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Maidan historians, especially the ones with an eye for intrigue, point to a past between the two Mumbai teammates. Ask them to be specific and they speak about the final day's play of a Ranji Trophy final in May, 1991. Those were the last few years of the long-running bitter North-West divide in Indian cricket, making the Haryana-Mumbai title game at the Wankhede Stadium more than just a mere contest to win the famous silverware.
After several twists and turns, it boiled down to Mumbai chasing an improbable target of 355 in the fourth innings for a win. Vengsarkar, suffering cramps and playing with a runner in Rajput, wasn't giving up despite the late order collapse after Sachin Tendulkar's blazing 96. A 47-run stand with the certified batting-challenged No.11 and rank rookie Abey Kuruvilla meant Mumbai were 3 runs away from winning. That's when a Kuruvilla-Rajput mix-up while haring between the wicket ended the game.
The scoreboard shows that Vengsarkar was unbeaten on 139, but those at the ground say he was every inch a defeated man, as he cried unabashedly while walking back to the pavilion. Kapil Dev and his boisterous Haryana boys broke into the kind of wild celebration that makes scars of the drubbing deeper, and work as a catalyst to sprout long lasting inter-personal scars in the rival dressing room.
It's been almost two decades since Haryana's only Ranji triumph, but Vengsarkar still refuses to speak about the game or the run out. But like several past and present players, Vengsarkar does mourn the recent death of that unique cricketing character called 'the runner'.
With top officials at the International Cricket Council (ICC) scrapping runners — as they thought they were not being used in the right spirit — one of the oldest rules of cricket was abolished. "It's quite a difficult one for umpires to determine whether there has been a real injury to batsmen or whether it was a tactical use of runners," was ICC chief Haroon Lorgat's justification.
Vengsarkar, though, doesn't buy the argument. "ICC should not tamper the rules so often. No batsman wants to bat with a runner," he says, citing every fan's favourite hypothetical situation in cricket as an example. "What if one run is needed to win with only one wicket in hand and the batsman injures himself? Should the match be conceded? If batsmen are not allowed runners, then don't allow a fielder to be substituted either," he adds.
But there are others who feel that with cricket aspiring to be a modern sport, the unfit — the flabby WG Grace era — have no place in the game. Regardless of which side of the debate you happen to favour, the departure of the good ol' runner provokes a feeling of loss and wistfulness — and talking about 'the runner' in the past tense is eerie.
The third batsman
He was the guy who used to walk on the field with a bat, fully aware that he would only use it to drag it along the popping crease. Still worse, he would put on the pads, gloves, guards, and even a helmet, fully knowing that he wouldn't ever need them. He would be found chatting with the square-leg umpire as the bowler went to his mark, ran runs on the side pitches that were being added in someone else's tally, and between overs, even behaved like a sly bystander, desperately trying to overhear the conversation between the two 'real' batsmen.
Whatever said and done, the runner sure did add another dimension to the game, making cricket's narrative all the more richer. He had to judge the power of his batsman's shot, making a split second decision on whether to take the single or not. The batsman banked on the runner to give optimum value to his strokes. Like in life as in sport, when a man's fortunes depend on someone else, drama isn't too far from the scene.
The runner was in all likelihood a top-order batter that had gotten out early, the guy who the team management would turn to for his fresh legs, a pair that would most certainly pick up the intensity of the fielding limbs out in the centre. They also had the tendency to trigger ripples of laughter on the field, and in the stands, as cricket's general unfamiliarity with more than two batsmen at the crease would often result in slapstick situations. The injured batsman, out of habit, would leave the crease after hitting the ball, before the scream from square leg would force him to take a U-turn.
The lighter side of cricket
Folklore has it that there have been instances of four batsmen, two runners included, stranded at one end, each blaming the other for the confusion, before leaving the fielding side in splits and a perplexed umpire contemplating which pair should actually head back to the hut. If runners have caused much heartbreaks, like one did during the Ranji final in 1991, they were also capable of spreading smiles to enliven a dull day's proceedings.
At times, as former India all-rounder Roger Binny says, the runners have also evoked emotions that were too mutilated to categorise.
"Once in Australia, (Krishnamachari) Srikkanth had to take a runner. I can't remember who ran for him, but what I do recall is that the runner had completed a single but Srikkanth, forgetting that he had a runner, also ran the entire length of the pitch and was given run out when the bails were dislodged at the keeper's end. It was a very funny sight. And although Srikkanth was fuming, we didn't know if we could laugh or let the moment pass in the dressing room," says Binny.
Former India opener WV Raman once ran for an injured Sourav Ganguly during a Test against South Africa at Kanpur, while Rahul Dravid was the third batsman at the crease. Raman claims that things didn't lead to outrageous situations since they all spoke the same language — English. "In most cases, the batsmen and the runner don't communicate in the same language, which creates confusion and sometimes results in some of the funniest incidents in cricket," he says.
Going by that linguistic logic, there was never going to be much confusion when Shahid Afridi walked in as Saeed Anwar's runner in the Independence Cup game against India in 1997. A youthful Afridi ran his guts out for more than 30 overs, as Anwar scored a then-record ODI score of 194. If the not-so-athletically-inclined Anwar had run his own runs, he certainly wouldn't have reached that far.
The 'third batsman' on the field has also been responsible for one of the most memorable sledges uttered on a cricket field. One man, who on experiencing the slightest discomfort, had a reputation of asking for a reinforcement was the pudgy former Sri Lankan skipper, Arjuna Ranatunga. During an ODI at Sydney, Australia's then stumper Ian Healy couldn't quite control himself when Ranatunga floated a 'runner' request. "You don't get a runner for being overweight, unfit and fat," is what the stump microphone caught.
But by the late 2000s, 'the runner' had completely lost his sense of humour. With the itinerary becoming hectic, conservation of energy became a key aspect of player longevity. With the hustle and bustle of the shorter versions of the game proving to be extremely taxing on the body, teams started to misuse the 'runner rule'.
Rival captains saw through these tricks at times, and things became acrimonious. England captain Andrew Strauss didn't allow Graeme Smith to take a runner after he had reached a hundred during a Champions Trophy match in 2009. Strauss said Smith was tired, hence cramping, and not injured. In an era of sports laws and courts of arbitration, it was always going to be tough for an ambiguous rule with a good chunk of grey area to survive.
On June 27, when the ICC pulled the plug, the runner breathed his last. He was survived by several batsmen with severe cramps, who will miss him dearly. A modest man who loved to stay in the background, he brought joy, tears and hearty laugh to the cricket field. Thanks for the memories.
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