Indian cricket's Mecca November 27, 2005

The wonder that was Bombay

Cricket in Bombay was, and still is, a studied art

Vijay Merchant 's heroics in the '30s and '40s set the stage for the age of dominance © Getty Images

Cricket in Bombay was, and still is, a studied art. Highly introspective, the style of batting that emerged from the streets and maidans of the booming, bustling city eked out its own methodical mannerisms, and its batsmen their own comfort zones. The norm for years was that, even in times of imminent defeat, a Bombay batsman would give his all to the team. There used to be two words synonymous with Bombay batsmanship: orthodoxy and composure. Not for the stalwart Bombay batsman was slogging, innovativeness, or superfluous strokeplay. The archetypical repertoire of a Bombay batsman included a mix of assured negotiability yet sustained greatness.

Bombay's legacy of conservative, middle-class batsmanship dates back to the 1930s, but Bombay cricket aficionados and fans alike will tell you that the city's `glory years' were between the late 1950s, when the team stunned Bengal in the Ranji finals, to the early 1970s, during which the metropolis' dashing cricketers were undefeated for 18 long seasons. In fact, they went through the 1960s without conceding the title, a feat still unmatched by any other state or city team.

Bombay owed its dominance not only to a fine brand of cricketers, but to a structured inter-school competition. The Harris and Giles Shields have played more than a vital role in turning out talent, and the universities and colleges of this great city helped supply a steady stream of batsman. And, critically, Bombay turned out Test cricketers, and Test captains. There were those who played with classical composure - Vijay Merchant, Dilip Sardesai, Sunil Gavaskar - and those who added a dab of flair - Polly Umrigar, Farokh Engineer, Ravi Shastri -- and then there were the likes of Sandeep Patil - ruthless destroyers of the cricket ball - who ushered to the crease a much-needed brutality that occasionally made way for reckless abandon. But ask any of those who lined up along Marine Drive to hear Patil smack ball after ball into the Arabian Sea and they will tell you that there may be no greater sound. Or perhaps you could look up one Bob Willis.

For many Bombayites or Mumbaikars, however you dub them, the genuine, substantial memories of growing up with the sport are at the Wankhede and Brabourne stadiums. It used to be a treat to sit in the Bombay Gymkhana section of the Wankhede, to take in a Bombay vs. Baroda encounter. Proud fathers will tell you of the time they took their first- born to watch Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar put on 344, with a tiffin of sandwiches and wafers as company. Shopkeepers and bankers alike will gladly recall the day they `bunked' class at Hindu College and endured the cruel, April heat to watch Ghulam Parkar and Gavaskar's mammoth stand against Bengal in 1982. A few more may tell you that they met their wives outside the North Stand gates as they waited in line to purchase a pass to Bombay vs. Railways. But none of them will hesitate to tell you of the batting feats on the days they spent at the Wankhede, how many runs Gavaskar scored or the shot that Sanjay Manjrekar played to get to his hundred against Delhi.

Bombay, the city, the empire, the conglomerate even, bears cricket's stamp on so many of its citizens, and cricket has transcended mere match summaries and runs to become part of people's personas. How many aspiring cricketers, batting at one of the many gymkhana grounds along Marine Drive, have batted for their clubs while aspiring to some day emulate the feats of Gavaskar and Vengsarkar? How many fans have alighted at Churchgate and headed straight to D Road to catch a Test, one-day, domestic game or just to pause at the gates to catch a glimpse of the hallowed ground where Merchant and Sardesai batted for hours and gave people a reason to cheer ?

Even today, quiet, subdued and stark in its solitude though it may be, the 1930s art-deco style of the Brabourne is a sight to behold, and while Test cricket hung up its boots there in 1974, the stadium evokes memories of a bygone era. Musty scorebooks, resting in the head office at the Wankhede and Brabourne stadiums, will tell you the story, the final results, and who was in the runs, but the truth can only be found in the stands and pillars that guard both fortresses, beacons of a bygone era where pride was played for with grit and determination.

Each flick off the pads by Manjrekar Sr., each cover drive unfurled by Merchant, and each glance off the hips by Gavaskar tells a story of a style of cricket that was both priceless and unmatched for many, many years.

Jamie Alter is editorial assistant of Cricinfo