It was 1996. India’s team for the tour of South Africa had just been announced and Bombay (now Mumbai) was not a happy city. Just one player from the city was considered good enough for the team.
It shocked many in the city – widely considered to be the Mecca of Indian cricket. It shocked enough of them (including former cricketers), so they marched from Eros Cinema to the Cricket Club of India, protesting against what they believed was deliberate discrimination.
The rest of India would have chuckled a bit on that day. Mumbai had given a lot to Indian cricket but many cricketers around the country would have made that very same argument – they didn’t get a chance to represent India because they were not from Mumbai. It was deliberate discrimination of another kind, they would’ve argued.
But still, Mumbai has had a huge influence on Indian cricket and it continues to do so. The team has won India’s premier cricket tournament (no, not the IPL), the Ranji Trophy – 41 times (34 times outright and 7 times on first innings lead) in 83 years, including 15 back-to-back wins from 1958–59 to 1972–73.
But that domination isn’t as clear cut now as it used to be. They still win but others teams have a chance and the spread of talent is much greater than it used to be. Cricket isn’t a game that is played in just the big metros anymore. It has spread and that means that India’s selectors have a much wider pool of players to pick from.
The early years
In India’s inaugural Test match in June of 1932, 11 Indian men led by Colonel CK Nayudu were composed of players born in four Indian states: four from Maharashtra and Punjab, one from Gujarat, one from Sindh and the one from colonial Malaysia.
Ramachandra Guha, commenting on the selection in his book A Corner Of A Foreign Field, said that it “nicely reflected the balance of communal interests”. There were seven Hindus, four Muslims, four Parsees and two Sikhs in that team.
And, of course, a royal was needed to lead the team. Not so much for his cricketing talent but simply because, it seemed right for that time and for that tour.
Mumbai played host to many of the big tournaments of that day and age. While players from other states would also play in them, it gave young cricketers in the city, the priceless gift of exposure.
However, western India, once the country’s greatest source of cricketing talent is slowly on the wane. It’s seen steady growth of national cricketers for over 80 years, but now India’s Test match stars are coming from the north.
The 1971 vintage
It was a golden year in the history of Indian cricket. Victories against the West Indies in the Caribbean and England in the United Kingdom marked a coming of age for the sport.
During India’s first Test series win in England, the line-up was effectively the Mumbai Ranji team. In the 1971 series win, six of the 11 were part of the Mumbai team, of which only Dilip Sardesai wasn’t born in Mumbai.
Sunil Gavaskar – again, from Mumbai – formed the young guard of India cricket. His rise gave India an immense sense of confidence and for once, they were not overawed by the English.
This despite not having a single ‘proper’ pace bowler in the line-up. In the third Test of the series – India’s new ball was shared by Abid Ali, Eknath Solkar and Gavaskar.
But times were starting to change and nothing heralded that change better than the arrival of Kapil Dev in 1978. Once he arrived on the scene, India’s selectors suddenly had to look at the game differently.
There was talent in the game and India just needed to find it.
As we had pointed out in an earlier piece, “Since the beginning of 1990, the gap has closed even more and Maharashtra cannot claim to have any major dominance when it comes to the player proportion. Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Delhi combine to contribute 44% of the players while Maharashtra’s share has fallen to just 16%. Given that a number of players have started emerging from the smaller towns in the last few years, Maharashtra’s one-sided dominance might be a thing of the past.”
Fast forward to the series going on in England. Only Ajinkya Rahane and Shardul Thakur are from the Mumbai Ranji team. Rahane made the playing XI for the first Test, but he wasn’t born in the city.
Invariably, this team doesn’t have the makings of a Mumbai roster, but a far more diverse set of players. But due to the early lead, Western India and Maharashtra’s supply of Test cricketers will take a lifetime of cricket to eclipse.
Maharashtra alone has produced 78 Test cricketers, the highest among any state by far and most are proponents of the Mumbai school of cricket and its successful Ranji side. Of India’s 290 Test players, more than half (162) have come Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab and Tamil Nadu.
Rahane and Rohit Sharma are beneficiaries of the Mumbai cricketing system, but neither of them was born in Mumbai. Both cultivated their craft in the suburbs of Mumbai at a young age, all before taking their services to Wankhede.
Since 1932, Mumbai has been the birthplace for 45 Indian Test cricketers. A vast number of them have gone onto have successful international careers. The last one to play international cricket, Sachin Tendulkar, kept the Mumbai flag flying till his retirement in 2013.
The last Mumbai-born player to debut for India goes far back as Ramesh Powar in 2007. He played two Tests against Bangladesh that year and with that came the temporary demise of the Mumbai-born Test cricketer.
But the displacement of Mumbai hasn’t been only through small town India and the burgeoning grassroots system, but the emergence of Delhi as a cricketing powerhouse.
Since the turn of the century, Ashish Nehra, Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Gautam Gambhir, Amit Mishra (who represents Haryana) and even the likes of Jayant Yadav have crept their way into the Test side.
Up until Nehra’s arrival, none of them had played more than four Tests for India. The left-arm pacer had spotty Test career, but the likes of Sehwag, Kohli and Gambhir are among the pantheon of Indian Test batsmen.
Western India is unlikely to go down without a fight. Cheteshwar Pujara, Jasprit Bumrah, Ravindra Jadeja and Hardik Pandya all aiming to prolong Gujarat’s cricketing tradition. But there’s a new order in the Indian cricket team and it’s not from Mumbai.
It is a change that may not please Mumbaikars but one that the BCCI should be be proud of. They have made grants to other state associations and allowed them to build their own stadiums. The spread of the game and the fact that careers in sport are often associated with cricket shows how far they have come.
The IPL has given many cricketers the luxury to dream. Those dreams may be about the Indian cricket team but getting into that elite club is anything but easy. The IPL, however, allows cricketers to catch not just the eyes of the selectors but also those of the viewing public.
In a sense, it is democratisation of the cricket in India. Everyone has a chance – not just those playing for big, powerful Ranji teams. So as India return to the venue (Lord’s) of their first ever Test, it is heartening to see that the sport has grown in more ways than one.