I belong to a generation in which cricket fans had triple loyalties. My own, in order of preference, were, the Friends Union Cricket Club, Bangalore (F. U. C. C.); the Mysore Ranji Trophy side; and the Indian Test team. Down the decades, these loyalties have remained constant, albeit with slight modifications; Mysore now call themselves Karnataka, and India play more ODIs than Tests.
On the day of the 2003 World Cup final, which pitted India against Australia, I planned all my meetings in the morning, so I could return home in time for the match. The first thing I did when I got back was to ask my son: "Is Anil [Kumble] playing?" The answer was dispiritingly negative. The greatest spin bowler in the history of Indian cricket had been set aside in favour of a man named Dinesh Mongia. The error may have been crucial. When Australia batted first, a promising start was cut short by two strikes from Harbhajan Singh, but then Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn got stuck into the medium-pacers. These batsmen are both shaky against spin early in their innings, a weakness that the experienced Kumble would have exploited.
The decision to play Mongia ahead of Kumble was indefensible. Sandeep Patil said later it was as if, to impress a distinguished visitor, one had pulled out, from the two cars in one's garage, the Maruti rather than the Mercedes. The Australians, it was well known, could not be contained; they had to be dismissed. Kumble had a fantastic record against them; he had the ability, and guile, to bowl effectively in the first 15 overs, in the middle overs, and at the death. And he was a big-match player.
I was reminded of that fatal error in early January, when Karnataka knocked out Uttar Pradesh [on first-innings lead] in the Ranji Trophy semi-final. In that match, Rahul Dravid scored a double-hundred. However, owing to his international commitments, Dravid would have to miss the final against Mumbai. The question was: who was to replace him?
Before I come to its possible answers, let me explain why this question mattered so much to me. In forty years of cricket-watching, my happiest moment remains witnessing, live and at the ground, Karnataka overcoming Bombay [on first-innings lead] in a Ranji Trophy semi-final that was played at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in January 1974. That match was decided when Ajit Wadekar was brilliantly run out by R. Sudhakar Rao, with whom I practiced at the nets of the F.U.C.C, Karnataka went on to win the Ranji Trophy, thus ending a run of fifteen successive years in which Bombay had won the championship.
"Akhil was missed as a fielder; missed more as a batsman; and missed most of all as a bowler. Mumbai lost early wickets in both innings, but in each case the lower order rallied because of the absence of support to R. Vinay Kumar and Abhimanyu Mithun. With his nagging accuracy and steepling bounce, Akhil could have kept up the pressure while these two strike bowlers rested"
Now, when Rahul Dravid was unavailable for this year's final, the choice of his replacement narrowed down to two men. Both were allrounders. One, Balachandra Akhil, played for the F. U. C. C.; the other, Stuart Binny, was the son of a member of several successful Karnataka Ranji Trophy squads (and of the successful 1983 World Cup squad besides). The day before the final, to be played in Mysore, Cricinfo's correspondent wrote that 'the vacancy is between allrounders B Akhil and Stuart Binny, with a decision to be made on Monday morning. Binny, being the better batsman, is tipped to make the XI.'
It appears the correspondent had not consulted the statistics section of his own site. This informed us that whereas Akhil had scored 1810 runs in the first-class cricket at an average of 28.73 (with one hundred and fourteen fifties), Binny had scored 599 runs at an average of 19.96, with only two fifties. Akhil also had the better bowling record--49 wickets at 37.48 apiece, against Binny's 13 at 47.91. Finally, Akhil had 79 catches in 51 matches (against Binny's two in twenty).
However much I wanted Kumble to play in the 2003 World Cup final, I had no means of making my views known. But many years spent watching and writing about cricket in Bangalore meant that, in this case, I could at least bring the facts to the attention of one of the most influential men in Karnataka cricket. Some four days before the final, I wrote a mail to this gentleman, alerting him to the statistics on Cricinfo, which, I noted, demonstrated 'that apart from having a considerably better batting and bowling record, Akhil is also an outstanding fielder.' I added that, in Dravid's absence, Akhil's 'experience and slip fielding may be helpful.'
In the end Binny was picked to play in the final. He batted indifferently in both innings, and was trusted with only seven (wicketless) overs in the match. Akhil was missed as a fielder (several sitters were put down by the home side); missed more as a batsman; and missed most of all as a bowler. Mumbai lost early wickets in both innings, but in each case the lower order rallied because of the absence of support to R. Vinay Kumar and Abhimanyu Mithun. With his nagging accuracy and steepling bounce, Akhil could have kept up the pressure while these two strike bowlers rested.
The match played between Mumbai and Karnataka in Mysore was a superb advertisement for domestic cricket as well as for five-day cricket. It was one of the most closely-contested Ranji finals in years. At least four young men - two on either side - put forward their claims for higher honours (these are Abhishek Nayar and Dhawal Kulkarni for Mumbai, and Mithun and Manish Pandey for Karnataka.) While celebrating the match for what it offered, I trust I may yet be allowed this parochial plaint. If my club-mate Akhil had been picked in the final eleven, the trophy would have journeyed southwards to Bangalore. And, while we are on the subject, let me remind the non-Kannadigas who read this - if the peerless Kumble had played the 2003 World Cup final, it may actually have been India who won.