In 1979, the year this newspaper was launched, another institution emerged as the talk of the town in cricket circles. Rajasthan Sports Club, then owned by the famous cricketing Rungta family of Jaipur, became the Dr H D Kanga Cricket League 'A' division champions for the first and only time in 1979. It was quite an achievement for a team that worked its way up to the premier division of the monsoon Sunday league, only three years prior to their crowning moment.
The Rajasthan Sports Club team which won the 1979 Kanga League A division title, pose for a team photograph at the Brabourne Stadium in 1979. Standing (left to right): Kit boy Kadam, Ninad Vengsarkar, Vinod Alva, Mulchand Savla, Rajan Shrivastav, Balwinder Singh Sandhu, Lalchand Rajput, Raju Kulkarni, Uday Shirname, Dilip Sawant and Pradeep Raut. Sitting (left to right): Chintamani Vaidya, Suresh Shastri, Subhash Patne, Shashi Nayak, an elderly man who served at club owner PM Rungta’s office, GR Sunderam (captain), Prakash Shenai (manager), Suru Nayak and Sudhir Gawde. Missing in the photograph: Parthasarthy Sharma and Sunil Benjamin (both on first-class cricket duty). Pic courtesy: Pradeep Raut
The club scene in the 1970s was dominated by Dadar Union Sporting Club of Gavaskar and Vengsarkar fame. Their four-year winning streak (1973 to 1976) was broken by arch-rivals Shivaji Park Gymkhana in 1977. Dadar Union regained the 'A' division pennant in 1978, but were stopped by Rajasthan in 1979.
Rajasthan comprised a few former Dadar Union players, all-rounders Shashi and Suru Nayak as well as pacer Subhash Patne, who combined well with fellow seamers, GR Sunderam, a former Test fast medium bowler and Balwinder Singh Sandhu, a future India swing bowler. Raju Kulkarni, another Test bowler in the making was in the squad, as was India's future opening batsman Lalchand Rajput. Rajasthan also had the classy India batsman Parthasarthy Sharma, who was still playing first-class cricket for Rajasthan state and Central Zone.
The Nayak brothers joined Rajasthan SC from Dadar Union whom Patne represented as well in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Sandhu (59) remembers young players like him latching on to every word 'Parath' Sharma spoke about batting especially against spin bowling. And sharing the new ball with veteran Sunderam, then 49, gave young Sandhu a high.
B Singh Sandhu. Pic/midday archives
"Mr Sunderam was quite deceptive and aggressive even at that age. We had a talented bunch of cricketers and we were a brilliant fielding side. I don't think we dropped a catch that year. Our captain always encouraged us to thrive on every little opportunity to win," recalls Sandhu, who continued to play for Rajasthan long after he retired from cricket. The 1983 World Cup-winning Sikh was in his first season of the premier division having previously played for Sind Sports Club.
In the first match of their 1979 season on July 15, Sandhu (4 for 36) and Patne (5 for 47) bowled out United Cricketers for 90 and had the Cross Maidan club to follow-on after Rajasthan scored 170 for 7 declared with young gun Rajput scoring a half century. Against Parsi Cyclists on August 22, Sandhu claimed 10 wickets in the game to give Rajasthan their second outright win of the season.
The next match was against Shivaji Park Gymkhana at their fortress where Sandhu claimed 7 for 35 to bowl out the 1977 champions for 110. For Sandhu, this was the highlight of the League. "I would rank this as my best performance because of the quality of the opposition and it was achieved on their turf. Claiming four wickets to help bowl out National Cricket Club for 12 came second," says Sandhu, who remembers Patne and Kulkarni bowling well too at Cross Maidan where they clinched an outright win over the 1970 champions.
Picture of Pradeep Raut coaching kids as Sachin Tendulkar Gymkhana in Kandivli. Pic/Sameer Markande
Apart from his deadly swing bowling, what Sandhu remembers most of his debut season with Rajasthan is their late team manager Prakash Shenai. "He's easily the best manager I have come across. He would call each player the night before the game and explain what the team needed to do to win against a particular opponent. He knew what time we went to bed too. Since I always slept at 9 pm, he would call at 8.45 pm before each Rajasthan game and speak for only 10 minutes so that when you land up at the ground next morning, you knew exactly what was expected of you. A lot of credit for our success should go to Shenai. He kept everyone on their toes. At the same time, we were relaxed. He was a huge binding factor," says Sandhu, a view shared by all the Rajasthan players we spoke to.
