For many of those who have played and followed the game, Test cricket remains the pinnacle. The advent of T20 and other shorter formats may have gained prominence over the years but it’s hard to imagine the allure of red-ball cricket fading away. After all, it poses a test like no other for the players. One has to attack, defend, persevere and excel for long periods and despite the tussle for days on end, a Test match victory is fickle enough to slip away from one’s grasp in a matter of moments. The thrill of a closely-contested Test is unparalleled.
One such unforgettable advertisement for red-ball cricket was the 1991 Ranji Trophy final between Bombay (now Mumbai) and Haryana at the Wankhede Stadium. For those invested in Indian domestic cricket, it remains one of the great matches. It ended, on May 7, in front of a packed stadium with over 20,000 spectators, with just 14 deliveries remaining when the result was decided on the last day, with the margin of victory for Haryana being just two runs, and an inconsolable Dilip Vengsarkar on his knees.
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Unlike recent years, where the absence of big players in prominent matches has been telling, what elevated the 1991 Ranji Trophy final was the presence of premier cricketers like Vengsarkar, Kapil Dev, Chetan Sharma, Sanjay Manjrekar and a young superstar named Sachin Tendulkar. It was a classic first-class match, with both teams trading heavy blows for the entirety of the five days and a finish that will be etched in the minds of those who witnessed it forever.
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Bombay were the overwhelming favourites heading into the game. They had won a staggering 30 Ranji Trophy titles up until then, including a record run of 15 straight triumphs between 1959 and 1973, and had tasted defeat in just three finals. Haryana, on the other hand, had never won the title and their best performance in the tournament was a runners-up finish in the 1985-’86 season. They had the one and only Kapil Dev in their ranks, but Bombay had the aura of invincibility. The hosts were playing their first final in six years and were determined to win it.
Despite the odds stacked against them, though, Haryana were the dominant team for much of the contest. Opting to bat first, they posted a mammoth total of 522 with key contributions from Deepak Sharma (199), Ajay Jadeja (94) and Chetan Sharma (98). Bombay rode on Lalchand Rajput’s 74 and Sanjay Patil’s 85 to reply with 410 but they couldn’t get the all-important first innings lead. The visitors then added 242 runs in their second innings, thanks to an unbeaten 60 from Ajay Banerjee which included a partnership of 88 runs with the last two batsmen, to leave Bombay with a target of 355.
What happened from there on is what makes this match iconic. There were a little over two sessions left to play on the final day when Bombay came out to bat in their second innings. Having lost the match on first-innings basis, they had no option but to try and get the 355 runs in 68 overs. It wasn’t an impossible task but putting on a chase at 5.22 runs per over in a first-class match was hardly the norm those days. And to make matters worse for the hosts, they lost their top three batters with just 34 runs on the board by lunch on day five.
Two sessions, 321 runs to get, seven wickets in hand – most teams would have settled for a respectable draw from such a situation. But Bombay was no ordinary team, and the batsmen they had at the crease weren’t ordinary either. Vengsarkar, 34 years old at that time, was past his peak but was a batsman of immense class, while the 18-year-old Tendulkar was just starting out. They may have been at the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their careers but there was little doubt that they were two of the biggest batting talents in the country.
“If you look at the history of Mumbai cricket, we never give up easily,” Vengsarkar told Scroll.in. “We have turned around matches many, many times with our fighting spirit. We never gave up despite being three down at lunch on the final day.”
The foundation for Bombay’s chase was laid by Tendulkar. It was a stunning assault by the youngster. Despite being so young, he took the battle to the opposition and went after the likes of Kapil Dev and Chetan Sharma. He smashed 96 off 75 balls, with five sixes, and was the dominant force in his 134-run partnership with Vengsarkar.
“Initially, we thought that the total will be too much for them, but when Sachin started hitting we realised that the match could go either way,” Haryana’s Amarjit Kaypee, who was the top run-getter in that Ranji Trophy season with 940 runs, told Scroll.in. “The way he batted was simply amazing. For him to play such an aggressive knock in that high-pressure situation showed his class. He didn’t play cross-batted or lose his shape even once. Kapil paaji, of course, had a very good outswinger but I’ll never forget this one shot that Sachin hit off him. The ball was pitched slightly up and he simply punched it off the front foot and it flew flat to hit the sightscreen. We were all in awe.”
Bombay still had a fair bit to do once Tendulkar departed. Vinod Kambli was the next man in and the left-hander scored 45 to add 81 runs with Vengsarkar for the fifth wicket. During their partnership, though, Vengsarkar started cramping up and Rajput was called out to be his runner. Once Kambli perished, the onus was on the veteran to get his team the remaining 106 runs. With five wickets in hand, it seemed the hosts had the edge at that point. But the twists and turns of the match were far from over.
Chandrakant Pandit, in at No 7, was the last of the recognised batsmen before the tailenders but he ended up throwing his wicket away with a rash shot for just 12 runs. And before anyone knew it, Bombay lost three more wickets to find themselves tottering at 305/9.
