People say “Bombay cricket” the way they do “Ratnagiri Alphonso”. Or “Italian shoes”. It’s a speciality, a superior variety compared to others.
Mumbai cricket is unique because it’s of high quality. It has produced enough India stars – like Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar - to pack five BEST buses. Maybe more. It has proven its might in domestic tournaments. On Monday, Mumbai, despite not being the terror they used to be, won their 37 th Ranji Trophy title.
A few notions about Mumbai cricket are somewhat rose-tinged, but it remains a team proud and aware of its heritage. At a time when glamour and money define Indian cricket, the state retains its strong identity. Its achievements and history give the Mumbai cap a halo. Even gen-now, I-Pod donning members of the dressing room bow their heads to the team’s Lion crest.
There are parts of India in which cricket is growing due to commerce. Mumbai is far from sacred. Some of its attributes, though, remain admirable. No center in India has as many tournaments for juniors and schools. Competitions for youngsters ensure that there’s a feeder system in place.
The way city folk respond to the sport contributes to the legend of Mumbai cricket. True love is that which weathers adversity and meager resources. The love Mumbaikars have for cricket is of this type. It’s evident in the way they manage to play even if they do not have enough space, equipment or both.
In organised cricket, a pitch has to meet certain requirements. It has to be 22-yards long. It has to be rolled, levelled, so that the bounce is consistent.
Twenty-two yards in Mumbai is almost as much a luxury as Beluga caviar. So people come up with alternatives for pitches. The space between rows of benches in classrooms, the chawl balcony, the parking lot, the beach, the road...
People come up with alternatives for bats. The club your maid uses to beat the dirt out of clothes, a random rod, the notebook, your palm...
People come up with alternatives for wickets. ‘Air stumps’, where a clump of chappals or a brick does the job. If a ball passes over it, you are clean bowled. There are other popular options - three lines made by chalk on a wall, a tyre, an old biscuit tin…
The story of Mumbai cricket proves that constraints can leave spectacular results and legacies. When Gavaskar was growing up in Bhagirathi Building near Tardeo, the play space was such that he was forced to hit straight and along the ground. If he hit in the air, there were chances that he would break a window. That would mean incurring the house occupant's wrath and worse, as per Law 32.A of gully cricket, losing your wicket. Thus, unbeknownst to the young Gavaskar, the seed of world-class driving was planted in him.
The altered, localised forms of cricket have given rise to quirky, delightful variants of the game. The trained cricketers play the legendary Kanga League in the monsoon. For the recreational but no less gutsy ones there are neighbourhood tournaments where a rubber or tennis ball flies off the wet surface, where you’re dismissed as namby-pamby if you object to the bowler’s blatant bent elbow. There’s also box cricket, characterised by the physical restrictions on players. You can only move your palm and flick the ball under-arm at the batsman.
My favourite illustration of the city’s bond with the sport involves a commuter and a Wankhede spectator. India was playing Australia a few years ago. It was either lunch or tea time. People had walked over to the food and beverage stalls at the stadium. On the tracks adjacent to the Wankhede, a local train came to a halt. Like it often does. A man stood in the door of a compartment, as they often do. He caught a spectator’s attention and asked him the score. The spectator replied. Everything happened in seconds. Everything happened via gestures. A Mumbai moment like no other when passion turns into a driving force.