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Sankaran Krishna

The best of the Bombay boys

Which players would make it to an all-time XI of the powerhouse Indian domestic side?

Sankaran Krishna
Polly Umrigar bats at a practice session at Osterley, Middlesex, during India's tour of England, April 23, 1959

Fine middle-order batsman, useful bowler, versatile fielder, shrewd captain: Polly Umrigar had many strings to his bow  •  William Vanderson/Getty Images

ESPNcricinfo recently featured a piece on an all-time Barbados XI. It was a collection of the most incredible talent, capable of holding its own against any all-time World XI. Barbados is a tiny island, measuring about 21 miles by 14 miles and with a total population of less than 300,000, which makes this abundance of cricketing talent truly astonishing.
That got me thinking: what might an all-time Bombay XI look like? Mumbai is home to about 20 million people today and one of the world's largest metropolises. Quite a world removed from tiny Barbados. How might their best XIs stack up against each other? What follows is the result of my ruminations. I hope you enjoy it, though I suspect (as is always the case with such compilations) there will be much to disagree with as well.
The two opening slots were the easiest to write in: Vijay Merchant and Sunil Gavaskar. Merchant ended with a Test average of 47.72 and a first-class average of 71.64, and was regarded as one of the finest players of fast bowling in his time. Gavaskar's record as opener is peerless, and he accumulated the vast majority of his runs without a helmet against some of the fiercest fast bowling the world has ever seen. At 5'7" (Merchant) and 5'6" (Gavaskar) they may well be the shortest opening pair ever, but they made up in guts and hunger what they lacked in height.
At the crucial first-drop position enters Dilip Vengsarkar. With a classical technique, equally effective against pace and spin, an average of 42.13 over 116 Tests, and enough truly gutsy innings against top fast bowlers around the world, the "Colonel" outstripped his rivals (including left-hander Ajit Wadekar) by a fair margin.
Following him, at No. 4, is Sachin Tendulkar. Enough said on that.
There was, to put it mildly, a surfeit of talent competing for No. 5*: Vijay Manjrekar, Dilip Sardesai, Sandeep Patil, Vinod Kambli, and Ajinkya Rahane, among others, made strong cases for themselves, but ultimately I had to go with Polly Umrigar. Not only was he India's finest middle-order batsman for the longest time, Umrigar was a useful bowler (35 Test wickets at 42.08 apiece) and an excellent fielder in both the slips and the outfield.
Ideally you want an allrounder at No. 6 and, really, who better than Vinoo Mankad? A batting average of 31.47 and 162 wickets at 32.32 apiece over 44 Tests puts daylight between him and someone like Ravi Shastri, whose batting average of 35.79 shades Mankad's but who conceded nearly 41 for each of his 151 wickets over 80 Tests.
There was no question about who would fill the wicketkeeper's slot: the flamboyant Farokh Engineer, which is hardly surprising since Engineer actually did walk into World XIs of his time, let alone that of his state team.
That leaves us with four bowlers to pick - two fast bowlers and two spinners. At No. 8 is Karsan Ghavri. He could be a nippy proposition on his day, and 109 wickets in 39 Tests at 33.54 apiece is not bad at all for an Indian medium-pacer. In addition, Ghavri could also wield the long handle quite effectively. At No. 9 is Zaheer Khan. With over 300 Test wickets, an enviable ability to prise out an opener or two with the new ball and a couple of batters later on down the order with his reverse-swing, he easily makes the XI.
Following him is someone who may well have had a prolific Test career had he been born in a different time or place: Padmakar Shivalkar, the original metronome, who, in a first class career of 124 matches, took 589 wickets at an average of just 19.69. A left-arm spinner with flight, loop, variation and incredible control, Shivalkar failed to budge Bishan Bedi out of India's Test XI. I have often wondered how good Shivalkar might have been in comparison to Bedi at the highest level, especially as the latter aged and seemed to give up on his fitness as time wore on. That we never found out is the real tragedy of Shivalkar's career.
And completing the XI is someone whose superlative Test career was cut short by a bizarre combination of Indian middle-class morality and the callousness of the country's cricket establishment: Subhash Gupte.
Gupte's legspin earned him 149 wickets in just 36 Tests, at an average of 29.55 (figures that rival those of India's famed spin quartet). When playing the Test series against the visiting MCC in 1961-62, during the third Test, in Delhi, it appears his room-mate in the hotel, AG Kripal Singh, made a phone call to the receptionist asking her if she would like to have a drink. The lady thought the invitation highly improper and complained to the Indian team manager. Both players were dropped on "disciplinary grounds", but the promised inquiry was never held and Gupte never got the chance to present his side of the story. He quit India in disgust, settling in the West Indies, and never played another Test match.
Two matters remain. For 12th man, I would go with Eknath Solkar, perhaps India's greatest fielder ever. And for the captain, the best men - Ashok Mankad and Ajit Wadekar - unfortunately do not make the team on talent. Of the others, Gavaskar was too defensive and Tendulkar never seemed to get it all together when it came to commanding his men. I would go with Umrigar (who captained India in eight Tests, winning two and losing two) who was reputed to have a shrewd cricketing brain.
As I scan the team, the absence of any left-hand batsmen in the top order and the surfeit of left-arm bowlers (Gupte is the lone exception) is a bit worrying. Indeed, given the overlap in bowling skills between Vinoo Mankad and Shivalkar, I feared I might have to drop one of them for a right-arm medium-fast bowler. Unfortunately, contenders like Ajit Agarkar, Ramakant Desai, or Dattu Phadkar, just weren't good enough in terms of their Test records. In the end, I could not bring myself to leave out either Mankad or Shivalkar. Fortunately, since I was the one compiling the XI, I did not need to!
So, does this island team stand a chance against the best of Barbados? Most certainly not. But still, that's not a shabby XI by any means.

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu. @SankaranKrishn