October 10, 2013

The most cricketous area in the world

The tour kicks off in Mumbai, with a visit to the maidans, where all of cricket is displayed in a microcosm

This is my third trip to India. The first two were principally for cricket - for the World Cup in 2011, and for two of England's Tests late last year. This time I am here for comedy, to attempt to make people laugh with a stand-up show encompassing both cricket and the renowned planet upon which it is predominantly played, Earth.

My tour began in Mumbai, a city that might not feature too highly on any travel magazines' lists of Most Relaxing Chilled-Out Holiday Destinations, but which is in many ways the epicentre of modern cricket. Last Sunday, in search of another taste of India's cricketing passion, I went to the part of Mumbai that can potently claim to be the most cricketous area on the planet.

Within a few hundred yards of each other lie the Oval, Cross and Azad maidans, the vast open spaces that provide recreational respite from the merciless honk of traffic and the relentless churn of Mumbai life. (They also provide, I discovered rapidly, a steady supply of potential customers for opportunistic map sellers, self-appointed tour guides and other hawkish retailers who can spot a lone tourist with the naked eye from space.)

The grass is festooned with innumerable games of formal and extremely informal cricket, played out in the shadow of the floodlights from the Brabourne and Wankhede stadiums, where so much of Indian cricket history has been written. On the Azad Maidan, the cricketers are watched over by the pavilion of the Bombay Gymkhana club, the venue for India's first Test on home soil, against Douglas Jardine's England in December 1933. Leading India was CK Nayudu, who seven years previously on the same turf had clattered a two-hour 153 against the touring MCC, an innings that helped propel his nation to Test status.

On these pitches a quarter of a century ago, the teenaged Sachin Tendulkar launched himself into Indian cricket consciousness with his legendary partnership of 664 with his schoolmate Vinod Kambli. The soon-to-be-retiring maestro has recounted how, in his formative cricketing years, he also played there against ML Apte, the early-1950s Indian Test player. They would have been two of the 25,000 cricketers who, according to the Times Of India, play or practise on the three maidans every day.

The scope of cricket played here is majestic - from high-level club matches involving players with first-class or even international aspirations, to scratch games played by groups of friends trying to deposit each other's bowling into the tallest available tree. Strokeplay ranges from classical cover drives drawn straight from the coaching manual, to infinite variations on the Dhoni helicopter shot, most of which score high for enthusiasm, bat speed and shoulder-twanging bravado, but low for contact with the ball.

Mumbai: where street cricket is an art form of its own © AFP

Bowling encompasses tearaway pacers hurling themselves to the wicket off 25-yard run-ups with some idea of where the ball will land, and tearaway pacers hurling themselves to the wicket off 25-yard run-ups with patently no idea of where the ball will land. You will see spinners in whites looping down Bedi-esque teasers to a perfect length, and spinners in battered t-shirts and jeans propelling the ball with elbows that demand a full ICC investigation. A ten-yard square patch of turf can contain fielders from four or five different games, all looking in different directions on their overlapping outfields, all relying on the others to field the right ball at the right time in a co-operative of mutual self-protection. If Dickie Bird had ever had to umpire on one of these pitches, he would probably have laid an egg with the stress of it all.

A year and nine months after his mammoth schoolboy stand, Tendulkar was making his Test debut against Wasim, Waqar, Imran and Qadir, a rather more testing quartet than he is likely to face in his final five-day appearance against West Indies next month. Others maidan alumni have taken longer to progress from this to the upper reaches of the sport. Pravin Tambe is a year and a half older than Sachin. It took him 25 years longer to catapult himself into the minds of the cricketing public, when he became the leading wicket-taker in the recent Champions League. One product of the maidans has played 662 times for India, and has probably generated more human happiness hours than any other sportsman in history. The other has played eight Twenty20 matches, and given cricket a charming story in a difficult period for the game. Both owe their success in part to this duvet-scalding hotbed of Mumbai cricket.

For a cricket lover, these places are a glorious sight, their acres of enthusiasm a precious link between India's cricketing past and future, an heirloom and a resource that must be protected, with their hundreds of Sachin-worshipping youngsters hoping to emulate a fraction of his achievements, and their hundreds of would-be Praveen Tambes still dreaming of their one belated shot at the big time. And their crucial contribution to the Indian economy. Rs 350 for a low-grade map of India? It would take a natural-born sucker to be badgered into paying that. On the plus side, it will look delightful on my children's bedroom wall.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer