'One of the ends was a green top, the other a dustbowl'
The Punjab Agricultural University Ground in Ludhiana has hosted only 11 first-class games, but the big one it staged in March 1993, the Ranji Trophy final between Punjab and Maharashtra, is etched in the memory of all the players involved in the match.
It was Maharashtra's last appearance in the Ranji final till this season, when the team, led by Rohit Motwani, take on a formidable Karnataka in Hyderabad starting January 29.
Maharashtra's batting line-up was a force to reckon with back then, with heavyweights like Surendra Bhave, Shantanu Sugwekar and Santosh Jedhe forming the top order. But Punjab had a plan to counter them.
"When we reached Ludhiana two days before the final, we went to the ground, and to our disbelief, let alone the match wicket, even the boundaries hadn't been marked, says Milind Gunjal, the senior-most member of that 1992-93 team. "So there was no question of having practice wickets."
Things hadn't gotten any better on the eve of the match. "Even the day before the match, when we reached the ground, it was a huge plot of green - like a race course or a golf course - and we managed to practise wherever we could," recalls Iqbal Siddiqui, the former India fast bowler who was then playing his maiden first-class season. "By the time we left for the hotel, the boundaries had been marked. We asked them about the match wicket and they said the wicket was still not decided since 'Bedi saab hadn't arrived from Delhi'."
Bishan Bedi, the former India captain, was the Punjab coach, and it was his clever tactic that worked wonders against an in-form Maharashtra line-up.
On the morning of the match, Bhave, then Maharashtra's captain and now coach, saw a "unique pitch". "One of the ends was a green top while the other end resembled a dustbowl."
Siddiqui adds: "Even the green top wasn't really an ideal one. In fact, the pitch hadn't been prepared at all. There was no hardness in the wicket and we knew that since the whole surface had hardly been watered and rolled, it would crumble in no time."
Bhupinder Singh, Punjab's pace spearhead in the game, points out that the conditions were far from ideal because it was the season in which the BCCI experimented with uncovered wickets. "Moreover, you have to understand that the Ranji Trophy wasn't as professionally organised as it is now. So at a venue like Ludhiana, which doesn't have a proper stadium, there ought to have been a few deficiencies. But nobody complained back then and the game was played in a perfect spirit."
Bhave lost the toss, so naturally Maharashtra were made to field first. Navjot Sidhu, Vikram Rathour and Gursharan Singh were dismissed cheaply, but 18-year-old Amit Sharma played the knock of his life. In only his second first-class match, he scored 161 on a difficult track to help Punjab to 318. "He hardly scored any runs after that match, but the big hundred he scored turned out to be the difference," Bhave says.
Gunjal, however, recalls that Amit Sharma was caught behind by wicketkeeper Sanjay Kondhalkar off Siddiqui "early" in his innings. "He was on 14 then and just as we started celebrating, we realised I had overstepped," Siddiqui says. "Since then, I hardly bowled a no-ball all my life."
By the time Punjab were bowled out on the second morning, the pitch had started turning square. Maharashtra's famed batting line-up couldn't put up much resistance. Left-arm spinner Bharati Vij took 6 for 61. "You can just imagine a spinner throwing the ball towards leg stump and the ball going towards first slip," says Sugwekar, who was dismissed for 10. "That was the kind of pitch we had on the third day of the game."
Punjab's wicketkeeper, Arun Sharma, effected seven dismissals in the match. He says that while Amit Sharma's innings set up the game, it was Punjab's bowlers who tilted the balance in their favour by exploiting the conditions well. "The pacers used the moisture in the wicket so well that a terrifying batting line-up was kept in check in both the innings."
In the second innings, offspinners Jedhe and Shrikant Jadhav triggered a collapse, but Gursharan's quickfire 44 helped Punjab set Maharashtra a target of 253. "I had caught Gursharan off Jedhe moments after he had come in to bat," says Gunjal, who retired from top-flight cricket after the final. "Jedhe got one to bounce and the ball kissed his gloves before resting into my hands. But the pitch was doing so many tricks by then that the umpire didn't spot it. Otherwise we could have folded them up for 90-odd runs and remained in the game."
Maharashtra's hopes of reclaiming the Ranji Trophy decimated on the fourth morning when they were bundled out for 132, thanks to some tidy bowling by Bhupinder Singh, Arun Bedi and Vij. "I remember Jedhe was looking solid on the third evening, so we deliberately slowed down the pace of the game to prevent them getting closer to the target," Bhupinder says. "We knew the wicket would have a lot of juice in it in the morning and all of us made full use of it to wrap up their innings."
While Punjab were over the moon after claiming their maiden Ranji title, Maharashtra had to return home empty-handed, having last won the trophy in 1940-41. "It was the first time in 22 years that Maharashtra had made it to the final and we fell short. But we had every reason to hold our heads high despite having a disappointing season," says Jedhe, who had had a dream season, having scored 867 runs and taken 37 wickets.
However, a sense of dejection was obviously looming large over the group moments after the final.
"Bhave collected the runners-up trophy from IS Bindra, walked straight back and handed it to me," says Siddiqui. "Not one player approached me to have a look at it. Instead, all of them had their eyes fixed on the Ranji Trophy. The trophy was in my room till evening, and I felt a sense of achievement, despite being the second-placed team, in my debut season.
"I realised the importance of winning. When we boarded a train at Pune station, we received a giant send-off with a huge gathering there to wish us luck. A bogey was reserved for the squad and we were fed all sorts of food and even mineral water till we reached Ludhiana. Around a week later when we returned from Punjab, all the VIP treatment had vanished."
Regardless of the result, the match has a special place in the heart of all the players involved. Earlier this season, Bhupinder, now the Punjab coach, enjoyed watching a few video clippings that Vikram Rathour had of the match, and Arun Sharma relived it with Gunjal when the two met at an event a few years ago.
"The scoreboard might reflect an easy win for Punjab, but it wasn't," Bhupinder says. "It was a closely fought contest between two of the most experienced and talented units. I can never forget the match."
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo