Mumbai is to Indian cricket what Yorkshire is to the English county championship and New South Wales to the Sheffield Shield. Perhaps in a more emphatic way for even in England and Australia or anywhere else there cannot be a team that has won the premier national competition 40 times in the 79 years of its existence.
There were times when Mumbai (or Bombay as it was known for a long time) provided half the number in the Indian playing team and half the number in a touring squad. In the 70s and 80s, Delhi and Karnataka came close to matching Mumbai in this regard but in winning the Ranji Trophy they rank a very distant second and third with seven and six triumphs. And in title clashes Mumbai have been virtually unbeatable losing only four finals out of 44.
Mumbai won the inaugural championship in 1934-35 and thereafter made it a habit. Their most glorious phase was winning it 15 years in a row from 1958-59 to 1972-73 an easy world record.
They have won the trophy frequently with a second string side with the cream of the team being away with the touring national squad. They have won matches from situations that to all intents and purposes seemed lost. There is no more dangerous team than a Bombay team when cornered.
It is not difficult to fathom the reasons behind Mumbai’s incredible record. The players, administrators and coaches take immense pride when it comes to Mumbai’s performance in the Ranji Trophy. Even the junior players emerge tough from their early coaching camps.
They are fully aware of what is expected of them and when they graduate to the senior ranks they know that they have a great tradition to follow. The Mumbai cricketer is as hard as nails and in batting, bowling, fielding, tactical acumen and a professional outlook is a step ahead of his opponent.
Mumbai has produced some great bowlers but it has always been the batting that has been the crowning glory. The Mumbai school of batting is a sort of institution that has produced some of the greatest names in Indian cricket. It has served Indian cricket outstandingly for 80 years. In fact it is quite frightening to think about how the Indian team would have fared without a representative of this school.
Fortunately it has always had someone from this 'institution' for almost all the time India has played Test cricket. From Vijay Merchant to Sachin Tendulkar and with Rusi Modi, Polly Umrigar, Vijay Manjrekar, Ajit Wadekar, Dilip Sardesai, Dilip Vengsarkar, Vinod Kambli and Sanjay Manjrekar thrown in it can be seen how much Indian cricket is indebted to the Bombay school of batting that has provided style, substance and solidity.
So what is the Mumbai school of batting all about, what makes it different from other batting techniques and why is it uniquely important to Indian cricket? Let’s hear it from Merchant who certainly would qualify to be the school’s principal. "Batting is built around a specific science. The secret is timing and patience. For example you do not play the hook shot till you are seeing the ball as big as a football. Eschew all risks. Get behind the line of every ball and play it on merit. If you stay at the crease, the runs will come."
Merchant followed these commandments like the Holy Gospel and the result is there for the cricketing world to gape in wonder. He had a record of scoring a century every fifth innings in first class cricket. Is it any wonder that only Don Bradman with figures of 95.14 has a better career average than Merchant’s 71.22 in first class cricket?
In the Mumbai school of batting the breezy and attractive 50s and 60s might have their place in the game but these are not enough to win matches. In this 'institution' batsmen are thought to play long innings, the kind of knock that drives bowlers to desperation and captains to frustration.
With the triple qualities of dedication, determination and concentration the batsmen are able to run up scores of 200 and 300 which take the match away from the opposition. An insatiable appetite for runs and a penchant for big scores is a must to graduate from this school with honours. About half of the top ten individual scores in the Ranji Trophy have been notched up by batsmen from this school.
And the initiation can sometimes be very early. Playing in only his second first class game, Wasim Jaffer hit an unbeaten 314 against Saurashtra in 1996-97. And it is also worth recalling that Modi’s record tally of 1008 runs in 1944-45 was notched up from just seven innings.
As far as the international game is concerned, Indian cricket owes the Mumbai school of batting special thanks. In almost any Test it will be seen that a batsman from the western metropolis has made a major contribution.
Merchant showed the way and in his limited career – cut short due to ill health - Modi too was a success. Their immediate successors were Umrigar and Manjrekar and to both long stays at the crease were not uncommon. Umrigar was the first Indian to hit a double century in Tests while Manjrekar’s highest score was 189 not out.
Gavaskar of course took the Mumbai school of batting to a new realm. Inspired initially by Sardesai, Gavaskar went on to touch Himalayan heights. No feat was beyond him from the time he amassed 774 runs in his first series.
Moreover, inspired by him, players from other states too displayed the qualities of batsmen from the capital of Indian cricket and by the 80s totals of 600-plus were commonplace.
Around this time, Vengsarkar underlined his staying powers and at times almost matched Gavaskar in Bradmanesque scoring. Sanjay Manjrekar seemed to be the logical successor and in Pakistan in 1989-90 displayed the qualities associated with the Bombay school of batting in unmistakable terms. However he was made to shuttle between the top order and middle order and faded away without realizing his full potential.
But then Tendulkar stepped in and the tradition continued. And over the next couple of decades Tendulkar not only displayed the traditional qualities of the Mumbai school of batting but also took it to the ethereal level.
Add to all this the feats of Amol Mazumdar and Wasim Jaffer and one can see how the Mumbai school of batting has played an influential role in Indian cricket’s rising stature over the years.