Cricket in the slums

The siren song of the IPL

James Astill

What's cricket without an attentive audience? A crowd gathers to watch a game in a slum in CV Raman Nagar, Bangalore
What's cricket without an attentive audience? © Tina Nandi
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Darkness enveloped Dharavi, a slum in central Mumbai, like a heavy sigh. It was a Sunday eve, the end of a precious day off for most of its hard-working residents, and the week ahead was certain to be a grind. From the tightly packed wood-and-brick shacks came the clanking of cooking pots and the blare of television as the occupants settled in for the evening.

But Sandeep Kunchi Kurve was out celebrating. A small, wiry, 26-year-old, he had hit 49 that afternoon for his club side, MIG Bandra, at the stately Brabourne Stadium down in the affluent Churchgate area of the city. Kurve, a glass stud sparkling in his left ear, is Dharavi's only representative in the A-division of Mumbai's Kanga League. His achievement is remarkable. A third-generation slum dweller, he learned his cricket in Dharavi, playing street games - galli cricket - in its cramped alleys. He did not face a "season ball" until, aged 21, he was referred to a cricket academy belonging to Dilip Vengsarkar, the former Test player. He found it tough. "Playing with a tennis ball gives you some idea of swing, but not of pace or spin," he recalled, sitting on a pitch-dark street corner, a couple of beers to the good. "I found it frightening. I still do."

But he was a quick learner. A trial with a company side, Nirlon, led to regular club cricket and a monthly salary of 8,000 rupees - about £80, more than the boys in the slum's embroidery workshop might earn, less than an auto-rickshaw driver. Kurve had previously worked in one of those tiny workshops - there are hundreds in Dharavi - wearing his eyes out stitching saris. Now he had committed himself to cricket. "It was the only thing I had ever felt passionate about."

To supplement his training with Nirlon, he began practising daily on a patch of gravelly wasteland outside the slum, known as the Sion-Dharavi Sports Club. There, every morning and evening, a loyal childhood friend, Parshu, hurled tennis balls at him from close range. And, amazingly, his efforts paid off: MIG, one of Mumbai's strongest clubs, came calling. Playing in the Talim Shield contest the previous year, Kurve had hit a dashing 148 for MIG against another famous Mumbai side, Matunga Gymkhana. "No, who knows?" he said. "If I hit a 200 this season I could get picked for Mumbai, and from there, you know, it's only a small step." To the IPL, he meant - that was the ambition driving Kurve. "If I can get a chance, I can do well. I've faced IPL bowlers many times, even this afternoon."

I noticed he was wearing an Indian team shirt from the 2013 Women's World Cup, which had been part-held in the city. He had been employed by the team as a net bowler. This is the facet of the IPL its cheerleaders love to trumpet: the opportunity it has afforded a few dozen journeymen to earn a good living in the game, and the inspiration this has, in turn, provided to many more. Yet India, as Kurve's example suggests, is still far more remarkable for its inability to convert its multitudinous cricket enthusiasm into talent. Dharavi, a mile-square shanty town in the middle of Mumbai, is home to roughly a million cricket-mad people. That Kurve is its most successful player must make it one of the world's least efficient incubators of sporting talent.

The slum has no cricket facilities to speak of, and the Sion-Dharavi patch is one of only three public spaces available to the dwellers for cricket. Yet this paucity has been compounded by galloping socio-economic changes that, in Mumbai and other fast-growing Indian cities, are making it harder for men and boys to spare time for cricket. Both factors have accelerated the demise of India's traditional cricketing culture, nurtured and husbanded in Mumbai, in the face of the television-fuelled IPL onslaught.

For a close-up glimpse of these pressures, I spent a couple of days in Dharavi. I already knew the slum well, having visited it many times; nowhere had taught me so much about the enormous changes afoot in India, in cricket and otherwise. My inquiry had begun in a cobbled clearing, about the size of a squash court, where four slum pathways meet. A well-known galli cricket spot, it was - on this and every Sunday afternoon - crowded with men and boys, playing raucously. There were roughly 11 a side; sometimes many more, if you included the passers-by unwittingly entangled in the play.

Pedestrians streamed across the pitch. Then, whenever there was a small break in the flow, the bowler let fly, underarm and fast. He used a hard plastic ball; the players called this sort of galli game "T20". The alternative, played with a smaller and bouncier rubber ball, was "ODI". Standing before a set of steel stumps, drilled into the cobbles, the batsmen aimed to massacre every delivery for six - by hitting the church below the eaves at the far end of the clearing. In their allotted four overs, the batting side were now chasing a gettable score of 49.

"For six days we work hard, and on the seventh we play cricket. It is our great pleasure," said Abid Ansari, a back-office worker at the opulent Taj Mahal hotel, now waiting to bat. Like all the slum youths crouched eagerly around him, he liked Twenty20 best - to watch as well as play. None was all that interested in Test cricket. "That is not how we play," explained Abid, illustrating an important element in Twenty20's massive appeal: it is the closest approximation to the street games enjoyed by millions of Indians.

