On Golden Jubilee of Karnataka's maiden Ranji triumph, GR Vishwanath recalls how Bombay's hegemony was ended | Crickit

On Golden Jubilee of Karnataka's maiden Ranji triumph, GR Vishwanath recalls how Bombay's hegemony was ended

Mar 27, 2024 12:16 PM IST

Karnataka beat Bombay in the semi-final to end their 15-year-long streak and then went on to topple Rajasthan in the final to lift their maiden Ranji title

The Board of Control for Cricket in India has only recently initiated moves to ensure that the Ranji Trophy doesn’t become a mere formality, so followers of cricket of the current vintage might find it slightly difficult to comprehend just how furiously players of a particular era chased after the country’s premier first-class competition.

The 1974 Ranji Trophy-winning Karnataka team(HT photo)
The 1974 Ranji Trophy-winning Karnataka team(HT photo)

Before, and even immediately after, the advent of one-day cricket and long before the emergence of the 20-over variant, the Ranji Trophy was the Holy Grail for hundreds of players, most of whom knew that an India cap was a distant dream. The tournament held a certain charm and value; it was a step and a half short of playing international cricket, true, but by itself, it meant a lot for teams and players to covet ultimate glory.

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Bombay were the unquestioned rulers of Indian domestic cricket, instilling such fear and intimidation that most opponents were vanquished even before they took the field. The aura around Bombay grew even more significantly when, for 15 unchecked years between 1958-59 and 1972-73, they were crowned champions, a stirring and unprecedented run that left the rest of the field wondering whether, not when, their time would come.

It was left to spin wizard Erapalli Prasanna’s Karnataka team of 1973-74 to show the country that Bombay weren’t invincible. As Mysore, the state had enjoyed reasonable success, including making it to the final in 1959-60 when they lost to Polly Umrigar’s side. A little under six months after the state changed its name from Mysore to Karnataka on 1 November 1973, they finally ended Bombay’s hegemony as well as their prolonged quest for a maiden title.

Prasanna’s intrepid band overcame Bombay on the first-innings lead in the semifinal in Bangalore (as Bengaluru was then called) and overwhelmed Rajasthan in the final in Jaipur a week thereafter, storming to the title and triggering a wave of euphoria across the state that was later to sweep through a succession of superstars.

Not that Prasanna’s Class of ’74, the Trailblazers, lacked superstars. There was the captain himself, an extraordinary off-spinner of course, but also a master tactician, a shrewd analyst and a great motivator. There was his great mate Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, the wonderful leg-spinner with a big heart and a veritable bag of tricks. And then, there was GR Vishwanath, the wristy magician who, like the two spinners, had established himself as a key member of the Indian Test side too.

27 March 1974. That was the day Prasanna held the trophy aloft after Karnataka surged to a comprehensive 185-run triumph. Vishwanath didn’t have a great final – he made 15 and 0 – but his steadying hand had been apparent throughout the season, not least in the big semifinal against Bombay when he made a monumental 162 and put on 166 for the third wicket with fellow centurion Brijesh Patel, who himself would subsequently go on to lead the state to the title.

“To all of us,” Vishwanath tells Hindustan Times as he slips into nostalgia, “the semifinal was as good as a final. Bombay had a formidable line-up including Sunil (Gavaskar), Ajit (Wadekar, the captain), Ashok (Mankad), Ekki (Eknath Solkar) and (Padmakar) Shivalkar, but hey, we were no slouches either, right? Pras was a brilliant tactician; he and Chandra constituted the best spin attack in India. Brijesh and I were the experienced batters and most importantly, we had the belief that we could beat Bombay, which I don’t think many other teams felt was possible at the time.

“At the same time, Ajit and Bombay also knew that they would be in for a scrap, that we wouldn’t just wave the white flag. They had to defeat us because we wouldn’t beat ourselves. We did, however, need a bit of luck to go our way, because for all the skills and ability one might possess, without that slice of fortune, things can go horribly wrong.”

