They say if you were good enough to survive in the top division of Mumbai's Kanga Memorial Cricket League, the Ranji Trophy would turn out to be a piece of cake.
The Kanga League, a club tournament, has a storied history. Wet, uncovered pitches, matches in the rain, tall grass in the outfield, and no helmets meant the conditions favour bowlers as heavily as they do batsmen in the modern international game.
Sachin Tendulkar made his Kanga League debut at age 11 in the G division, in 1984, for the John Bright Cricket Club. Ramakant Achrekar, Tendulkar's coach, was so confident of his abilities that he told John Bright's owners that Tendulkar would only be available for a year.
"He will be playing higher-level cricket next year," Achrekar told Sharad Kotnis and Prakash Kelkar, who had asked the coach to allow the young batsman, who was attending summer-camp nets, to play for their club.
John Bright was originally a recreational cricket club owned by a Parsi family from Dahanu, 140km north of Bombay. The family travelled on weekends to play Kanga League matches, stopping in the suburb of Borivali on their way in for an update on the status of weather in South Bombay. It was on one of these stopovers in 1983 that Kotnis and Kelkar bought the club from the Parsi family with the idea of promoting young cricketers who could then progress to play for Kotnis' other club, Shivaji Park Youngsters, which played in the higher division. The new John Bright was restructured to feature six to seven senior cricketers and four or five young players, who the seniors could mentor.
"The Kanga League was dangerous, but that was a test for these boys," says Kelkar, an administrator with the Mumbai Cricket Association for more than 30 years. "Not everyone was selected to play, these were special boys. These guys played with tennis or cork balls, so their movement of feet was so good, they become strong to play [with the] season ball."
The 11-year-old Tendulkar showed remarkable ability to defend on those treacherous pitches, according to Nadeem Memon, one of the senior players in the side.
For the next three years, Tendulkar batted and batted and batted. There were no rest days. He rode pillion on Achrekar's scooter from ground to ground, and team to team. From John Bright CC, he graduated to Sassanian CC, then to Shivaji Park Youngsters, changing schools to concentrate on cricket, giving bowlers false hope with his small frame, but then flattening them with powerful assaults. Whether it was the Kanga League, Police Shield, Purshottam Shield, Times Shield, age-group cricket or school tournaments, Tendulkar collected runs like a well-oiled machine.
In a Purshottam Shield match in 1987, he scored an outstanding 70-odd against a Cricket Club of India side that featured Madhav Apte, the former India batsman who was the president of the CCI at the time. The CCI was already following Tendulkar's rise, especially after he hit five consecutive hundreds in the Giles Shield. His inclusion in the premier club was discussed by the club's cricket committee.
"In the case of Tendulkar, it was very clear that he would play for a club Ramakant Achrekar wanted him to play for," says Hemant Kenkre, Tendulkar's first captain at CCI. "If he should play or not play for CCI was eventually Achrekar's decision."
Tendulkar had a lot to gain at the club. Firstly, CCI was an A-division club with direct entry to the top divisions of all the Mumbai tournaments. Secondly, inclusion by the CCI would have allowed Tendulkar to develop his game further in international-class facilities at the Brabourne Stadium. The pitches at Brabourne were carefully curated, unlike the up-and-down ones in the maidans, which, although they tested the batsmen, were also thought to be the source of faulty techniques among players. Thirdly, the club would allow Tendulkar access to mentors such as Dilip Sardesai, Hanumant Singh and Milind Rege.
But Tendulkar needed to overcome a technicality to play for the club. Minors - under the age of 18 - were not allowed into the main clubhouse at CCI that housed the player dressing rooms in the '80s. Tendulkar was 15 and thanks to Apte, an exception was made to allow him into the clubhouse. The ruling is still in place and Tendulkar is the only cricketer for whom an exception was made.
"He turned the Bombay style of batting on its head"
One of Tendulkar's first captains, Hemant Kenkre
In July 1988, Tendulkar was included in the squad for a match against Karnatak Sports Association for CCI's Kanga League match at Cross maidan. He walked in at No. 4, as Achrekar had insisted. At the other end was Kenkre, CCI's captain for the match, and he knew that in the Kanga League "the mud hits your face before the ball does".
The bowler, Sharad Rao, was known to be a difficult medium pacer, who played first-class cricket for Karnataka. Kenkre remembers how that first delivery was lofted straight over Rao's head for a six with so much ease it was hard to believe it came off a 15-year-old's bat. It was as straight as it could have been, "in the line of the stumps".
In another match later that season, Kenkre remembers the team was struggling and messages were sent out to Tendulkar to not do anything stupid. Tendulkar defended till lunch but asked permission to play naturally in the afternoon session as he was uncomfortable playing the waiting game. In the three overs after lunch, he changed the complexion of the match with a calculated attack on the bowlers. His aggression rubbed off on the batsmen who followed.
"He turned the Bombay style of batting on its head," says Kenkre. "Before that, if you lofted the ball as a batsman, the coaches used to get upset about why you want to take the risk. But that is the beauty of Achrekar. He allowed Tendulkar to play that way."
As early as his first season with CCI, there were many across Bombay who believed Tendulkar would play for India. As Kenkre puts it, "Tendulkar could have played for any unknown club and still made it big, he was so good. From the first day, it was very clear that this guy was destined for greatness. Unless he messed it up himself."