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March 13, 2011

Once upon a maidan

Emma Levine
An English photojournalist returns to Mumbai after a decade to see if the city's cricket grounds and its players have changed at all

The Rajabai Tower and the Bombay Stock Exchange overlook the Oval Maidan © Emma Levine

By my third day in the city I was almost proud - albeit bruised - to gain two injuries that only Mumbai could have inflicted.

On Saturday night I headed out of Churchgate Station to the neighbourhood of Jogeshwari to watch a box-cricket night tournament. As the train moved off, I did the usual "local" thing and ran alongside while attempting to reach out for the rail, like some kind of amateur trapeze artist wildly grabbing in the air. When I eventually hoisted myself inside the compartment, it prompted a cheer from the adjacent carriage, and a ticking off from my fellow passengers.

"Madam, that is very dangerous," a besuited gentleman reprimanded. With bravado, I gave him a cheerful "No problem", ignoring the fact that I'd bashed my knee on the train door and twisted my wrist.

Number two: The following day I was immersed in the Sunday afternoon cricketing mélange in Oval Maidan, while perched on a palm trunk (a makeshift bench). Eyes down and fiddling with my camera, a sharp crack to my head brought me back to noisy reality. I'd made the crucial error of sitting directly behind the batsman, who flayed outside off stump and missed the speedy inswinger, as did the wicketkeeper. I paid the price. Welcome to Mumbai!

So why exactly would a Yorkshire-born woman have a fascination with Mumbai's cricket scene?

The fact is, this Tyke has followed cricket throughout the Indian subcontinent since 1992, ever since my first trip to India after graduation. Mesmerised, I'd watched celebrations in Old Delhi's streets after India beat Pakistan in the World Cup (held in Australia). Any country that worships cricket this much, I thought, is good enough me. And so began nearly 20 years of documenting subcontinental grassroots cricket culture.

Last year saw a long overdue return to Mumbai - the first for around a decade. Not to follow the Bollywood bling of the multi-million dollar Twenty20 IPL, these visits were to rediscover the real grassroots stuff, the world of maidans (grounds) and gallis (streets), of Sunday club matches, the unsung heroes of bat repairmen and maalis (gardeners) and the daily dawn net practice. Or had things "moved on" since then, together with India's meteoric rise to the top of the world rankings, and their status as international cricket's financial kingpin?

Dawn arrival from London meant a bleary-eyed walk to Azad Maidan, "Freedom Ground", one-time site of anti-colonial rallies during India's freedom struggle. Now the venue of the most colonial English game, the ghostly first-light silhouette of Victoria Terminus loomed behind the groundsmen bringing out the heavy rollers. Schoolboys in dazzling white kit dragged metal trunks and kitbags to their assigned spot.

"What time do you leave home to get here?" I asked one. "Six o'clock, every day." And then they travel to school. I gulped.

Sunrise created a glorious sight: shards of shadows crossed the ground through nets held up by sloping poles, across a ground with pockets of activity. Some clubs were led by stalwart cricketers, like ex-international Kenia Jayantilal, his players leaping over hoops to sharpen up fielding. Others began their drill with catching practice. An elderly groundsman crouched with oversized scissors, snipping away at tufts of course grass. At the fringes of the field, local lads made use of the spare strip and began their own five-a-side game. Ashok began repairing bats with thread and rubber, for just Rs 20. All this before 7am.

Why Indian cricketers, of all shapes and sizes, have to perfect the straight drive © Emma Levine

I hopped over MG Road to Cross Maidan, where an idli wallah (steamed rice-cake maker) heated up his oil, next to the chai stand. In this slim rectangular ground, a dozen small boys in immaculate cricket kit followed instruction from their coach in the art of the perfect forward defence. I visualised "Sir" Geoff Boycott's look of pleasure. Next to them, Rakesh Nair painted the lines on the crease in preparation for a practice match, his four-year-old grandson holding the string in place as a marker. Proudly he pointed out his two sons in the adjacent nets.

This glorious city really came into its own on Sundays. I began my day in Fort at 8am, on broad, traffic-free tree-lined roads. The area around the Bombay Stock Exchange was the perfect venue for a six-a-side game of tennis-ball cricket. Each match had different rules. Here it was four runs for a straight drive down the street and two for hitting straight up into the trees. Any passing vehicle simply edged its way around the "stumps" - usually jammed into a wooden stand, a row of chappals (slippers) or perhaps a plank of wood, jammed between two bricks.

A short walk away it was a different scene in Masjid Bunder, the wholesale merchant district, with busier, narrow bustling streets. The games there perfectly illustrated Sunil Gavaskar's remarks to me, 18 years ago, that it's no wonder Indians mastered the straight drive, such was the importance of avoiding broken windows and lost balls in narrow gallis.

I headed up to Dadar, where the historic "nurseries" of Indian cricket still thrive. Some have an auspicious past, such as Dadar Union Cricket Club at Matunga Maidan, where the likes of Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar learned the ropes - although its tatty clubhouse today indicates it is long past its glory days. In nearby Shivaji Park, the aura of Tendulkar's youth still hangs, in arguably the most fervent of training grounds.

It was here that Kalpana Achrekar - daughter of the great coach Ramakant - put the girls through their paces, a scene I hadn't seen a decade ago. One afternoon her father came to watch, sitting on a plastic chair, and although frail, he took obvious pleasure when young boys queued up to get him to sign their bats, and to receive his blessing.

My attempts to find galli cricket in Dadar came across an initial hurdle. With little planning, I attempted to ask the traffic policeman for Hindu Colony, which my friend Hemant Kenkre suggested was a good start.

"Where do you want to go in Hindu Colony?"

"Um, just to look around."

"Why are you looking around?"

"Um, to take some pictures?" For some reason, I felt that asking where the cricket was being played sounded dubious. However the more vague I became, the more the chief, king of his traffic island, was suspicious.

"Do you have permission to take photographs?"

"I didn't think it was necessary."

"Madam, there have been terrorist attacks, and foreigners like you have to get permission. Please write to the chief of police, only then will you be allowed to take pictures. Would you like a cup of tea?"

Plenty of business opportunities around the cricket © Emma Levine

As a matter of course, I have a strong dislike of being told where I can and cannot take pictures. I don't object in a place of worship, inside a gallery or museum. But a street? Needless to say I ignored his instruction, waved a cheery goodbye and continued my own sweet way.

On both trips, like a little homing pigeon I found myself gravitating to Oval Maidan. For me that ground epitomised the beauty of Mumbai cricket: the circumference of palm trees; the splendour of Mumbai University's looming Rajabai Tower (how I longed to climb it), one of the city's finest buildings; the sellers of channa (chickpeas), who shifted their basket to follow where the players were; the sign at the entrance that proudly declared the ground's history, and how it was Grade II listed land.

At this maidan, every Sunday, I walked slowly around the outside in repeated circles. In addition to Gavaskar's observation about Indians good at the straight drive, I realised the wicketkeepers were hugely important. A reliable pair of hands prevented the ball from darting behind, through the railings and into MG Road. It wasn't really a risk of causing an accident, more about the inconvenience of getting your ball back from a - hopefully - helpful passerby.

I learned two lessons from the trip. Firstly there was thankfully no danger of the maidans and gallis being overshadowed by the cheerleaders and false hype of the IPL. And second, I will never, ever sit on a palm-tree trunk behind the stumps. I might, however, still attempt to board a moving train.