India halting Steve Waugh’s invincible Australia’s sixteen-Test winning streak in 2001 is well-documented and was famously revelled in by cricket fans all over the country.
But a similar feat had been achieved by Karnataka almost three decades before the Kolkata miracle, albeit in the Ranji Trophy. Mumbai (Bombay then) had won 15 Ranji titles on the trot from 1958/59 to 1972/73 without losing a game. They were such an invincible unit then that they’d even managed to win a couple of Ranji titles with pretty much their second-string team when their big guns were away for national duty.
The legend was that Mumbai had to only turn up on the field to be crowned the Ranji champions up until a spirited Karnataka team led by the legendary Spinner Prasanna ended their juggernaut in the 1973/74 semifinals at Bengaluru.
The big Semifinal at the KSCA ground, Bengaluru
The two top-quality teams with all their international players faced off at the KSCA ground (Chinnaswamy now) in the much-awaited contest. It was almost a foregone conclusion that whoever wins this four-day game would be the eventual champions.
Mumbai was led by the successful ex-Indian captain Ajit Wadekar, with Sunil Gavaskar, Ashok Mankad, Sudhir Naik, Eknath Solkar and Padmalkar Shivalkar forming the nucleus of the team.
For hosts Karnataka, Prasanna had his good friend and spin partner, BS Chandrashekar, to share the bowling load with GR Viswanath and Brijesh Patel, strengthening the batting and young Syed Kirmani donning the gloves.
It was a mouthwatering prospect, and official records say that more than 25,000 people thronged the KSCA stadium. A section of the crowd had even come from far away places in Karnataka, such as Hubballi, Mangaluru, Shivamogga and Mysuru, to witness the game.
Prasanna won the toss and elected to bat first on a surface that looked pretty fresh and good for batting. But the hosts were jolted early by seamer Ismail, who dismissed Vijayakumar for a nought.
This brought Viswanath to the crease. The former Indian batsman stitched a timely 105-run partnership with opener Sanjay Desai for the second wicket. After Desai was dismissed for 28, Brijesh Patel joined Viswanath in the middle.
Now Karnataka's two best batsmen were batting together, and the hosts were relying on them to put on a special show. And they didn’t disappoint their team or the fans that had gathered to watch them.
With every single run being cheered by enthusiastic supporters in the stand, they added 161 runs for the third wicket. While Viswanath top-scored with a marvellous 162, Patel too contributed with an equally good 106.
Karnataka were motoring along at 281/2, hoping to potentially score 500 runs in the first innings. But it was not to be.
After losing Viswanath, Lakshman and Patel in quick succession, Karnataka were reduced to 331/6, thanks in large part to Tandon and Ismail. Later, cameos from Sudhakar Rao, Kirmani and A.V Jayaprakash pushed Karnataka’s score to 385 off 152 overs.
It was still a decent score but nowhere close to what they would have expected. Shivalkar impressed with his 4/94 for the visitors.
Prasanna was confident nonetheless, and he believed that if Chandrashekhar and himself bowled well, Mumbai, despite their famed batting lineup, had no chance against their quality spin attack, come what may.
After a few overs of seam from Vijayakumar and Jayaprakash as a mere formality, the spin duo of Prasanna and Chandra started bowling in tandem and tightened the noose. After Parker fell to Prasanna for 41, Wadekar joined Gavaskar.
Now, this was a crucial partnership in the context of the game, and Prasanna was very well aware of it. On a pitch that was still good for batting, he produced a magical delivery that was later dubbed as ‘Prassy special’, carving its niche in Karnataka’s cricket folklore, to dismiss the great Gavaskar.
The ball was, supposedly, a floater which was pitched on the middle stump line, to which Gavaskar tried to play an on-drive. But the ball, that was just a little short turned the other way and took the off bail with it.
Gavaskar was bamboozled, and he stood in disbelief for a while. After gathering his thoughts, Gavaskar, while walking back, doffed his cap and nodded to acknowledge the great delivery. Wadekar, who was at the non-striker end, couldn’t believe what he’d just seen and is supposed to have promptly asked Prasanna what he'd just done. Such was the impact of that ball!
Mumbai were in a spot of bother at 71/2, but then Wadekar (62) and Ashok Mankad (84) resurrected their side with a 100-run partnership and threatened to wrestle the game back from the hosts.
At 198/2, Mumbai were in full control. Karnataka needed something special from someone to lift their team, and this time, Sudhakar Rao got rid of Wadekar with a direct hit.
The Mumbai captain was caught short of the crease while trying to steal a run. The wicket served to open the floodgates for Karnataka. Apart from Naik and Bandiwadkar, no Mumbai batsman could offer resistance against the spin twins.
The visitors were bundled out for 307 in 135 overs, at a deficit of 78 runs. Prasanna had sent down a total of 63 overs for his 5/117, while Chandra bowled 44 for his 4/145.
Despite not picking up any wickets, left-arm spinner Lakshman did his job by bowling 17 tight overs for just 20 runs when either of the two spinners needed a breather.
The second innings
Karnataka were nowhere close to being out of the woods despite a decent first-innings lead of 78 runs. There was enough time still left in the game for Mumbai to claw their way back with the ball.
Mind you, they had the likes of Shivalkar, Solkar and Tandon in their arsenal. It was an incisive attack. Prasanna was very much wary of this, and he diligently asked his batters to bat for time.
The top order responded to the captain’s call perfectly. Vijayakumar (31), Viswanath (42), and Patel (61) took a long time to get those runs. Again, when there was a mini-collapse of sorts at 193/5, Sudhakar Rao retaliated with a painstaking 53 and batted Mumbai out of the game with the help of the lower-order batsmen.
After the batsmen had ensured safety, Prasanna declared at 279/8, leaving Mumbai to get an impossible 358 runs in the fourth innings in just over two hours on the fourth and final day.
Declaring against Mumbai was unheard of in those days, and Karnataka had just given the pompous Mumbaikars a taste of their own medicine. The rest of the game was just a formality, and Mumbai batted 34 overs, putting up 84 runs on the board without losing a wicket. The match was awarded to the hosts Karnataka on the basis of their first-innings lead, and Mumbai was out of the Ranji finals for the first time in sixteen years.
A Ranji Trophy win to remember
Karnataka's semi-final win may not have been an outright one, but it was a psychological win for the rest of the teams as well.
Teams now started to believe that Mumbai could actually be beaten. The talk of the town then was more about Mumbai crashing out of the Ranji Trophy rather than Karnataka pulling off a heist.
Such was the impact that Mumbai’s juggernaut had in the domestic circuit until then. Karnataka, by virtue of this well-fought contest and eventually scraping through, had shown that Mumbai wasn’t necessarily invincible; and they could be beaten with a proper game plan.
Mumbai’s stranglehold over the Ranji Trophy did reduce to a certain extent. After this famous semi-final victory, Karnataka played Rajasthan in the finals at Jaipur. Prasanna's men defeated the hosts by 185 runs to lift their maiden Ranji Trophy title in 1973/74. The victorious Karnataka campaign became a story of self-belief, led by their legendary captain Erapalli Prasanna.