“The enduring image of the final was the sight of a forlorn Dilip Vengsarkar crying unabashedly as he dragged himself on wobbly legs back to the dressing room where he proceeded to sit in a corner, eyes bloodshot, with not a team-mate venturing near him.”
Over two decades after a fateful day in Mumbai, I came across this wonderful paragraph written by H Natarajan in Wisden Asia, where he beautifully explained the pain and despair that a Mumbaikar had faced when Haryana beat Mumbai to win the 1991 Ranji Trophy by a margin as small as two runs.
Sitting in my small one BHK flat in the beautiful city of Bangalore, for a change suffering the wrath of sun where humidity had never been able to make its mark, I searched for the essay on the internet, only to be reminded that Wisden Asia had taken all its articles down after the company decided to shut their operations last July.
My mind immediately took me in a direction to send a mail to Natarajan and request him to send me a copy of the essay that he had written after the game, which would go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Ranji Trophy matches of all time.
Emotions were running high on both sides, and the game eventually made one of India’s greatest batsmen go down on his knees and made Haryana, briefly yet incandescently, a full competent unit in Indian domestic cricket.
After a few seconds though, I stopped myself and closed my eyes while resting on my newly-bought recliner to imagine how Kapil Dev, a World Cup, and World series-winning captain, would’ve felt that day when he laid his hands on the first Ranji Trophy title of his career, and what Abey Kuruvilla would’ve felt after being run out as Amarjeet Kaypee sprinted in from short-fine leg to send the last-man-standing that caught Bombay short by two runs in their chase of 355.
When I opened my eyes one thing that came flashing in – I wish I were there, soaking in the emotions, and eventually reaching out to Dilip Vengasarkar to give him a hug before whispering in his ear, “It’s okay gentlemen. Ranji Trophy can never be the domain of one privileged state. Let Haryana have some fun as well.”
However, that hardly explains the fleeting minutes that laid bare the fickle beauty and cruelty of sport. Because the ebbs and flows of the game were as dramatic as the eventual result was. Haryana didn’t have the advantage from the beginning and only because of No. 11 Yogendra Bhandari’s fighting 19, that cost Bombay 83 in the Haryana’s last-wicket partnership in the second innings, the visitors put up a target of 355 runs, which at one point, was near impossible to imagine.
With 190 minutes and 20 mandatory overs to play, Bombay could’ve easily played for a draw, and with the team having the likes of Vengsarkar, Sachin Tendulkar, Sanjay Manjrekar, Lalchand Rajput, Sandip Patil, Vinod Kambli, and Chandrakant Pandit – all were international players – a win was never out of the equation. Then, Bombay showed the indomitable strength that separated from the rest of the chasing pack in their storied history – a strong comeback.
The team for the forthcoming tour to Australia had not yet been selected yet and there were a lot of aspirants in Bombay team who wanted to put on a show for the selectors to see. However, Haryana, having the likes of Kapil Dev, Vijay Yadav, and Chetan Chauhan, had their eyes fixed on winning the game, after being given the slightest of opportunities that no team used to get from Bombay in the 90s.
Kapil spread his fielders along the distant boundary lines and himself back-pedaled near the fence, but the strategy didn’t seem to reap dividends as Tendulkar swung Pradeep Jain for sixes on a regular basis to ensure that the target which was on the far reaches a few moments earlier, now seemed just a few overs away. However, by sending Tendulkar back to the hut, Yogendra Bhandari brought Haryana back in the game, but Dilip Vengasarkar, in the company of Vinod Kambli did enough to keep the side in the hunt.
As the mandatory over started, there were 18,000 people present at the stadium, with the home team needing 114 at an insane run rate of 5.7. Remember, we are talking about 1991 when big-hitting was not a regular fixture in ODIs even and we are talking about domestic first-class cricket here. Then the implosion happened all too suddenly as the hosts suddenly reduced to 305/9 as Dilip Vengsarkar was stranded on the other side.
In walked Abey Kuruvilla and gave more than he promised, and ended up being brilliant support to his senior pro. Everything seemed to be aligned in Bombay’s way, however, until just. With the team needing just three runs to win, Kuruvilla trickled a Chetan Sharma delivery towards the short-fine leg and instead left watching the ball as Kaylee sprinted in and the stumps were ransacked in a flash to pull off one of the big moments in Indian cricket history. The history has been written and the master has been beaten.
As the TV cameras, put up as Doordarshan was televising it, Dilip Vengsarkar collapsed to his knees, seemed a broken man, sobbing helplessly unable to stop his tears before reserve player Prasad Desai ran to the middle of the ground where Vengsarkar sat and gently asked him to return back to the comforts of the dressing room.
Haryana, however, was a picture of celebration for what seemed an eternity. However, Dilip Vengsarkar, a champion cricketer in his own right, had now been coming to the dressing room, but his eyes told an incredible story staring into emptiness which might’ve said it could’ve been them too.
Cricket, for them, was their biggest let down which was not really the case in the preceding decade. However, as far as the sporting tales go, some of the colossal heartbreaks are the very foundation of the greatest and the most stirring sporting stories.