Behind the pitch was a biryani restaurant, where Fakhre Alam, a 29-year-old chef, was rushing off to a more serious sort of cricket. His destination, a short walk from the slum, was the Dharavi-Sion Sports Club, the rutted ground where Kurve practised. Above its rusty gateway a banner had been hung to mark the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar the previous day. "With his power and his integrity, he has become a god!" it read in Hindi.

Fakhre's team, Ham Sab Ek Hain - "We Are United" - were about to play their second game of the day, in one of the knockout tournaments held by Dharavi tennis-ball players almost every Sunday outside the monsoon season. The teams are mostly defined by ethnicity, religion or Hindu caste: Fakhre's next opponents, Kunchi Kurve, were named after a Maharashtrian low-caste group (to which Kurve, coincidentally, also belonged). But Ham Sab was a deliberate mishmash: the current line-up boasted five Muslims, four Hindus and two Christians. undefined

Kids play cricket in the slum adjacent to the railway station in Bandra East, Mumbai
Kids play cricket in a slum adjacent to the railway station in Bandra, Mumbai © Saarthak Aurora

It was formed after a bout of communal rioting, in 1992, that left over 200 people dead in Dharavi and its Hindu and Muslim communities bitterly divided. Some of the original team members had lost property in the riots. "It was a way to take the violence out of people's minds," said one of the team's founders, Nigar Khan, as we watched the game against Kunchi Kurve. This was a lesson in how not only sport, but also slum life, can unite. That so many poor people, drawn from almost every region of India, can live crammed together so harmoniously, by and large, is astonishing. Because of space constraints, batting is only possible from one end of Dharavi-Sion's flattened earth wicket. With the lightning bat speed of the accomplished tennis-ball cricketer, the batsmen aimed straight back over the bowler's head. By hitting the houses opposite above the eaves - about 50 yards away - they scored six. A hit to the first or second storeys fetched four; a boundary in most other directions two. Batting first, Kunchi Kurve reached 31 for four in their four overs. It was a modest score; the Ham Sab players trooped off in a state of nervous excitement.

The rewards for progressing further in the tournament were relatively substantial, with the top three sides standing to divvy up a pot of 12,000 rupees, donated by local patrons. For Fakhre, a beefy all-rounder whose team shirt was speckled with cooking grease, victory would also mean another cherished break from the biryani pot. "This is what I wait all week for," he said, grinning, and promising to hit a string of sixes if he got in.

Dharavi's Sunday cricketers are not all poor. One or two of Ham Sab's players were penniless recent immigrants from the countryside, but most were comfortably middle-class, in Indian terms, and one or two were rich. Babu Khan owned five slum factories and employed over 100 people. Yet when it came to their appreciation of cricket, they were, as their name suggested, all in the same camp. Like the galli cricketers, they preferred Twenty20, especially the IPL, to any other form of the game. Hardly any had played pukka cricket on Mumbai's maidans. Some could not afford the kit; most said they could not afford the time.

A visit earlier in the day to Shivaji Park, where Tendulkar learned to bat, had also hinted at this. I had expected to see its famous pitches crowded with cricketers. But they were hardly in use: the maidan was dominated by a rally for local Hindu nationalists. Storied Mumbai nurseries such as this - the maidans in and around Churchgate and Dadar that have produced so many stars - are usually still busy with matches. But they have not felt the explosion in interest witnessed in India's smaller towns, cricketing parvenus, where there is less economic opportunity and more space to play.

These are some features of the ongoing tumult in Indian cricket. What support it will leave for Test and - as the IPL extends its reach - international cricket is unclear. Perhaps the Twenty20 craze will burn out. But there is little sign of that, or reason to think it will otherwise be contained. Before my visit to the slum ended, I sought to repeat an experiment. Two years previously I had toured Dharavi on the night of a big IPL game - Mumbai Indians against Kolkata Knight Riders - to see who was watching it.

Stepping through its filth and narrow alleys, trying to filter the television sounds that fill the slum by night, I reckoned one in three TV sets was tuned to the cricket. Now, with India playing a one-day international in Durban, I wanted to gauge Dharavi's interest in a more traditional contest. As South Africa's openers Quinton de Kock and Hashim Amla tore into the Indian attack, I wandered through Dharavi with a local friend, Asghar, peering into the open doorways of hutments, listening for the exhilarating blare of televised cricket. But there was surprisingly little, and it was largely drowned out by the shrieks and beats of Bollywood films. This was only a snapshot, of course; and Dharavi is not India. Yet it is about as close an approximation as there is, and the contrast with my previous tour was dramatic: hardly any of the slum dwellers seemed to be watching the game.

Our walk ended, as it had before, at a tiny third-storey workshop, reachable by a tangle of ladders and ropes. A dozen skinny youths lived and worked here, embroidering saris on the wooden looms they also slept under. Two years ago, they had been avidly watching the IPL match on the small television that was their cell's only comfort. Now, they were watching a game show. They had started watching the cricket, explained 19-year-old Mohammad Azharuddin (no relation). But India collapsed (they were 95 for six when we arrived), so they had switched off. Indian cricket fans have always been fickle.

But for these poor north Indian boys, who had hardly known cricket before the IPL, international contests were a subordinate passion. "Of course IPL is best!" said Mohammad - laughing, because the answer was so obvious. "More runs, less time."

© John Wisden & Co.