"Kahan se paida hote hain yaar?" (Where do these guys come from?) was the question posed to me by a Delhi-based journalist as 16-year-old Sachin Tendulkar toyed with the experienced Delhi attack on his Irani Trophy debut in November 1989. The teenager, who would normally be in his school uniform, watching the game from the stands, had he not been playing in Indian cricket's premier contest - was the latest from Bombay's khadoos (cussedly never say die) line to wear the lion-crested cap that had previously graced the heads of Vijay Merchant, Vijay Manjrekar, Polly Umrigar, Dilip Sardesai, Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar.
The answer lies not just in the many maidans of Mumbai - the breeding grounds for its cricketers - but in the psyche of the city; one that lures millions of people from all over India, whose life is ruled by the time-tables of the railway "locals", traffic snarls, unending queues, crowded tenements, and many more hardships that the city dishes out to the worker ants that flock there in search of gold. After commuting for two hours in a crowded Mumbai train, no cricketer is ever going to give it away on a platter to the next one waiting in the tent. The city breeds the khadoos attitude in its cricketers. Mumbai, like cricket, does not give you a second chance.
Much the same spirit made a group of Parsees start the Oriental Cricket Club in 1848, after they were fascinated by the sight of English soldiers playing the gentleman's game from across the ropes in a cordoned-off part of the Esplanade (as Azad Maidan was called then). The Parsees, followed by the Hindus (in 1866), slowly but surely came to excel at the game played by their masters and gave birth to the oriental version of cricket, which today is a religion in the subcontinent.
Mumbai's maidans and gymkhanas have played host to a plethora of cricket matches, from the Harris and Giles Shields (schoolboy cricket tournaments that were started on the cusp of the 20th century), Quadrangulars and Pentagulars to Ranji Trophy games and Test matches. The Brabourne Stadium, located across the road from the bustling Churchgate Station, hosted many spectacular encounters till the mid-seventies. Though the textbook history of Mumbai - and Indian - cricket is tied in to the Brabourne, the Bombay Gymkhana, and the communal gymkhanas that lie along Marine Drive, the real character of the city's cricket is in its maidans. Apart from the gymkhanas, most Mumbai clubs used to be managed by the Parsees. The careers of Rusi Mody, Polly Umrigar, Nari Contractor, Rusi Surti and Farrokh Engineer were chalked out in airy canvas tents and zhopdis (huts) that dotted the periphery of the maidans, bearing such names as Parsi Cyclists, Navroz CC, Baronet CC, Young Zoroastrians, Sassanian CC, Dadar Parsi Zoroastrians etc.
The Dr HD Kanga League got going in 1948. This tournament, played bang in the middle of Mumbai's torrential monsoon, ostensibly to prepare cricketers for the coming season, owes at least part of its mystique to the obsession Indian cricketers had about playing in wet English summers. It is a tournament where the slick mud hits the batsman's bat (and face) before the ball does. One of many enchanting stories from the league was recounted by umpire Ahmed Mamsa, who told of how his colleague ruled a batsman out on an appeal made by fielders playing in another game, on a pitch located a few metres away. One cannot blame the umpire, as the ground often hosts 20-odd matches at one time, with the fine leg in one game standing within a whisker of a silly point in another.
Though the textbook history of Mumbai - and Indian - cricket is tied in to the Brabourne, the Bombay Gymkhana, and the communal gymkhanas that lie along Marine Drive, the real character of the city's cricket is in its maidans
Like the city, cricket too has its local lingo. Terms like paata (flat wicket); popatwadi, dharpakad or komti team (ordinary opposition); zhaad kaap (agricultural shot), lightbulb kaadla (a catch that sticks in an outstretched palm), patang udav (aerial shot) are familiar to any Mumbai cricketer. Drinking water stored in rusted vessels has made many a Mumbai cricketer immune to any affliction, cricketing or otherwise!
Eminent coaches such as Homi Vajifdar, Vinoo Mankad and Vasant Amladi believed in passing on the history of the game along with cricketing technique to their wards. It was common to see cricketers gathered on the katta (ledge) at Shivaji Park and Matunga discuss strategy while munching vada paos and kaanda bhajyas, washed down with piping hot chaha (tea). In 1985, when I met the late spin wizard Subhash Gupte in Trinidad, his eyes went misty recounting the joyous times he spent on the katta. Matches between traditional rivals Shivaji Park Gymkhana and Dadar Union had crowds flocking to the maidans to enjoy the "Battle of Tilak Bridge", the Indian counterpart of the Lancashire v Yorkshire Battle of the Roses.
During the thirties and forties the average cricketer in the city was from South Bombay, playing at the Gymkhanas and the Azad, Cross and Oval Maidans. The fifties and sixties saw the growth of Shivaji Park - the cradle of Mumbai cricket, which produced Vijay Manjrekar, Subhash Gupte, Ajit Wadekar, Ramakant Desai, and later Sandeep Patil and Sachin Tendulkar. The spike in real-estate prices, which started in the eighties and continues to this day, compelled a population shift northwards to the distant suburbs, as far as Dahanu and Kalyan. Teams coming in from beyond Borivali (the last station within city limits on the Western suburban railway line) to play in the Kanga League were known to get off the train mid-journey to check the newspapers, just out, and confirm whether their Sunday game was on schedule or was washed out.
From the glorious fifties and the sixties, Mumbai's domination has waned. The team may have won the Ranji Trophy often enough in recent times - and 39 times to date - but the current side, though competent, doesn't resemble the ones of the past that dominated the tournament. The analysts attribute that to the rapid strides made by other states, but if you ask any former Mumbai cricketer, he will ascribe the decline to the lack of loyalty to clubs, and commercial distractions like the IPL. In the past it was very rare for a player to switch clubs, no matter what incentives were offered. The pride of wearing the club and state/city cap meant a lot more to the "amateur" generation - and so it was when they wore the India blazer as well. It would seem the days when a Mumbai cricketer was fiercely loyal first to his club then to his state/city and the nation are behind us.
Hemant Kenkre is a former Mumbai University cricketer who has played club cricket in Mumbai, England and Singapore for the last four decades. He is proud to say that he was Sachin Tendulkar's first senior captain (though by default)