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Ranji Trophy 98/99 and the day Karnataka pulled off the greatest of heists

The victorious Karnataka team all smiles with the Ranji Trophy!
The victorious Karnataka team all smiles with the Ranji Trophy!

India’s premier first-class tournament, the Ranji Trophy, has seen a lot of miraculous turnarounds over the decades. Teams winning or losing by narrow margins has made this multi-day tournament even more fascinating.

Mumbai's agonizing loss by a mere two runs in the 1990/91 finals vs Haryana and a similar loss for Karnataka by 6 runs in the 2009/10 finals, are two of the closest finishes the tournament has witnessed.

But Karnataka's heroics in the 1998/99 finals, versus Madhya Pradesh, despite conceding a substantial lead, is one for the ages. The game has been immortalized in the annals of Indian domestic cricket for the sheer manner in which the victory was achieved. It was a tale of self-belief and tenacity from hosts Karnataka, who raised their game when it mattered the most — in the dying moments on the final day, in Bengaluru.

The game that had it all - Now part of Karnataka cricket's fabled folklore

Despite missing their famed quartet of Javagal Srinath, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and Venkatesh Prasad for most games that season, Karnataka managed to punch above their weight and reach the knockouts. The Sunil Joshi-led side, however, were the favorites to clinch the title against underdogs Madhya Pradesh.

Both Joshi and Dodda Ganesh had a point to prove after barely missing out on a World Cup berth. Ganesh, especially, was in the form of his life with one eye on spin wizard BS Bedi's record tally of 64 wickets in a Ranji season.

Karnataka decided to bat first after winning the toss on a fresh pitch that looked good for batting, and managed a respectable 304 in their first essay thanks, in large part, to Vijay Bharadwaj's 86 and Sujith Somasunder's 70. With a semi-international bowling attack at their disposal, the hosts were hoping to bundle out the guests cheaply. But it was not to be.

The rejuvenated Madhya Pradesh team led by Mumbai stalwart Chandrakant Pandit had defied all odds to have a crack at the trophy, and were not going to be tamed easily. Their response was a rather strong one with a century from S.K Sahu (130), who was ably supported by Devendra Bundela (79).

At one stage, they were in a mighty fine position, having made 273/2 — and were threatening to take the game away from Karnataka's grasp. That is when the host's go-to man Ganesh got rid of centurion Sahu and broke the 163-run partnership. This opened the floodgates, and only a few minutes later, substitute G.K Anil Kumar's direct hit sent Bundela packing.

Now, Karnataka could smell blood and were truly back in the game. They did not waste any time in polishing off MP's middle-order and tail. Ganesh led the charge with his 5/103. But MP still huffed and puffed their way to 379, pocketing a decent lead of 75 runs, in the morning on Day 3.

Were this game to end in a draw, MP would be crowned champions — thanks to their first innings lead. Defending champions Karnataka very well knew that they had a mountain to climb to win the trophy. Fortunately, it was a five-day game and that enabled them to stage a comeback.

Karnataka batters let their bat do the talking

On a pitch that was still good for batting, Karnataka opener J Arun Kumar showed his batting prowess with a timely 147 in the second innings. And Vijay Bharadwaj, who was going through a purple patch, also made the most of it to score 75 — taking his total tally of the season to 1260 runs — till date the most by a Karnataka batter.

Unequivocally, the hosts' camp went to bed after the third day's play with a feeling of having gotten out of jail. But rain gods had other ideas and played spoil sport for the better part of the fourth day. Now, with only 35 overs bowled on a decisive day, Karnataka could make a very little progress, trudging their way to 321/7 before declaring and setting MP a tricky target of 247 runs on the last day.

The overnight rains gave skipper Joshi some apprehensive moments and he'd promptly asked Ganesh and Bharadwaj over phone on the previous night, to get hold of a mechanic to fix the super-sopper, should the KSCA fail to summon one early in the morning.

Mind you, those were predominantly still the pre-cellphone days. It just showed the desperation of a then-Indian discard who wanted to win the coveted trophy after the World Cup snub. Fortunately, for Joshi and Karnataka, the KSCA had sorted everything out,. With the rain gods relenting, the fifth day's play started at 9:15 AM — giving Karnataka a fair crack of the whip.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man: Vijay Bharadwaj

Vijay Bharadwaj: The man who led Karnataka's charge with both bat and ball!
Vijay Bharadwaj: The man who led Karnataka's charge with both bat and ball!

Well, 247 runs off 90 overs on a pitch that apparently had no demons, was an achievable target for the visitors, given their batting riches. They could've either gone for it or put the shutters down and occupied the crease to deny Karnataka a win.

And MP chose to do the latter, showing no intent to chase the target. Remember, a draw would still have given Pandit's side their maiden title. On the other hand, Karnataka had the wherewithal to believe they could bowl out the opposition. But, for better part of the day, MP's sedate batting kept Karnataka's hopes at bay.

The growing frustration in the Kannadigas' camp was pretty palpable. Conspicuously, with dark clouds looming large over Chinnaswamy stadium, skipper Joshi gave the new ball to Ganesh, and once he finished the over, he himself bowled from the BEML end and got the wicket of Abbas Ali (caught by Ganesh at slip) - who was set and playing well. Then, skipper Joshi handed over the new ball to Vijay Bharadwaj from the pavillion end.

Meanwhile, MP has batted themselves to some sort of safety: 130/4 off 66 overs. Ostensibly, they'd to now have to play out only 24 overs (15 mandatory), with six wickets in hand. A piece of cake, one would assume, given MP had set batters at the crease.

But ironically, it was Karnataka's top run-scorer for the season Bharadwaj, who turned things upside down in a matter of one spell. The studious-looking, bespectacled man proved to be the first-time finalist's nemesis on this occasion with his innocuous off-spinners.

It was a procession of sorts once Bharadwaj dismissed Chandrakant Pandit. The batsmen that followed seemed clueless and were all at sea against an underrated bowler who had his tail up. With the fall of every wicket, the belief in the Karnataka team grew, as did the noise in the couple of stands that were open for the public.

People started screaming on top of their voice waving Karnataka flags. It was a sight to behold for domestic cricket fans. And with just six overs left to the close of play Bharadwaj had Hirwani caught by A Vijay at short leg. Karnataka were the champions!

The South Indian giants had embellished their cap with another sparkling feather. The crowd erupted in unison and the Karnataka players could not believe what they had achieved. From a point of no hope, they'd won the game handsomely by 96 runs — literally snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

It was their sixth Ranji title and, arguably, the most special one. Conversely, the MP camp didn't know what had hit them and their dressing room wore a despondent look. Understandably, it took ages for them to come to terms with this loss. It was the case of so-near-yet-so-far for them. They'd done all the hard work but unfortunately failed to deliver when it mattered the most at the business end; whereas Karnataka did the unthinkable with sheer conviction.

It's been more than two decades since this Houdini act from Karnataka, but its players faces light up even today when they're reminded of this victory. Such has been the impact of this game in Karnataka's rich cricket legacy.

No Kumble, no Srinath, no Dravid and no Prasad; but still they'd pulled off something like this! No wonder the Gandabherunda clan wears this win up their sleeves with a lot of pride. Why wouldn't they? After all it was achieved in a fashion that is supposed to be told for generations to come.

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Edited by Habil Ahmed Sherule
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