City cricket loses jewel in Nirabhai

Mumbai’s poor start to the 2014-15 Ranji Trophy season attracted shock and ridicule all over the country. As if their defeat to Jammu and Kashmir at the Wankhede Stadium last week was not enough, yesterday they were bowled out for 101 by the Railways in Delhi.

Mumbai cricket’s woes are manifold, but at the heart of the problem is administration. Clearly, there are not enough people within and outside the Mumbai Cricket Association office, who prioritise what is good for the overall health of the game in the city.

This year witnessed the passing away of two dedicated souls, who spent their lifetime serving Mumbai cricket - Madhav Mantri and Vithal ‘Marshal’ Patil. Their contribution was immeasurable.

(From left) Cricket administrator RD Jukar and ex-India all-rounder Salim Durrani. Niranjan Shah (in the middle) appears delighted to welcome former Test batsman Dilip Sardesai at a function
(From left) Cricket administrator RD Jukar and ex-India all-rounder Salim Durrani. Niranjan Shah (in the middle) appears delighted to welcome former Test batsman Dilip Sardesai at a function

The losses didn’t stop there. On Monday morning, I picked up my cell phone thinking it was Niranjan Shah on the line. The voice at the other end was his son Jyotin, calling to inform me that his father had passed away a few hours ago, after suffering a massive heart attack. As soon as he started the conversation with “sad news…” I knew Nirabhai was no more.

Nirabhai (not to be confused with former BCCI secretary Niranjan Shah) was 78. The previous evening he rejoiced in the fact that Young Comrade CC, the team that he managed, won their Kanga League game.

Nirabhai served the PJ Hindu Gymkhana as cricket secretary with distinction. Managing their team gave him his best thrills, and his life was unimaginable without his cricket involvement. Many prominent Mumbai cricketers represented the Gymkhana - the likes of Bapu Nadkarni, Budhi Kunderan, Dilip Sardesai, Ashok and Rahul Mankad, Eknath Solkar, Karsan Ghavri and Sairaj Bahutule, but Nirabhai was synonymous with the cricket institution.

His joy knew no boundaries when they won. Obviously, he would sulk when they encountered defeat, but it was quite a sight to see him pacing up and down when they were in strife.

Ghavri couldn’t help recalling the great times they spent together ever since he started playing for the Gymkhana in the 1970s after stints with Parsee Cyclists and Cricket Club of India: “Nirabhai would start reminding players of a Sunday game right from Wednesday itself. He used to get hyper if one of us got delayed for a game. Remember, those were pre-cell phone days and poor Nirabhai could only wait for us. He would only be at ease when we all made it to the ground.

“A lot of us were non-vegetarians, so he would arrange for our lunch at the Islam Gymkhana, where we enjoyed Kadarbhai’s kheema. Our victories with Nirabhai around used to be celebrated by specially arranged beer. When we toured East Africa, he proved to be an efficient manager, attending to all our needs. It’s characters like these that are missing in Mumbai cricket. People like Nirabhai facilitated club

Nirabhai took great pride in the fact that Dilip Sardesai was a Hindu Gymkhana man, although he had also played for National Cricket Club and Cricket Club of India. The late Dilip’s wife Nandini remembered Nirabhai being over the moon when Hindu Gymkhana won the Purshottam Shield and Talim Shield during the same season in the 1970s under Dilip’s captaincy.

Dilip Vengsarkar was another who enjoyed a special bond with Nirabhai. While Vengsarkar attended the funeral on Monday, Sandeep Patil conveyed his condolences to Jyotin since he was out of town. Patil called Nirabhai “a true contributor to Mumbai cricket” - one who not only helped cricketers from Hindu Gymkhana but also from other clubs with jobs and encouragement.

Patil felt Nirabhai’s contribution to Mumbai cricket was similar to administrators like VB Prabhudesai, Prof Chandgadkar and Sharad Kotnis (also a journalist).

He played the game as well. In his book ‘My Innings in Mumbai Cricket’, Vilas Godbole highlighted Nirabhai’s utility as a middle-order batsman and fielder who would be a regular in the Hindu Gymkhana playing XI, despite the presence of Test and Ranji Trophy players.

When I posted the news of Nirabhai’s death on Facebook, responses flowed thick and fast. “Oh God, another one from the tribe of selfless workers for club cricket gone. RIP Nirabhai,” wrote former Mumbai captain Shishir Hattangadi, while ex-pacer Balvinder Singh Sandhu said, “he loved and worked for cricket.”

If Mumbai cricket has to get back on track in the true sense then club cricket needs to be taken back to the level it once enjoyed. That cannot be achieved without passionate managers/club secretaries/ cricket secretaries. And they all will have to emulate men like Niranjan Shah.

Rest in peace, Nirabhai. The jalebi-fafda will not taste quite the same for some of us at the Hindu Gymkhana.

Clayton Murzello is mid-day’s Group Sports Editor

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