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'A Mumbai player is quietly arrogant'

Sunil Gavaskar during the 1986 tour of England Mark Leech / © Getty Images

The culture, ethos and spirit of Mumbai cricket has always been singular, forward-thinking and an example to other states in India. As they gear up for their 500th Ranji Trophy match, Milind Rege, a former Mumbai captain, talks about a time when Mumbai's maidans were dominated by numerous stalwarts, and the players built a legacy of winning at all costs.

Dilip Sardesai was a tough nut. He would tell you what he felt. That was in contrast to someone like Ajit Wadekar, who would cajole you, put his arm around you, be nice to you, and yet be firm. In my first outstation match, which was in Solapur against Maharashtra, Sardesai was my first room partner. Can you believe it? I used to carry Sardesai's photograph in my pocket because I adored his batting. And here I was, rooming with him. Sardesai, I was told later, had actually asked for it.

On the eve of the match, Sardesai told me plainly: "Milind, you will get only one opportunity in the Mumbai team. If you fail, you will not be called back gain. That is Mumbai's cricket."

He told me how, when he was making his debut, Polly Umrigar had told him almost the same thing - seize the opportunity. Sardesai told me they were all there to protect me, but if I failed, I'd be on my own. That was a stern message for a young man who has just started to play for Mumbai.

Sardesai did not mean anything wrong. He protected me. When you played with or against these seniors, you knew they were watching you and you always wanted to prove you were worthy. I remember Sunil's [Gavaskar] room partner was Baloo Gupte. They would put their arms around us, talk and teach cricket, even though on the ground they were tough. Even on the field they would rebuke you. The educative part of cricket came on the ground: you made a mistake, you were told on the ground itself.

To play for Mumbai, you had to earn your cap and fight to retain it. Vijay Merchant, Madhav Mantri, Umrigar and Manohar Hardikar - These men sat on the selection panel that picked me. These were not mere selectors, these were giants of Mumbai cricket. They were all disciplinarians, and great captains of Mumbai. One failure and you were out, so you valued every innings. This ethos was followed at every level of the game, especially in the intensely competitive club cricket, one of the legacies of Mumbai cricket.

Take the example of Sunil. His first match for Mumbai was against Rest of India in the 1967 Irani Cup. He got 5 and 0 at Brabourne stadium. He did not get a look in for the next few years till he returned to the Bombay dressing room in the 1969-70 season. He got a duck in his first match, against Mysore. In his second match - the final - he scored a century against Rajasthan. Teams did not change in those times. Numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 were the same for several years.

The selectors picked the 14-member squad, while the captain picked the team without any intervention. That was a progressive idea that helped Mumbai prosper. Men like Mantri were stern captains. He had passed on the legacy to Umrigar, before Wadekar came in as the captain. We had all seen Wadekar making his debut at Brabourne stadium form the A block of the North Stand, and within three or four years he was our captain at Mumbai.

Wadekar's great strength was his ability to adapt. He never lost his cool on the ground and was always protective of the juniors. In college, we had Ashok Mankad as our captain. We had seen him score a century against Rajasthan in the Ranji Trophy final in 1965. It was too good to be true. These captains are the men who made us what we ended up to be.

The biggest thing for us youngsters was hero worship when we started playing cricket. When I made my debut before I turned 18, I found myself in the Mumbai dressing room full of giants: [Bapu] Nadkarni, Hardikar, [Sharad] Diwadkar, [Ramakant] Desai, [Baloo] Gupte, Sardesai, Wadekar and Ashok Mankad. They not only took us under their wings and taught us things about the game, but these men treated us youngsters us like friends. That was the culture of Mumbai cricket.

The other strength of Mumbai cricket was that everybody was happy with each other's success. You hardly got opportunities to bat at times with the batting line-up being deep. We also played matches across three days back then - so we just had 210 overs in a match as opposed to 360 overs across four days, which started in 2003.

