New Delhi: The sport of cricket was introduced to Indians by their colonial masters, the Britishers. It was first embraced by the social elite of the country, with several royals taking to the sport. Cricket soon made its entry into the clubs and gymkhanas, but remained largely a sport played by the creme de la creme of the society.
It was in 1934 that the BCCI decided to start a pan India first-class tournament and with that began the historic journey of the Ranji Trophy. Ever since then, the tournament has been played every year and the one team which has had a vice like grip over the championship is Mumbai.
The city was at the forefront of the growth of cricket in the country and their 41 titles showcase the fact that no other team has even come close to match Mumbai's domination of Indian cricket. The sport has seen a lot of democratisation over the past few decades but Mumbai remains the strongest team in the country by far.
And on Thursday they become the first ever team to play 500 Ranji matches when they take on Baroda at the Wankhede stadium. From Vijay Merchant to Vijay Hazare to Sunil Gavaskar to Sachin Tendulkar to the likes of Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma, Mumbai's Ranji team has produced several great players who have gone on to do well for India.
Apart from the big names there have been other stalwarts who have represented Mumbai with distinction and ruled the roost in domestic cricket. One such cricketer is Pravin Amre, who played the majority of his 86 first-class matches for Mumbai.
Recalling his debut for the Mumbai team in the 1980s, Amre said that Mumbai's cricket fraternity has always been a close-knit unit.
"For me it was Bombay when I made my debut back in 1986. Mumbai cricket and those who have played for Mumbai will know the emotion. For me, I remember when I went to Bombay Central to get onto the train as we were headed to play against Karnataka, Sunil Gavaskar had come to see us off. Back then Gavaskar was a very big name and imagine him coming to send us off. It shows how close Mumbai cricket was to him," Amre said.
Amre has also coached the Mumbai Ranji team with distinction after his playing days got over and shared an anecdote which shows that even players who became big stars always had a place for Mumbai Ranji team in their hearts.
"As coach when we lost to Jammu and Kashmir, I picked the phone and asked Sachin Tendulkar to come and speak to the boys as I felt he needed to speak to them and motivate them. I did not need to make a second point, he was there straightaway and we all saw the team make a great comeback that season. This tells you how we feel or felt about our team."
Amre, who had a great start to his Test career, said that although he scored a Test century before registering one for Mumbai, he wanted both equally badly.
"Interestingly, I would be one of the few players who first scored a century for India and then for Mumbai and trust me I was almost desperate to register my first hundred for Mumbai because that meant just as special."
One player, whom many consider as one of Mumbai's best ever batsmen to have never played for India is Amol Muzumdar. The right-hand batsman led Mumbai to Ranji Trophy victory in the year 2006/07 and said that playing 500 matches in India's elite first-class tournament is a huge achievement for the Mumbai cricket team.
"It's a huge achievement. The number 500 itself shows the kind of domination Mumbai has had and it is a distinction to savour for all of us who have represented Mumbai," Muzumdar, who has the second highest aggregate runs in Ranji Trophy to his name, said.
Talking about the competition in Ranji Trophy, Muzumdar said that during the 90s and first decade of 2000s the teams from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu gave Mumbai a tough fight.
"The matches against Delhi were always special. Off late Mumbai has dominted Delhi but still there is a special feeling during this encounter. The toughest teams I have faced were from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. These teams beat us a few times and I remember the contests to be very even."
Muzumdar said that standard of domestic cricket in India has improved but the advent of IPL has ensured there aren't many big knocks in Ranji Trophy any more and the quality of spinners have also gone down in teams according to him.
Among the recent players, Abhishek Nayar, who is part of the team playing the 500th match, spoke about the pride and honour of representing a team like Mumbai.
"Feels great and its a special feeling, feel honoured to be a part of the 500th tie. Every moment spent with the team is special, making friends and going through all those difficult periods with the team, but winning those 5 championships stands out for me as the most cherished moment for me."
"You get an extra P with P playing for Mumbai, there is always the pleasure of playing for Mumbai but there is additional pressure as well. You have to perform consistently to be a part of the team," the all-rounder signed off.
(Additional reporting by Baidurjo Bhose and Arnab Sen)