On September 9, Rajasthan met Dadar Union at the PJ Hindu Gymkhana where a certain Sunil Gavaskar arrived for his favourite Sunday fixture. On Tuesday of that week, he hit an epic 221 against England at the Oval in London. Shashi remembers his team batting till tea-time, which according to Sandhu, did not go down well with Dadar Union captain Vasu Paranjape.
Shashi says, "We scored 252 and Gavaskar along with Ramnath Parkar responded well in a fine 80-run opening partnership. He played some amazing shots along the ground, but was run out for 50 (by an underarm throw from Suresh Shastri). Dadar Union lost seven wickets for 157 runs for the game to end in a draw. The amazing part was that they went for the runs despite not having a lot of time. That is how Dadar Union played, always aggressively, always to win." Incidentally, Rajasthan SC was a familiar name to the then India captain, Gavaskar as his father Manohar played and later managed this club.
A July 1979 clipping from mid-day
Gavaskar left for Madras that very evening to lead the Indian team in the opening Test against Australia. In the six days, which separated the Oval Test against England and the Madras Test against Kim Hughes & Co, he still found time, energy and the drive to play a Kanga League game. That's how dear the League was to cricketers. That's what Mumbai cricket was all about. That was Gavaskar!
A few weeks before that game at Hindu Gymkhana, Rajasthan clashed with Jolly Cricketers at Cross Maidan. Rajasthan's top order batsman Pradeep Raut remembers Jolly's pacer Prabhakar Shetty bowling short which forced him to go on the offensive on a wet National CC wicket. "I whipped one and Madhav Apte fielding at short fine leg, was hit above the eye. Bleeding profusely, he pulled out his white handkerchief, wiped the blood off his face and asked us to continue the game. Our captain GR Sunderam had to convince Apte to come in and even offered to field for him. Ultimately, a Jolly substitute ran out and Apte went to a nearby hospital, got stitches and returned to bat for Jolly. We couldn't believe it."
Apte recalls: "I actually crossed over to the Bombay Gymkhana, met my friend Dr Ajit Deodhar, who took me to Bombay Hospital where I received three to four stitches near my eyebrow." September 17 saw the Sunderam father and son pair represent their respective 'A' division clubs in adjacent plots. Junior Sunderam bowled fast for Shivaji Park Gymkhana against Dadar Union in Mumbai cricket's version of battle of the roses, father GR bowled with five to six steps for Rajasthan against Shivaji Park Youngsters at Young Maharashtra CC. Pradeep helped shoot out Dadar Union for 93 through his 7 for 45 match-winning spell and GR wrecked Shivaji Park Youngsters for 47 with 4 for 11 even as Sandhu claimed 5 for 28. Chasing 48 for victory turned out to be challenging for Rajasthan. At 15 for five they were in the throes of adversity, but they scrambled home thanks to Sandhu's 17.
Rajasthan Sports Club cap from an earlier season
It is rare for club teams to be assured of a championship win even before playing the last of their league games. Such was Rajasthan's superiority over the others that season. By the evening of September 30, after Rajasthan had won the Kanga League with a game in hand after a draw against New Hind put them in an unassailable position with 24 points. In reply to Rajasthan's 158, New Hind ended up with 47 for six. Five of those six wickets belonged to Sandhu.
A reporter at the game reckoned Rajasthan would have won had they scored at a faster rate earlier in the day, but they were without their star batsman Sharma, who was in Nagpur as captain of the Central Zone team for whom he scored 96 against the visiting Australian team.
The result of the final game against Cricket Club of India (CCI) didn't matter, but Hemant Kenkre, who was Sachin Tendulkar's first premier division club captain, remembers Rajasthan winning and getting out to old fox GR Sunderam. "After Sunderam sir bowled me a few inswingers and outswingers, the next ball straightened and I was plumb in front. I also remember his wry smile when he got me," says Kenkre.
Rajasthan do not enjoy 'A' division status anymore. Like other erstwhile formidable clubs, they now figure in the 'C' division. In better days beyond 1979, they also fielded India stars like Vinod Kambli and Nayan Mongia, but their best performer through the years was pacer Pradeep who turned out regularly for Rajasthan after his stint with Shivaji Park Gymkhana.
Unlike nowadays, the standard of Mumbai club cricket was top drawer and wicketkeeper Mobin Shaikh, who joined Rajasthan the following year, says, "Each of the 14 teams which figured in the 'A' division in those days could beat any Ranji Trophy side." Shaikh may have not been part of Rajasthan's class of 1979, but when an enduring performer like him, who claimed a record 202 victims behind the stumps, says so, there's good reason to believe him.