"One failure and you were out, so you valued every innings. Take the example of Sunil. His first match for Mumbai was against Rest of India in the 1967 Irani Cup. He got 5 and 0 at Brabourne stadium. He did not get a look in for the next few years till he returned to the Bombay dressing room in the 1969-70 season."

What was important for Mumbai was a win. None of us had ever known what a loss was. The confidence level was so high as a result of playing against the best in the various tournaments that Mumbai hosted. Times Shield, Police Shield, Purshottam Shield, Kanga League and Talim Shields were tournaments, some of which featured not just the best from Mumbai but the very best from the country. These tournaments would be played across all the famous maidans across the city and witnessed by huge crowds.

All the five tournaments were extremely competitive. Why was Mumbai such a dominant force? Because seven to eight Mumbai players were part of the Indian team. And all these players also played against us on the local circuit. In my first year at Tatas (1968) in the Times Shield, I bowled to an Associated Cement Company (ACC) team comprising Umrigar, Nadkarni, Sardesai, Vijay Bhosale and Inderjitsingh. The State Bank of India team included Wadekar, Ramnath Parkar, Madhu Gupte, GR Viswanath, Hanumant Singh and Budhi Kunderan. I was only 18. What more could I ask for?

The first time I bowled to Vijay Manjrekar was in the Police Shield final between Bombay Universities and Shivaji Park Gymkhana. Manjrekar was one of the best batsmen and it was a dream come true. I bowled him. It was a turner, the pitch. I delivered a floater, which drifted and Manjrekar's off bail was disturbed. Hardikar was the captain of Shivaji Park. That was how we turned the selectors' gaze.

Corporate cricket was very famous. ACC, Tatas, SBI were the big teams, followed by Mafatlal. The corporates provided tremendous security for cricketers because there was not any money in cricket. I got five rupees a day in my first match. That is 15 rupees per match if you played in Mumbai, and 25 rupees for the away matches.

Sunil, Sudhir Naik, Sharad Hazare and myself would take a taxi on the first morning of the home match and the ride, to-and-fro, would cost us about ten rupees. If we played at Brabourne, five rupees would go as tip for the stewards, and another five would be spent on a bottle of Golden Eagle beer which was shared by a bunch of us. By the end of a home match, we were left with no money.

One other significant factor of Mumbai cricket then was the teeming crowds. A derby between Dadar Union and Shivaji Park Gymkhana would be seen by at least 10,000 people, most of who would have turned up an hour before the match began.

The players themselves did not take their places for granted. A Mumbai player has always passed on the legacy to his younger colleagues in the dressing more than any other team. Once you put the Mumbai Lion on your head, you are suddenly transformed. A Mumbai player is quietly arrogant. His confidence level is always high. There is an ingrained emotion inside him that he must give his best. If Mumbai has not won the Championship, it has not done well, which means the player has not done well.

One thing a Mumbai selector has done across decades is to never accepted secondary cricket. Having been a selector myself for three decades, I can vouch for that. A few years ago, Sunil and I were watching a local tournament at CCI. Shreyas Iyer threw his wicket away. Later I told Shreyas, "Look, Mr Gavaskar has not come to see Shreyas Iyer, a Mumbai No. 3, chuck his wicket. We don't want to waste our times on people throwing their wicket away."

A Mumbai cricketer is willing to grind. That has been the legacy. Gavaskar, Vengsarkar, Wadekar, Sardesai, Sandeep Patil, Ravi Shastri, the Manjrekars and the Mankads - they never threw their wickets away. And that applies even to Mumbai bowlers. Even though Mumbai has not boasted of too many of its bowlers playing for India, how many teams have scored outright victories against Mumbai? Mumbai has scored more outright victories than any other opponent. Paddy Shivalkar, Abdul Ismail, Rege, Rakesh Tandon, Nilesh Kulkarni, Sairaj Bahutule, Ramesh Powar - they never gave away anything away . That is why we are called khadoos. That word only means one who never gives up, one who is stubborn, one who challenges the opposition, one who is gutsy.

As told to Nagraj Gollapudi