During a commentary stint with Navjot Singh Sidhu last year, Sunil Gavaskar tried to copy his colleague's humour - ribaldry to many. Sidhu's remark, "Shikhar Dhawan ko makke ki roti pasand hai isliye vo Mckay ko maarega," (Shikhar Dhawan likes corn chappatis, so he will thrash Mckay) drew the batting legend into an uncharacteristically flippant comment, "If Dhawan likes starch, he will hit Starc." If his commentary during the recent IPL is any indication, Gavaskar did much better when taking on Sidhu.
However, to some cricket lovers - this writer included - the humour appeared forced. This wasn't the straight-faced sparkling wit one associates with the batting great. Perhaps he was only catering to the demand. The IPL, as some critics have said, is more entertainment than cricket, and the commentators, after all, are as much part of the show as the players - and the cheerleaders. But Gavaskar's turnaround from a straight-speaking commentator to a player in the IPL circus coincides with a significant development in Indian cricket: the decline of what historian Ramachandra Guha calls the Bombay School of Cricket.
Gavaskar is arguably the epitome of that school, though he credits the distinction to Sachin Tendulkar. Mumbai Indians, the team representing his home city, was crowned the IPL champion this week. But it would be very difficult to find players in this team with the qualities that used to be the hallmark of the Bombay School: impeccable technique, adept against both slow and fast bowling, and with colossal powers of concentration.
Its moniker notwithstanding, the Mumbai Indians, like all IPL teams, draws players from different cricket playing nations - and different parts of the country. So associating the team with the demise of the Mumbai School of Batting appears unfair. But one cannot help make certain associations. The case of Mumbai Indians' captain Rohit Sharma for example. Sharma cut his cricketing teeth in Mumbai's maidans and if talent were the only yardstick to judge a batsman, he is arguably way ahead of some of his peers, including the far more successful Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. In his brief stint with the Indian test team, however, Sharma has promised much and delivered little. His fans - this writer included - find themselves tearing their hair in frustration every time Sharma throws his wicket away after a very pleasing 30, 40 or sometimes a 50.
Sharma has been far more successful in instant cricket, and his fans certainly got their money's worth in this year's IPL final. He had a pretty successful tournament and his captaincy too drew praise leading many to talk of Sharma as an alternative to India's current test skipper, Virat Kohli.
To be fair to Sharma, he does have a number of attributes that Guha associates with the Bombay School. He can be aggressive even while playing by the book, is adept against both spin and pace, and is amongst the few Indian players comfortable against the short ball. And if the IPL is any indication - this is the second time he has lead Mumbai Indians to the trophy - he is certainly leader material. But with Sharma at the crease, the opposition always knows that a rash stroke is around the corner.
This year's IPL champions, in fact, hardly have a player who will, in a First Class match, make the opposition bowlers sweat for his wicket. Unlike, say, a Royal Challengers Bangalore that has an AB De Villiers or a Virat Kohli, a Chennai Super Kings with a Faf Du Plessis or the retired Michael Hussey, or the Rajasthan Royals with Ajinkya Rahane, the Mumbai Indians do not have a player who could anchor a test innings - though many believe that Sharma could, if he performed to potential.
But then Sharma himself is a bit of an oddball amongst the 11 who took the field for the IPL finals against the Chennai Super Kings on May 24. He is the only cricketer amongst the lot who can be a near-certain selection for a test team - Corey Anderson, who was not selected for the finals, fits the bracket; so does Josh Hazelwood, who pulled out midway to keep himself fresh for his test cricket commitment. Harbhajan Singh has since made it to India's test squad, but his, at any rate, is a selection influenced by IPL performance rather than First Class matches.
If there is a case for a T20 team comprising predominantly instant cricket specialists, Mumbai Indians fits the bill splendidly. With two Champion's League and two IPL wins, the Reliance Industries- owned team can rightly be called a force to reckon with in T20 cricket. Its success has largely been built around instant cricket specialists like Kieron Pollard, Lendl Simmons, Lasith Malinga - who last played in a test match in 2010 - or test greats way past their prime like Harbhajan Singh.
But a lot of the credit for the Mumbai Indian's success should also go to Sharma - both the player and captain. Since taking over captaincy after Australian great Ricky Ponting stood down in 2013, the elegant right-hander has, more than once, inspired his team to bounce back from the pits. This year too, the team was written off after losing its first four matches; in fact it won only one of its first six.
T20 cricket demands such an approach. In modern day test cricket too, caution does not pay much dividend. Even so, test cricket calls for a temperament of a different kind: the resolve to grind through the ups and downs over five days. The Mumbai players of the past from Vijay Merchant to Sachin Tendulkar were almost always equal to that demand. Ajinkya Rahane amongst the current lot, has on occasions, shown that quality.
There was a time when the Bombay Ranji team was an institution in itself: teams visiting India found the Bombay team a tougher opponent than the Indian team. Young players did not just idolise international greats like Sunil Gavaskar. The First Class records of players like Padmakar Shivalkar - who never made it to the Indian team, and Ashok Mankad - who donned national colours only briefly - were also an inspiration to the youngster going through the rigours of Bombay's maidans. And then there was, of course, Sachin Tendulkar. But Tendulkar hardly played in the Ranji Trophy and by his time, the Bombay Ranji team had lost all its glamour. Indeed the Ranji Trophy has lost its sheen. It's difficult to say if IPL has filled that void. The T20 slugfest is after all very different from the country's national championship, and the shortest version of instant cricket is very different from First Class Cricket.
But youngsters do look for heroes. Will they now idolise Mumbai Indians stars like Rohit Sharma or Kieron Pollard, who West Indian great Michael Holding said is "not a cricketer at all"? Or are they likely to draw inspiration from Ajinkya Rahane, who represents the Rajasthan Royals in the IPL and is at home in both test and T20 cricket? The latter is a tough act to emulate and increasingly national T20 teams are very different from the test teams.
At any rate the youngsters in Mumbai's maidans are likely to draw inspiration from a breed of cricketers very different from a Sunil Gavaskar or a Sachin Tendulkar.
This breed is unlikely to have any fealty to the Bombay School of Batting.
(Kaushik Dasgupta is a journalist and editor based in Delhi.)
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