Karnataka had two big strokes of good fortune on day one. Wadekar called wrong and Prasanna promptly opted to bat first. Then, after ‘Vishy’ walked in at 10 for one, he was rapped on his back pad very early in his innings by an inswinger from Abdul Ismail. “I feared the worst,” he chuckles, “but after a long pause, the umpire turned down the massive appeal. I couldn’t have complained had he ruled in Bombay’s favour, maybe he did like watching me bat!”

Vishy and Sanjay Desai steadied the ship with a century stand, and Patel and the little man drove Karnataka into the ascendancy at the newly constructed M Chinnaswamy Stadium, packed to the rafters with massive support for the home team. From 281 for two, however, Karnataka collapsed to 385 all out. Runs on the board, but still, it was Bombay…

Prasanna started to weave his magic, producing an absolute beauty to clean bowl Gavaskar for 30. “An absolutely magical ball,” Vishy gushes. “When I looked at Sunil’s face after the ball snaked into his off-stump, I could see that he was in a daze. Sunil did everything right, playing for the turn, covering his off-stump and using his pad as the second line of defence. It was an off-break that threatened to turn substantially but straightened enough to surge past Sunil’s outside edge and disturb the off-bail. A special ball from one genius to outwit the other.”

Bombay being Bombay, they rallied through Wadekar and Mankad to move to 198 for two, keeping Prasanna and Chandrasekhar at bay. Then, R Sudhakar Rao produced a wonderful pick-up-and-throw from point to run Wadekar out at the striker’s end on the third morning to lift Karnataka’s spirits. “Like Pras’ dismissal of Sunil, this wonderful piece of fielding galvanised us; to me, that was the turning point,” Vishy reminisces. “The two spin legends then got down to work; Pras took five and Chandra finished with four.”

Bombay were bowled out for 307 and even though there was enough time for them to overturn the 78-run deficit, Karnataka held firm with a strong second-innings batting display to dethrone the 15-time defending champs.

“One of our finest moments, we had broken Bombay’s dominance on the strength of our all-round performance,” Vishy observes. “We were bathed in goofy grins when came the chastening reminder -- we had only reached the final, there was unfinished business ahead of us.”

Rajasthan were a strong side too, led by Hanumant Singh with Salim Durani, Kailash Gattani and Parthasarathy Sharma as the batting mainstays. “Pras kept telling us not to take them lightly, especially given that we were playing at their home ground. The final saw huge turnouts on all four days and while they were rooting for Rajasthan, the Jaipur crowd also appreciated our skills.

“Our established top order, myself included, couldn’t deliver in the final but our all-round strength came to the fore with Vijay Kumar and all-rounders B Vijayakrishna and AV Jayaprakash chipping in with half-centuries. Our 276 was worth many more because we had our trump cards in Pras and Chandra.”

The aces shared six wickets to open up a 100-run lead, Karnataka rallied from 42 for four in their second innings to post 212, and a target of 313 was well beyond Rajasthan’s reach as Prasanna ended up with five wickets and Chandra took three. Rajasthan were bowled out for 127, the tournament had a new champion!

On the customary rest day before the start of day four, the Rajasthan Cricket Association organised a get-together involving both teams and a few select guests. “Apart from the usual refreshments, bhang also was on the table,” Vishy whispers, a glint of mischief holding the promise of an exciting story. “My keenness to experiment proved embarrassing; I have little memory of what happened that evening though my teammates take tremendous delight in telling me that after partaking of the beverage, I stood in a corner, facing the wall, and sulked about my twin batting failures for two whole hours because I was worried that I might be dropped for the forthcoming tour of England! Worth it in the end, I tell you, and even more so because I did get selected for the England series.

“Victory on day four was like a marriage in the family, the celebrations were raucous and unending. We were tightly knit and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company, celebrating the successes of our mates as much as our own. To be able to win the Ranji Trophy for Karnataka for the first time with my band of brothers, it was not just a dream come true but an expression of gratitude for our state, our fans.”

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