Bombay as she was

Mike Selvey
From the airy lounges of Brabourne's pavilion to the charmless, modern edifice that is the Wankhede Stadium

Kids peer into the Brabourne Stadium, where the pavillion sits right at the boundary's edge © Getty Images

Ever since I was a kid, I had wanted to go to "Bombay", as we knew it then. Both my parents had spent memorable years in India during the Second World War, and spoke fondly of the city. To a young lad brought up in all the austerity of England in the 1950s, the very name conjured images of what to us was the mysterious East. On the radio I had heard Frank Sinatra singing Sammy Cahn's lyrics to "Come Fly With Me": "If you could use / some exotic booze / there's a bar in far Bombay." And there on the menu of The Bombay, our local curry house (not so much a restaurant as a purveyor of unidentifiable lumps swimming in searing, primordial gloop), was Bombay Duck, which no one dared order for ignorance of what it actually was.

Then, 45 years ago, I went, a wide-eyed teenager in a schools cricket team, for the first time to the teeming city that I was to visit on numerous occasions since, next as an England cricketer and then as a journalist. First impressions count. This one remains vivid. We arrived by Air India 707, in the middle of the night, jaded by the journey that had taken us via the painful winter cold of Moscow airport, where, while the plane refuelled, we were forced to decamp into a deserted terminal. From that chill we went straight to the humid warmth of Bombay, transported from the airport into the heart of the city by a bone-shaking bus.

Past the shanties and their unnerving smells we rattled - poverty unimaginable to us, first seen and never to be forgotten - and as we did so, cars pulled alongside recklessly, horns blaring, men and children hanging from the windows, waving and shouting and laughing and smiling. Us schoolboys and we were being greeted thus. The journey seemed brief; certainly not the gridlocked nightmare that the city endures nowadays. Half an hour? Or is that time lending enchantment to the past? But there, glittering, was the palm-fringed curve of Marine Drive, the Queen's Necklace, and suddenly this really was the exotic place of childhood dreams.

We stayed at the Brabourne Stadium, just off Marine Drive. Imagine. One of the most famous cricket grounds not just in India but the world, and we could roll out of bed, walk down some stairs and there we were on the turf. MCC touring parties would stay there. And wasn't it Brabourne of which Frank Worrell spoke when he said it was the only ground where he could remove his dressing gown and go straight out to bat?

Brabourne was opened in 1937, and was the home of the Cricket Club of India, which was India's equivalent of the MCC, and yet also the headquarters of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Stadium it may be, as opposed to cricket ground, but it possessed charm: a rectangular rather than circular configuration; the pavilion at one end, art-decoish, with its open, airy lounges and ceiling fans that rotated so gently they barely disturbed the air; wicker chairs and tables laid out right up to the boundary's edge with the field a small step down from the pavilion; and discreet, turbaned staff serving members their chota pegs as they smoked and perused the Times of India.

These were fortunate times for us young lads. We were a London Schools side that had come to India for six weeks to play a series of "Tests" against All India Schools. We travelled the country, generally by train, through Poona, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Delhi, Calcutta, right up to Nowgong in Assam, down to Bangalore, Trivandrum, and finally Madras (these all names as I remember them from that time).

In Bombay we were feted. We made the papers regularly: "London Schools pacemen impress". What was that about first impressions? I can recall as clearly as yesterday the first delivery I bowled in India, in Ahmedabad, to a minute young batsman wearing a sunhat bigger than him. Short of a length, it was pulled like a rifle shot and finished up bouncing down from the shamianas at square leg before being thrown back. Not the greatest welcome to the country. But then Sunil Gavaskar was to become some player. So was Eknath Solkar, and the Amarnath brothers, Mohinder and Surinder, and Ashok Gandotra, and Anshuman Gaekwad. Match after match we received cricketing lessons from these brilliant young cricketers.

Brabourne's association with international cricket was not to last, however. A few years later the CCI had fallen out with the Bombay Cricket Association over ticket allocation during MCC's 1973 tour. So, with no resolution forthcoming, BCA simply took their bats and balls elsewhere, built the charmless, concrete edifice that is the Wankhede Stadium, half a mile up the road, opened it in 1975, and confined Brabourne to a minor role, hosting domestic matches and the odd limited-overs international, until India played Sri Lanka in a Test there in December 2009. It remains, however, the calm antidote to modern cricketing mammon.

A double decker bus passes Victoria Terminus, now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, circa 1965 © Getty Images

Eleven years on from that first trip, I returned with England. We didn't stay at Brabourne anymore, for there was five-star opulence to be had in Bombay. Instead, I woke up early on the first morning to gaze out of a window of the old part of the magnificent, tragic Taj Mahal hotel at the cargo ships at anchor on the hazy harbour, and the vendors, snake charmers and street musicians already setting up around the Gateway of India. The incongruous ceremonial arch, with its blend of Hindu and Muslim architecture, was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to the city, en route to Delhi for the Durbar of 1911, and it was through the Gateway that, in 1948, the last British troops passed to leave India.

Three months after we had landed in Bombay, after a successful tour and with the series won, we returned for the final Test. I was not due to play. My wife had arrived, and I was told that once the match started I could absent myself and see the sights. It didn't work out like that. With the toss imminent, Chris Old pulled up lame, and I was called into the side at the very last moment to play in front of 45,000 at Wankhede in what proved to be my third and final Test.

Scarcely any meaningful bowling in the preceding weeks, on the slow dust bowls that characterised those games between Tests, no preparation, and straight on to the field for a Test match; it never looked promising. The ball did not swing as we had hoped, and I paid a heavy price for bowling too straight to that same Gavaskar, and to Brijesh Patel. Between the pair of them, they shredded me. The chance never came again.

Former England and Middlesex bowler Mike Selvey is cricket correspondent of the Guardian