When Rajasthan took the first-innings lead against Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy final in Chennai, they were just a day away from achieving twice in consecutive years what their predecessors of the 1960s could not do in several attempts. Laying their hands on the Ranji Trophy, the pinnacle of achievement in Indian domestic cricket. Seven times in 10 years, Rajasthan made the Ranji final in the '60s. Seven times in ten years, they came second to a formidable Bombay side, who were then in the midst of an incredible 15-year title-winning streak.
Salim Durani, the former India allrounder, was part of that Rajasthan team and more than four decades later, still rues missing out on the title that repeatedly eluded his side. "Hazaaron khwahishen aisi ke har khwahish pe dam nikley, bohot nikley mere armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikle [Thousands of desires, each worth dying for ... many of them I have realized, yet I yearn for more]", Durani said, quoting the opening lines of an Urdu poem by Mirza Ghalib.
Rajasthan tried everything to win. They packed their side with experienced players from outside the state. They roped in ex-Bombay players like Vijay Manjrekar, the former India batsman. They brought in other Test players such as Vinoo Mankad, Rusi Surti, Durani and Subhash Gupte. They had princely patronage from Maharana Bhagwat Singh Mewar of Udaipur and the backing of the Rungtas, a prominent business family of Jaipur.
"The Maharana had a keen interest in sports," Durani said. "He wanted Rajasthan to do well in the Ranji Trophy. So he brought in the big players from various parts of the country. They used to come two months before the start of the season to Udaipur and also used to play in the state inter-district tournament."
With so much encouragement, Rajasthan became one of the best teams in the country, but facing Bombay in a Ranji final was like running into Rafael Nadal in a French Open final. "No doubt they [Rajasthan] were a very good side, having made the final so many times," Ajit Wadekar, the former India captain who was part of that near-invincible Bombay team, said. "But back then, you had no choice if you wanted to win the Ranji Trophy. You had to beat Bombay in the final. Because Bombay was always in the final."
Not being able to win the Ranji Trophy was one of the biggest regrets of the late Raj Singh Dungarpur, the former BCCI president who was Rajasthan captain in three of those defeats against Bombay. "Raj wanted to win by hook or crook," Wadekar said. "There was a person from the Cricket Club of India who we used to consider as panauti [bringing bad luck]. Raj had that man travel all the way from Bombay to Udaipur for one of the Ranji finals we played against Rajasthan. And sure enough, on our way to the ground from the hotel, the tyre of our bus got punctured. It was all good-natured fun though."
To say that the all the seven finals were one-sided contests would be an understatement. Thrice, Rajasthan were hammered by an innings. They lost three more finals by seven, eight and nine wickets. Only one final, in 1966-67, was decided on the basis of the first-innings lead. Rajasthan made 284. Bombay declared on 586 for 7.
It wasn't that Rajasthan did not try. In the first final between the two sides in 1960-61, Durani claimed 8 for 99, his best first-class figures. He may as well have dismissed an India Test side, for his dismissals included Bapu Nadkarni, Polly Umrigar, Gulabrai Ramchand, Dilip Sardesai, Madhav Apte and Manohar Hardikar. But "our batting failed in that game," Durani recalled wistfully.
The inevitability of their plight did not dry out the humour in the Rajasthan camp though. In the 1961-62 final, Wadekar, on his way to a match-winning 235, was approached by Mankad when he was on 150-odd. "Vinoo bhai came up to me and said, 'listen, why don't you just stop batting? There is no way we are going to get all these runs." Mankad was right. Rajasthan crumbled to 157 and 95 in response to Bombay's 539.
Such big reversals at the final barrier made victory all the more sweet for Durani when Rajasthan finally won their maiden Ranji title last year. "The boys did what we could not," Durani said. "It is a very good team, with so much local talent along with the three experienced professional batsmen. [Hrishikesh] Kanitkar is doing a fine job as captain."