Laidback but tough
The late-eighties to the mid-nineties were glory years for Maharashtra cricket and Pune was its power centre.
The city produced a bulk of the team's cricketers, including three stalwarts, all born in 1966, who were part of that formidable Maharashtra team - Surendra Bhave, Santosh Jedhe, and Shantanu Sugwekar. Each finished with a first-class average of over 50, two of them captained the side, and they all ended their playing careers when Maharashtra cricket began to slide.
I met Sugwekar, a first-class run machine who averaged 63 from 85 games, and had been in contention for an India cap while at his peak, to talk of how things were then and now. We sat on the terrace of the pavilion at Deccan Gymkhana in Pune, on a hot Sunday morning, occasionally turning our attention to an amateur game involving employees of the Central Bank of India at the ground. Sugwekar had more than a passing interest in the proceedings. He is responsible for the organisation and management of club cricket at Deccan Gymkhana as cricket department secretary.
"Playing cricket in Pune was pretty comfortable during my time," he said. "Back in the eighties, or even in the nineties, if you wanted to get from Deccan Gymkhana to Poona Club, you could just go in ten minutes. There were four major grounds in Pune - Nehru Stadium, Deccan Gymkhana, PYC Hindu Gymkhana, and Poona Club. Most of the tournaments were organised by the different clubs. Deccan used to organise the Kalewar Shield, PYC used to organise the Mandke Shield, and so forth." Together with the leagues organised by the Maharashtra Cricket Association, the club tournaments were feeders for the state's age-group and senior sides.
Mumbai's cricketers have acquired a reputation of being ruthless, bloody-minded, and street-smart in their approach to the game. This has been explained in some part as being the consequence of having to travel long distances in crowded trains to reach grounds, and the needs of coping with the fast-paced life of the city. Pune has been Maharashtra's cultural centre, steeped in history, and is also a prominent hub for education and information technology, drawing people from across the country.
The cricketing culture, Sugwekar said, was laidback in comparison to Mumbai's, but there was enough in Pune to produce a tough breed of cricketers. "In terms of the quality of cricket, the quality of tournaments, the players who played in those tournaments, Pune was just as good as Bombay. When I was playing at the inter-collegiate level, the standard was very high. In one final, SP, my college, played Wadia, and the finals then used to be play to finish. We started on Sunday, and we finished the next Sunday. That was the quality of cricket then.
"[Bombay] had a lot of tournaments, maybe twice as many, but the fight which the Bombay cricketer had to go through every day, that definitely made his character. There used to be that bit of extra, not necessarily talent-wise, but mentally.
"There were only 11 major clubs in Pune. The rest, who you could say were B Division clubs, they used to play in the Poona League. The first 11 major clubs used to play in the Invitational League. So cricket was limited, in terms of the number of tournaments or exposure. We played the same players day in and day out. But our batch also had a bunch of really khadoos cricketers - Bhave, Jedhe, myself. We were playing with Mumbai, so we knew how to approach that team, and that's why Mumbai-Maharashtra games used to be closely fought."
Sugwekar started off with badminton, playing at the junior national level, before turning to cricket. "All my uncles played for Maharashtra in the Ranji Trophy. I must have been 11 or 12."
Following a couple of successful trial games, he was picked in the Maharashtra Under-15 squad. He toured Australia in 1986 with an India U-19 team, and made his Ranji Trophy debut a year later at Nehru Stadium in Pune. It was then that Sugwekar decided to stop studying for an MBA at the Symbiosis Institute of Management and become a full-time cricketer, a job that also involved 17 years with the North Lancashire League in England and 14 years with Sungrace Mafatlal in Mumbai, where he played alongside Sandeep Patil and Sachin Tendulkar.
"Patil was the best captain India should have had," Sugwekar said. "I learnt a lot from him and his experience, his manner of captaincy, his way of handling situations in a match. He was brilliant."
The quality of cricket in Pune, which helped it rival Mumbai in Sugwekar's eyes, also owed to the presence of good coaches. "The batch I played in, from 1976 onwards till about 1989-90, we had brilliant coaches. There was Kamal Bhandarkar, Rajabhau Oak, Anna Hasabnis - the best part was they were so passionate about coaching that everything else came second. Even Sunil Gavaskar used to come to Bhandarkar to rectify his mistakes."
The Maharashtra team Sugwekar played for also benefited from the services of Air Commodore Bal Dani, a former Test player and selector who took over as coach of the senior state side in 1989. "The batch that played from 1988 to 1996-97 was probably the best batch of cricketers Maharashtra produced, and the man-management was really good. Dani sir used to share his vast knowledge with us, his experiences, what he did in different situations. And the key for him was discipline, giving your 100%, commitment and dedication to the game."
Maharashtra qualified for the Ranji Trophy knockouts on eight occasions during Sugwekar's career, between 1988-89 and 1996-97, finishing twice in the quarter-finals and in the semis, and once in the final, in 1992-93.
Sugwekar has the unfortunate distinction of being the only Indian batsman to be left stranded on 299, in a Ranji Trophy pre-quarter final against Madhya Pradesh in 1988-89 at Nehru Stadium, after a last-wicket stand of 102 with No. 11 Anil Walhekar. Walhekar broke down after being bowled, and Sugwekar, having missed out on a triple, tried to console his partner as they made their way back to the pavilion.
"He just turned, saw the stumps and started crying," Sugwekar said. "He had batted pretty well. I was on 245 or something when he came in. And he took a lot of blows from TA Sekhar on his chest, shoulder and back.
