With less than two weeks to go before the start of the 2011 Cricket World Cup, co-hosted by India, there is a palpable excitement on Mumbai’s grounds and at the city’s gymkhanas.
At Shivaji Park, Prabhadevi, where a number of the city’s greatest cricket stars started out, there is the usual chaos of numerous teams playing simultaneous games. Between overs, all the talk is of Dhoni and his men. How will they fare? What are their weak spots? What are the pitfalls they need to avoid?
“After the great contest against South Africa [in the recently concluded ODI series], we are looking forward to even tougher competition,” says Shivkumar Das, 20, all-rounder for Bank of Maharashtra.
There is no pressure for the moment, these young fans say.
“The Indian team will have the upper hand because these are also favourable home conditions,” says Prakash Aswani, 16, all-rounder for Bengal Club, Mumbai. “We’re all just waiting to see whom India will face at the elimination stage. We need to watch out for teams such as West Indies and Pakistan because they are not under any pressure and can play freely.”
At Oval Maidan, that south Mumbai haven for cricketers and informal spectators, middle-aged men in formal work wear are crouched on the mud, yelling their support, or participating in an after-work game with chaiwalas.
“Every four years, as the World Cup nears, we see people drawn to these informal, impromptu matches, both as players and spectators,” says Raju Pathak, coach for the Giles Shield-winning Rizvi Springfield team.
At nearby Azad Maidan, unofficial cricket teams Azad CC (Cricket Club) and the Shaitan XI continue their game in the dying light.
Their groups have been playing each other here for about 20 years and are minor stars themselves in the area, some of them even familiar faces to the office-goers who pass through the ground every day as they walk between Churchgate and CST.
The stakes are small here — Rs 100 per match. Nothing like the crores at stake in the World Cup.
“Whichever team wins usually buys nimbu paani (lemonade) for the whole gang,” says a laughing Donald D’Souza, 43, one of the founder members of Shaitan XI.
The teams play every evening, and World Cup season will be no different — except for the impassioned arguments that are likely to break out over sugarcane juice at the end of the day’s play.
“A World Cup means dissection of every cricketer’s every move,” says Hussain Mohammad, 28, captain of Azad CC. “Everything from Dhoni’s decisions about line-up to on-field play will be hotly debated.”
The one grouse, of course, is that India is not playing in Mumbai — unless they make it to the finals.
“We were hoping to go and support Team India in the stadium… let’s see if we get that chance,” says Mohammad.