As the evening sun was sinking below the Arabian Sea horizon on Saturday, one could see the Brabourne Stadium swathed in light like the prime jewel on the 'Queens Necklace’ as Marine Drive is popularly known. By then, the famous Cricket Club of India had lit up with young cricketers smashing the ball hard.
The springy legs belonged to members of the Mumbai University team that was to take part in a national Twenty 20 tournament — University Cricket Championship.
With corporate houses taking an initiative to promote the game at the university level, the game at this stage has received a major boost.
Before the mid-eighties, what one can safely call the 'BT’ (Before Tendulkar) era, a cricketer had to climb three basic steps for qualifying to play for India. The Cooch Behar Trophy, which was an interschool tournament then, was the first step. The next step was the Rohinton Baria trophy where national universities competed.
The third stage was the Ranji Trophy, the national first-class championship.
If you look at many great Indian cricketers, you will find it was their performances at the university level that propelled them to the national team. Most international teams that toured India, in the pre-BT era, always had a fixture against the Combined Indian Universities, where good performances, more often than not, earned players the India cap.
It was Polly Umrigar’s hundred against the West Indies while representing the Indian Universities in 1948 that earned him a national call-up. Same was the case with Anshuman Gaekwad, who faced Clive Lloyd’s men in 1974.
The Combined Indian Universities tour of Sri Lanka in 1970 saw Sunil Gavaskar, Madan Lal, Surinder and Mohinder Amaranth giving fans a taste of what was to come.
In Gavaskar’s case, it was the record-breaking triple hundred in a varsity match in Pune and the way he faced Kiwi pacers while representing Indian Universities in 1969 that convinced Vijay Merchant, the chairman of the selection committee, that Gavaskar was the future of Indian cricket.
The last known cricketer who scored back-to-back hundreds at the university level and earned an India cap was Sanjay Manjrekar.
The post-BT era saw the virtual death of university cricket and the breeding ground for cricketers lay in agegroup tournaments.
The Cooch Behar Trophy morphed from an inter-school championship to an under-19 tournament. Tournaments catering to the under-15, u-17 levels threw up talents like Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly. The Rohinton Baria Championship, sadly, became a one-day tournament and is almost on its death bed.
When university cricket was played in the longer format, one saw players developing temperament and send signals to the selectors that they were ready to be picked for the ultimate challenge — Test cricket.
While the shortest form of the game — Twenty20 — is raking in money and looks like the best vehicle to popularise cricket around the world, it is ultimately the records in Tests that separates an outstanding player from a great cricketer.
Undoubtedly, hats off to the top brands/ corporates that are giving a life-line to university cricket by organising a Twenty-20 tournament but India’s dismal show against England should serve as a grim reminder that we don’t really have players who have the right temperament for Tests.
Putting life back into the Rohinton Baria Trophy and taking it back to its old, longer and successful format could be one solution to find the right talent.
(The writer is a former Cricket Club of India captain and Bombay University cricketer)