“I got tempted to play my favourite shot and got out,” Pandit told Scroll.in. “As I was walking back to the pavilion, I heard Dilip talk nastily to a colleague for the first time. He was so annoyed, so upset. But I took it positively, it showed me the passion he had for his team.”
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The last man at the crease was the debutant Abey Kuruvilla. Bombay needed 50 runs to win at that time and Haryana could sense a famous victory. But Vengsarkar wasn’t done yet. The right-hander took off-spinner Yogendra Bhandari, who picked five wickets in the first innings and had stitched together an impressive season, for 26 runs in one over with three sixes and two fours. All of a sudden, the equation once again tilted in Bombay’s favour. The pressure was firmly on Haryana but they were in safe hands with a captain as experienced as Kapil Dev.
“Kapil paaji, as everyone knows, was always calm and cool,” said Kaypee. “Even when Sachin and Dilip were having their partnership, he told us ‘don’t worry kids, we will be back in the game if we get one wicket’. He always encouraged us, never got tense.”
With just 24 runs to get, Vengsarkar decided against farming the strike and showed faith in Kuruvilla’s ability with the bat. “I didn’t want to shield Abey because that would have given the opposition more chances. I hadn’t seen him bat before but I wanted to give him confidence,” said Vengsarkar.
The duo dealt in singles and doubles to drag their team towards victory.
However, there was one final twist left in the tale. Needing a mere three runs to win from 15 deliveries, the hosts had a horrific run-out that turned the game on its head. Kuruvilla played the ball towards backward square-leg and ended up getting run-out after a mix-up with Rajput.
“I thought the ball had crossed the fielder but Kaypee made a brilliant stop at square-leg,” Kuruvilla told Scroll.in. “Lalchand made the call, I heard it and ran quickly but then was left stranded in the middle.”
Rajput added: “Perhaps, it was all the noise from the crowd but he (Abey) just couldn’t hear my call. He hit the shot from the middle of his bat and the ball went straight to the fielder who threw it back in a flash. I think Abey thought the ball went past the fielder because he had timed it so well. I shouted ‘wait, wait’ but he kept running and later said that he couldn’t hear anything because of the crowd. I asked him after the match what happened and he said he thought he had hit a four.”
For Kaypee, the man behind the run-out, it’s a moment that remains fresh in his memory. “I remember as soon as the ball came towards me, it was to my right, I moved quickly, picked it up and released it in one motion,” he said. “I got so excited that my throw went wayward and the ‘keeper fumbled the ball before bringing it back to the stumps. But Kuruvilla was so far down the crease that he had no chance of making it back.”
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It was a bitter loss for Bombay. Vengsarkar, having witnessed the spectacular turn of events standing next to the square-leg umpire, sunk to his knees in tears. It was a cruel end for a man who was brilliant and valiant in equal measure during his unbeaten 139 off 137 balls.
“There was pin-drop silence in the dressing room and the rest of the stadium,” said Pandit, “Only the sound of the Haryana players celebrating was echoing.”
“I couldn’t get the match out of my head for a month,” Rajput added. “It was difficult to get past it if I’m being perfectly honest. I remember our players were crying and everyone’s head was down in the dressing room. We had lost the match, then won it, before losing it again.”
For Haryana, though, it was a win for the ages – their first and only Ranji Trophy title. “The party went on till late in the night,” said Kaypee. “We couldn’t stop dancing and celebrating. It will always be an unforgettable day for us. We weren’t sure of winning the match but we knew we had played well that season.
“We fielded incredibly well in that match. We had a very young team. By the end of the match, all our clothes had become black. Mumbai has red soil and we were covered in it because we dived around everywhere. There were plenty of cuts and bruises but it was all worth it.”
In hindsight, one can indeed say that Haryana’s fielding won them the match, especially a full-length dive at the boundary by Rajesh Puri in the dying moments of the contest. That effort denied Vengsarkar a certain boundary, saved three runs for Haryana, and proved to be the difference at the end. More importantly, though, what that moment signifies is the small margins of a format that is often berated for its length. The 1991 Ranji Trophy final, studded by performances from the country’s top players, is a reminder of the unique emotions that red-ball cricket can generate.
“It’s important that international players participate in first-class cricket. It is very sad that they don’t,” said Vengsarkar. “Because unless they show up, the crowds won’t come in. All the big players should at least play the important matches of the season. There should be a dedicated window for these big matches so that the international stars can participate in them. What that will also do is allow the selectors to spot new talents because the performances will mean that much more when there are big players involved.”
Haryana: 522 (Deepak Sharma 199, Ajay Jadeja 94, Amarjeet Kaypee 45, Chetan Sharma 98; Abey Kuruvilla 4/128, Salil Ankola 3/77) and 242 (Ajay Banerjee 60*, Kapil Dev 41; Salil Ankola 3/39, Sanjay Patil 3/65).
Bombay: 410 (Lalchand Rajput 74, Sanjay Patil 85, Sachin Tendulkar 47, Chandrakant Pandit 40; Yogendra Bhandari 5/116, Kapil Dev 3/54) and 352 (Dilip Vengsarkar 139*, Sachin Tendulkar 96, Vinod Kambli 45).