"But he stood there and we got to the point where I reached 299. I actually told him, 'Walhya, the new ball is due the next over and I'm sure they will take it. Do you want me to take strike or are you comfortable with the new ball?' He said, "I have batted for so long, I can handle it." That was the only thing from him during that innings I shouldn't have listened to. The first delivery with the new ball, he was bowled. He was more disappointed than me. I was like, "Zaoo de re Walhya, atta naahi tar nantar 300 karto [Let it be, if not now I'll score 300 another time.]" But he came into the dressing room and continued crying. It was very painful for him, having batted so long and getting out at such a time."
The track at the Nehru Stadium in Pune was considered among the flattest in the country, and Sugwekar, Jedhe, and Bhave became renowned for batting long and big, which even Hrishikesh Kanitkar, born almost a decade after the trio, became adept at doing. "It was a paata track, I don't deny that fact," Sugwekar said. "But people miss the point that it was probably the fastest pitch in India at the time. It had pace, bounce, everything a fast bowler would require. Iqbal Siddiqui, Milind Kulkarni, they took most of their wickets at the Nehru Stadium."
The biggest high for Sugwekar in his Ranji career was guiding his team into the 1992-93 final with a century in the second innings in the semi-final against Uttar Pradesh, at Poona Club. "That was the sweetest memory of my life. We had a huge crowd watching the game, and Maharashtra playing in the semi-final of the Ranji Trophy was a big thing."
But in the final in Jalandhar, Punjab bowled Maharashtra out for 132 in the second innings after setting a target of 252. "You can just imagine a spinner throwing the ball towards leg stump and the ball going towards first slip," Sugwekar said. "That was the kind of pitch we had on the third day of the game."
Sugwekar had several prolific seasons for Maharashtra, but the one that perhaps brought him the closest to an India cap was 1996-97, when he made 927 runs in ten games at 71.30. "I was opening that season, and there was a vacancy for the opening slot [in the Indian side]. This was around the West Indies tour in 1997, when Tendulkar was captain. But [Navjot] Sidhu got a chance to play. After that I thought there's no chance, because you can't have such a great season every year."
Sugwekar's career ended on unfavourable terms with the selectors after he was dropped in the 2000-01 season, and he played just one game the season after that. He was involved with the Maharashtra U-19 team for a couple of years, then became a Ranji Trophy selector for a year. He is now chief administrative officer at the Sharad Pawar Public School, and was recently approached by the Orissa Cricket Association to take over as director of cricket, a position he is expected to fill in April 2013.
Pune cricket has changed significantly, and not for the better, according to Sugwekar. The biggest blow has been the clubs not being able to organise their own tournaments - once considered just as important as those hosted by the Maharashtra Cricket Association for selection - as often. "Suddenly, in 2005, everything was stopped. Not a single club got permission from MCA to host its own tournament. Somehow the MCA feels people should play cricket organised only by the MCA. The invitational leagues [comprising two-day games of 90 overs each] which the MCA organises - the quality of that tournament is low. They play a lot of games at the U-14, U-19, and U-21 levels. In terms of quantity they've definitely done a great job. But in terms of quality, if you ask me, it's nothing to talk about."
The logic behind the MCA's move to get the inter-district invitational leagues underway was to take Maharashtra cricket to the grassroots, to the state's other districts that come under the association's purview. "Previously all the cricket that the Maharashtra boys played was Pune-centric. Now, most of the cricket is played at the district level. They have taken it to the grassroots but there are a lot of flaws in the system. I don't think we select the best guys, I don't think we select enough experienced guys to mix with the young talent in the team."
That the power is shifting away from Pune is also evident in the make-up of the team. "If you consider 15 in a squad, seven to eight guys were from Pune, sometimes even ten. Now there are six or seven guys. But when I was playing, it was never like a talented guy from the districts was overlooked. You see Iqbal Siddiqui, Milind Kulkarni, Azim Khan, Prashant Rai, Ramesh Hazare, so many guys from the districts played for Maharashtra, for more than five years. The myth was that district boys were always neglected."
For about a decade now, the Maharashtra side has moved back and forth between promotion and relegation. In 2012-13 season, they finished at the bottom of Group B. It's a side that has lost a lot of its senior stars over the years, some of them dropped and forced to look for opportunities with other Ranji teams.
Sugwekar admitted priorities had changed for many young cricketers. "I don't think [this young Maharashtra side] knows what our batch did in cricket, though Surendra [Bhave, the current coach] must be telling them. The charm of first-class cricket is gone for young players since IPL made its entry. There are only a couple of teams now that approach first-class cricket in such a manner - Mumbai, possibly Delhi, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. The rest of the Plate teams now just come in to fulfil the formality.
"You could see how many games we could finish outright then, and now. Earlier, outright was a dream, the teams were so good. A four-day match now ends in two and a half. That's because of a lack of quality, and lack of commitment."
As we walked out of the gymkhana at the end of the interview, Sugwekar stopped to introduce me to Satyajit Satbhai, a Maharashtra wicketkeeper-batsman, who, Sugwekar said, had also not got his due. Satyajit told me he was pursuing an MBA in Cambridge but hoped to be involved in some capacity with cricket. Fourteen years apart, Sugwekar and Satbhai had been part of Maharashtra teams with strikingly different fortunes, with cricket in their own city having undergone a similar transformation in that time.
Siddhartha Talya is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo