One of Mumbai cricket’s most important, if not the most prestigious tournament, kicks off on 7 September—the 66th edition of the Dr HD Kanga Memorial Cricket League. The maidans and gymkhanas, layered with unkempt grass and damp squishy patches just about recovering from the monsoon, will gear up for this big test. But the 65-year-old club tournament, which defines the city’s rich cricketing subculture, arrives in a new avatar.
Started as a monsoon tournament played on Sundays, on wet pitches that tested batsmen’s techniques and bowlers’ skills, the event has been shifted post-rains to September this year (will go on till 15 December) instead of July-October. While the tournament has undergone revamps in format over the last few years, particularly owing to the monsoon, the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) decision, though practical, steals the monsoon romanticism associated with this league. P. V. Shetty, joint secretary of the MCA, says, “We realized that in the last two years, only four matches were played and we had to do something about it.”
Other practical problems have dogged the event for years, including lack of interest among current cricketers. But for a different generation, it had a different meaning.
“It used to be a Sunday morning ritual where you go to the ground hoping to get a game,” says former Mumbai Ranji captain Shishir Hattangadi, who played from the mid- 1980s to mid-1990s. “It was green everywhere, ushering the start of a fresh season. Sometimes, you’d be in august company by default. Imagine fielding in third man when you find yourself next to Sunil Gavaskar fielding in first slip (on the adjacent wicket in a different match on the same large ground).”
Former India and Shivaji Park batsman Praveen Amre says, “As a child growing up in Shivaji Park, it used to be a dream for someone like me to play in the Kanga League. We used to watch the matches and a lot of the stars would turn up. As a cricketer you wanted to be there too.”
This league played an integral role in the development of Mumbai cricketers, particularly batsmen, who’ve further excelled at the international level. Amre says, “You were tested mentally as a batsman, apart from your technique and temperament. You struggled, especially since the bowler was usually on top (given the conditions) and to be successful, you had to grind. Every time I performed in the Kanga League, my confidence would get boosted.”
“The wet and soft pitches definitely helped develop my technique,” says former wicketkeeper Chandrakant Pandit. “The wickets were a bowler’s paradise and even after they eased out and got harder, they were usually two-paced. Survival was important. Your shot selection improved drastically. Whenever there were loose balls, you had to put them away, because they didn’t come that often.”
Such was the intensity of the batsman’s examination on these wickets that the number of runs almost became secondary. Hattangadi says, “If a batsman scored 30 or 50 runs, it would be considered equivalent to an 80 or a 100. The conditions always kept you on your toes and they were always magnified. You had close-in fielders, and bowlers like Vithal Patil, perfectly suited to exploiting Kanga League conditions, charging in. Getting runs against these bowlers meant you were noticed by the selectors.”
Pandit recalls a game in the late 1970s when he scored an unbeaten 56 against the likes of Pandurang Salgaoncar (one of Mumbai’s fastest bowlers then) adjacent to a Dadar Union match, where a few old-timers and former cricketers took notice of him. He got picked for the Ranji probables of 30.
Besides cricket, the Kanga League has, over the years, left an indelible cultural impact on Mumbai’s maidans. The vocabulary, aptly described by Hattangadi as “simple, rustic and explanatory”, is an important legacy in Mumbai’s cricketing culture. Terms like pachakla (has failed, derived from the bursting of a water balloon) and jhanbag tukaram (when a batsman misses the ball down the leg-side) have been passed down from generations of cricketers. One of the Kanga-centric terminology, which Pandit recalls, is “cutting aana hai”—to get their little 30 or 50 runs covered by newspapers almost a trophy of sorts.
The league has also helped develop friendships that have lasted. The bonding, the camaraderie over chai and khaari biscuit was special. “You were always one among equals, it didn’t matter who you were—an aspiring cricketer, a Ranji player or even a Test star,” Hattangadi says.
The romance of the Kanga League has been typified by the sheer enthusiasm of some of India’s leading Test cricketers to turn up for their clubs, irrespective of international schedules. Former Mumbai captain Milind Rege says, “I remember Sunil (Gavaskar) arriving from Heathrow (London) at 6am, dropping his luggage and joining me and Dilip Vengsarkar to play a Kanga League game. Today, that’s impossible. I had the privilege of playing against legends like Polly Umrigar and Vijay Manjrekar, and for us, it was a great opportunity to learn from them. Not just the way they played, but also conducted themselves.”
There’s a sense of disappointment that most Mumbai cricketers don’t turn out for their clubs due to crowded schedules and international commitments. “But you can’t blame them,” says Amre, before adding: “I am sure if they find time and the schedules don’t clash, they’d be more than happy to play for their clubs.”