Toil of the sons who measured up to Kingsmead

SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: At the Gangothri Glades, where it seems like the Chamundi Hill is keeping vigil, sentinel-like, through the lushness of the trees ringing the ground towards long-on if you are at the Hunsur Road End….

Where the pelicans that roost on the edge of the adjacent Kukkarahalli kere take off like small aeroplanes every other over, and magnificently sail over the field, spanning the whole arc from fine leg to long off and third man to long on….

And where the wind blows gently across the ground rustling through the giant fig trees while swaying the acacia  towards the University End, the finals of  the Ranji Trophy between Karnataka and Bombay unfolded over four days, in a languidly pastoral setting.

It brought along with it high drama, heart-stopping excitement, thrills at the rate of almost one per minute, hope one moment and despair another instant, all with an amazingly infectious raucous abandon.

The crowds, perhaps close to 10,000, in the stands, on the trees, on top of pillars, on the embankments and along the iron railings skirting the ground, had the time of their lives, screaming and jostling, shouting and booing, clapping and dancing, waving flags, with the Mexican Wave erupting through the stands in a crescendo of joyous excitement every now and then.

The television cameras showed a few thousand people outside the ground, even those with invitations, simply unable to get in, because the stands were full to the gills. The policemen who were on duty had their toughest time in the new year and one of them simply threw up his hands and muttered, “What a crowd”.

What an atmosphere to play cricket in. It could well have been some World Cup final between India and Australia!

While on most occasions, as my friend Siddarth Ravindran of Cricinfo put it so eloquently, most domestic matches in the country are watched by three men and a dog.

To me the highlights of the match were Manish Pandey’s batting, his catching and the fast bowling that both sides put on display.

Manish’s batting feels like a cool breeze wafting across from the ocean towards a bronzed evening while the sun is setting in a haze of orange on the far edges of the vast horizon. And set, the sun almost had for Karnataka, when he walked in to bat in the second innings, with Ajit Agarkar summoning his experience with the new ball and reducing the hosts to a sad 46 for 3, including the skipper Robin Utthappa, who seemed to be as much in control with the bat in both innings as a drunk in a skating rink.

Manish Pandey’s unrelenting drives, the pulls, the arrogant sweep from outside the off stump which went racing to the mid-wicket fence for four off left armer Iqbal Abdulla; the remorseless swatting of a steepling ball towards square leg, the confident pushes with firm wrists—it was a batting display so casually disdainful that the electronic score board seemed destined to resemble a frenetic video game console.

Manish showed no hint of nerves, no self consciousness that he was playing a precious innings at a crucial juncture with the chips down for his team in the final of the Ranji trophy. He went about constructing his innings as if it was a league match being played against lowly opponents, men who couldn’t have held a candle to his prowess.

The massive crowd bayed for more and Manish gave it just that. More cuts, more pulls, more drives and more cheekiness when it came to taking singles.

As for pressure, it seemed to be as far away from him as Matunga is from Mysore.

There is a casual loveliness about this young man, Manish. With his easy, unruffled air and his almost dishevelled hair, ear plugs in his ears most of the time, engrossed in some music, wearing a pair of Hawaii chappals, he presents a picture of complete ease even when he is seated with his team mates in the pavilion.

I noticed the very same qualities while he was at the crease, except that there were no Hawaiis on his feet and ear plugs to his ears.

And then there was his catch to get rid of the doughty Abhishek Nayar in the second innings. As the left handed Abhishek waded into one from Sunil Joshi and lofted it high into the long on area, all eyes were on the fence with the mind only waiting to confirm if it was a four or a six.

Manish sprinting a good 20 feet or so, launched himself into the air and caught the ball midway with his outstretched right hand. Even as gravity brought him down to terra firma, he had completed the catch! Perhaps, one of the finest catches ever taken in Ranji Trophy cricket.

Pacers Abhimanyu Mithun and R. Vinay Kumar, Dhawal Kulkarni, Avishkar Salvi and Agarkar all had their moments of glory. The bounce, the lift, the pace generated off the wicket and the swing in the air that these bowlers achieved at various times of the match made for compelling viewing with the sight of the wicket keeper standing well back and the slips and the gulleys forming an impressive arc.

As for the Gangotri Glades wicket, the cognoscenti were all praise for it. Hard, bouncy and one that assisted movement off the seam because of the grass, it was a strip that had within itself the rare qualities of being well nurtured. So unlike the many other grounds in the country, including the one at the KSCA, Bangalore, which seem to be made from the same earth that go into the making of cemeteries.

After all, the earth from neighbouring Chamarajanagar, which went into the making of this wicket, under the careful eye of the indefatigable R.K. Harikrishna Kumar had some magic in it.

Milind Rege, the former Bombay player and curator of the CCI pitch in Mumbai I spoke to, was so full of praise for the wicket that he went to the extent of saying that the Mysore wicket is presently the best in the country. “I couldn’t wait to call up Prof. Ratnakar Shetty and tell him what a good wicket this is,” he gushed.

And to think that Rege, as per his own admission, had screwed up his face and knotted his eyebrows when he was told that he had to travel to the town of Mysore to cover the Ranji finals! “Why Mysore of all the places I had asked,” he confessed. “ But now I know what Mysore is,” he concluded with a warm congratulatory handshake, which I received on behalf of my mates Harikrishna & Co, who had put in their all with such sincere intent to make this final, one to remember.

Next it was the turn of Praveen Amre, the Bombay coach to sing the praises of the pitch. My friend and journalist Joseph Hoover who had a chat with him came back to the press box and said, “You know what the guy said? He said that this is the best wicket he has seen after Kingsmead, South Africa.”

We can even organise the Mysore version of the Fremantle Doctor if you please. The breeze from the Kukkarahalli Kere side which begins to blow gently over the ground towards late afternoon through the figs and the acacia.

So the next time the mandarins at the KSCA (and the BCCI) pause to think of the domestic game and its future, they should know which number to dial.

Sunaad Raghuram is chairman of the Mysore zone committee of the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA). The views expressed here are personal.

Photograph: Karnataka Photo News

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