Sambaran Banerjee has always been a big name around cricket circles in Kolkata. For close to two decades from the early 70s, he was renowned for his wicketkeeping skills and as a handy middle-order batsman on the domestic circuit. He is also famously remembered for leading Bengal to one of only two Ranji Trophy titles to date. Banerjee also turned out for East Zone, Rest of India and Board President’s XI when at his peak.
Post retirement, Banerjee, now a sprightly 63, has been a senior national selector, as well as chief selector and an administrator at the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB). He is a regular on television talk shows and pens newspaper columns on cricket in the local media.
One of the oldest and most successful cricket academies in the city is run by Banerjee. He insists it’s his passion for cricket and the itch to bring out talent from every nook and corner of Bengal that keeps him busy every day.
Memories of Ranji debut
I still remember that day clearly. It was December 21, 1973, at the Eden Gardens, Bengal were playing Assam. It was a very big moment for me – my first Ranji Trophy game for Bengal. In that match, I took my first catch behind the stumps, a flying one-handed catch off the bowling of Samar Chakraborty. It was all over the newspapers the next morning, saying ‘look out for this star player coming up from Bengal.’ That was a good first experience for me. I played 17 consecutive years for Bengal – 1973 to 1990.
I eventually stopped after winning the Ranji Trophy as captain. Bengal had last won the tournament 51 years ago, in 1938-39, under a British captain named Tom Longfield. So you can say that so far, I am the only captain to lead Bengal to a Ranji title after Independence.
Myself, Dilip Doshi, Arun Lal, Ashok Malhotra – we were together for many, many years, shared some beautiful memories and really enjoyed playing for Bengal.
Turning point of his career
I actually came very close to getting picked for the Indian team in 1977. I was in England playing club cricket, and at that time obviously, there were no mobile phones or anything. I was told there was a call for me on the landline from India. When I took the call, it was from the Board (of Control for Cricket in India) saying I had been picked in the list of 20 probables for an upcoming series.
That was a magical moment for me. Even though I couldn’t make it to the final squad, that camp was very memorable for me. It was in Chennai, then called Madras. For one and a half months, we worked very hard and went through rigorous practice sessions. That was the first time the Indian team had introduced a physio, with Polly Umrigar as the national team manager cum coach.
Favourite Ranji moment/most cherished win of his career
It has to be the Ranji final in 1989-90 at Eden Gardens. We were up against Delhi, who had six players from the national team at that time – Manoj Prabhakar, Kirti Azad, Maninder Singh, Atul Wassan, Sanjeev Sharma and Ajay Sharma. But we were a good side too. Our guys may not have been playing in the Indian team at that time, but players like Arun Lal, Pranab Roy, Ashok Malhotra, Utpal Chatterjee – they were all very good.
We beat Delhi (on run quotient) and being the captain, taking Bengal to victory after so many years was a very special feeling.
The toughest conditions he has played in
In our times, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Bombay had very different types of pitches. If you played at these venues, the ball used to often keep very low. That was because in places like the Wankhede, they used laal mitti (red soil), which resulted in very low bounce.
But we had to prepare ourselves in our own way to deal with those conditions. At that time obviously, there was no support staff like teams have these days, so you had to find your own solutions to those problems.
The toughest opponents
I loved playing against Bombay. At that time, Bombay was a very, very strong side. To me, they offered the biggest challenge and at the same time, were the most respectable side on the field. I am lucky that whenever I played against Bombay, I did reasonably well.
One match that I remember very well was the Ranji semifinal at the Eden Gardens in 1975. It was a great match for me, both from behind the stumps and in front of it. I got 38 and 58 not out, and kept brilliantly.
[The match was drawn, but Bombay advanced to the final because of a higher run quotient. The Ashok Mankad-led side went on to beat Bihar in the title round in Jamshedpur to win the Ranji Trophy for the 26th time.]
Life after retirement
I am a very active person, involved in different things 24×7. I have an academy (Mainland Sambaran Cricket Academy) in Kolkata, which is one of the biggest and the best academies in West Bengal. I work with youngsters day in and day out to bring out talent for the future. I put in an honest effort, and I am happy to see lots of new boys coming up from our circuits. You can call this my passion, something that keeps me involved with cricket all the time. Sometimes, I also write columns for newspapers or appear as an expert on TV channels. Till last year, I was also the chairman of the Bengal cricket committee. So you see, with me, it has always been all about cricket.
Future of Bengal cricket
It is heading in the right direction. You have to be patient with these things. Lots of good players are coming up in the Under-16 and Under-19 levels. There are a few players even in the Under-14 circles who you can see are very talented.
After Pankaj Roy, we took 43 years to produce a strong Test player from Bengal. Yes, there were guys playing in between like Arun Lal and Pranab Roy, but no one made an impact after Pankaj Roy like Sourav Ganguly did, playing more than 100 Test matches and captaining India. So you have to wait and see, but surely, some talent will soon come up from this region.
People have a lot of passion for cricket in Bengal. Kolkata was once referred to as the mecca of football, but after India won the cricket world cup in 1983 and Bengal brought home the Ranji Trophy in 1989-90, a different wave of cricket spread across the minds of youngsters and their parents, which is still prevalent today.