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Mumbai's maidans: Former birthplaces of India's cricket gods
From the dusty bowls of south Mumbai's public parks came the likes of Tendulkar, Gavaskar and Vengsarkar, but today the magic that created these cricket heroes appears all but dried up
With the pomp, ceremony and ignominy of the Indian Premier League behind us and the T20 Champions League about to begin, we shift the focus from the big stars and the flood lights to more humble home turf -- the Mumbai maidans and public parks from which the cricket greats emerged.
In fact, Mumbai has thrown up some of India's biggest cricket stars from its maidans. Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Sandeep Patil, Ravi Shastri, Sanjay Manjrekar, Sachin Tendulkar -- all earned their early stripes and scars on these public battlegrounds.
From Shivaji Park to the Oval Maidan it's a familiar sight: formal and informal matches held throughout the day. But do these nurseries still form the cradles for future talent? As other teams around India have raised their bar to match that of Mumbai's formidable cricketing history, it's a strange fact that currently not many from Mumbai are in the national team. Most of the maidans are located downtown, but I cannot think of one South Mumbai player who has made it to the national team in the last 20 years.
Shishir Hattangadi: Level playing field
Shishir Hattangadi, a former selector and member of the Mumbai Cricket team, has seen maidan cricket from a young age. Having learnt his craft on the grounds he brings interesting insights into what it's like to play on this unique platform. "As a young player starting out, it was a place one crossed paths with senior established players. While you played on one corner of the maidan, on an adjoining pitch was a famous player going through the rituals of his match. So, one got used to that fairly quickly, shed any awkward inhibitions that interfered with your play and just got on with the game. It also gave a cricketer from Mumbai that competitive and cocky edge. Unlike cricket in the clubs, like Cricket Club of India and the Bombay Gym which had history, here it was sheer talent and ambition that got you ahead."
He feels that the level of desire and ambition to continue into the sport professionally was much higher here at the maidans than those learning at private academies and schools. Mumbai's talent bar was so high in the 1970s and 1980s that one had to really excel to be noticed. And if you wanted to be noticed the maidans were where you lived. Where selectors, coaches and sports writers make their living doing the early morning and match day rounds to watch out for future stars.
Now says Hattangadi, there is an added incentive of economic returns. It has become a viable profession unlike in the 1980s. He is insistent that this ethos of maidan cricket, which is so special to Mumbai and India, should never change. The special character of the game in Mumbai should be kept alive and not be diluted in any way, he feels.
However with Sachin Tendulkar the only permanent name in the current team from Mumbai (Rohit Sharma appears from time to time) a paradigm shift has occurred. Hattangadi says this is for two reasons. One, the emphasis on academics in the big metropolitan cities has become paramount with less time left for sports. And secondly because Mumbai is no longer the hub it used to be for the aspiring cricketer. Opportunity for cricket has now become "pan India" and the smaller towns across India have facilities and opportunities and frankly, he senses, more desire among the young there to make it to the Test team even.
Has the Mumbai maidan magic gone? Not completely. Driving around the city even today you see the maidans are still alive with the fervor of young sportsmen. And suddenly in the last two years there's a new goal on the horizon. An Indian Premier League city team they could possibly get into, right?
Shivaji Park: Over acheivers only
Shivaji Park is by the far the maidan that has seen the most talent come through. Ramakant Achrekar the 78-year-old Mumbai cricket coach with his academy in the area is the man this ground is most synonomous with. Second only to the young boy he groomed -- Sachin Tendulkar, probably India's greatest cricketer. Let alone the national team, just making it to the state level teams means young 10 to 12 year olds lugging heavy kit bags to Shivaji Park at dawn. A feeder park to Ruia College and Poddar College in Matunga, which have a tradition of supporting good teams, Shivaji Park is ideally located, home to eight cricket clubs and has eminence in the cricketing ethos of the city.
Azad Maidan and Cross Maidan: Public pitch
Across from the stunning World Heritage Victoria Terminus station building, Azad Maidan is the truly popular, open-to-all maidan, where the enthusiastic arrive with a chipped set of stumps, a taped up bat, a battered ball and a will to play. Find your space then start your match of the day, glancing over and across a low roped area where lies the Bombay Gymkhana ground and it's perfectly kept turf -- for members only.
From Azad Maidan, along the former "Esplanade" lies the Cross Maidan, home to the authentically Mumbai Kanga league, the only cricket tournament held during the monsoon season in the city. The maidan was named after a cross at the northern end of the ground which still attracts religious devotees. Schools in the Fort area use this ground extensively and it is football more than cricket that is now played here. Traversed by a path known as Khau Gully or Food Lane, the southern end is currently undergoing restoration and, sadly, the removal of all hawkers.
Oval Maidan: Mumbai landmark
Further south is the most picturesque cricket maidan in the city, and perhaps the country. The Oval Maidan restored in the 1990s has the beautiful Venetian Gothic University Building as its backdrop along with the Rajabhai clock tower and the more stately High Court building. These buildings once nestled against the waterfront when the Oval maidan was sea. This maidan on reclaimed land now houses the cricket training institute run by Dilip Vengsarkar's Elf Cricket Academy (Between High Court and Eros Cinema, Churchgate; tel. +91 (0) 22 2204 6447) at the northern end and well maintained pitches to rent at the southern end. Local schools and corporate cricket teams can book them in advance and organize their own 20/20 tournaments.
The Gymkhanas: Community culture
Along the seafront thoroughfare of Marine Drive are a set of maidans with a totally different flavor. These are the Catholic Gymkhana, Hindu Gymkhana, the Islam Gymkhana and the Parsi Gymkhana, which formed, along with a European team, the grounds for the Pentangular Cricket tournament held in pre-Independence days. This community based tournament is no longer held. Today they are used for lavish weddings instead, but at the Islam and Parsi gymkhanas it is still heartening to see the pitch cordoned off as a sacrosanct area.
Mumbai sculptor, Arzan Khambhatta has a story about his grandfather Jalejar Engineer. "He was on the first all-Parsi cricket team that played against the British team. He told us about this cricket match which was being played at the Parsi Gymkhana, between the club and the visiting British team. It was a friendly match and the umpire was a Maharashtrian gentleman. The British were batting, and the umpire gave one of the players out LBW. Not agreeing to the umpire's judgement, the player asked the umpire "On what grounds did you judge me out?" The umpire replied "Don't you know? On Parsi Gymkhana grounds of course!"