in the middle order. Each of them was considered Test material at one time or another.

In addition to these splendid youngsters, who formed the nucleus of the team of the seventies, others too came good during the decade. Sudhakar Rao’s 200 against Hyderabad in 1975-76 won him a berth on the West Indies tour that season, Roger Binny soon came into the side, Sanjay Desai became a solid presence as an opening batsman, though kept out of keeping duties by that world class stumper Syed Kirmani, who was also frequently a thorn in the flesh of opponents, just when they thought they had got rid of the cream of Karnataka’s batting.

Karnataka was to win the Ranji Trophy once again in that decade in 1977-78, when Vishwanath hammered a magnificent double century in the final against Uttar Pradesh, following a hundred in the semifinal against Delhi after a newspaper reporter made the mistake of dubbing him Bishan Bedi’s bunny. The state has repeated the feat five times since then.

If the honour of leading the team to its first two title triumphs went to Prasanna, Vishwanath was the unfortunate captain to lose two finals—once after Karnataka made 705 in the first innings, only for Delhi to gain a lead. Brijesh Patel was the captain next season in 1982-83, when Karnataka beat Bombay in a gruelling final at Bombay. Significantly, the winning eleven had as many as five players from the champion side of a decade earlier—Vishwanath, Patel, Sudhakar Rao, Jayaprakash, Vijayakrishna. Syed Kirmani had been eclipsed by young Sadanand Viswanath—who played a winning hand—only to make a comeback a few years later.

Prasanna and Chandrasekhar of course spun a great web together around batsmen for well over a decade, but amazingly, the team always found a place for at least one other spinner like Vijayakrishna in the playing eleven, besides some excellent seam bowlers like Vijayakumar, Jayaprakash and Binny. Each of them could be counted on to come up with hundreds or five-wicket hauls, especially when the team badly needed them.

Both Prasanna and Patel were astute leaders, and Vishwanath a thoughtful one with a softer touch, and the men under them somehow managed to play consistently winning but rarely boring or defensive cricket. With one of the world’s finest middle order batsmen in Vishwanath, a great keeper-batsman in Kirmani, and two members of India’s famed spin quartet in Prasanna and Chandrasekhar, Karnataka managed to be an attractive, entertaining outfit throughout the time I watched them at close quarters.

V Ramnarayan