Since the British were finally forced to retreat from India many of the reminders of the colonial period have also gradually been pushed aside. From statues of royalty being taken down to city names being changed, in general as a hard fought single nation pride has begun to develop so too has the confidence of independence and desire to break the connection to an imperial past. One aspect brought over by the British that Indians will likely never send back across the sea though is their love for a game involving a ball, a bat and some sticks to knock over…
India’s passion for cricket is overwhelming and Mumbai is one of it’s key centres of excellence. Whilst it may not be the official national sport (field hockey by the way) it is by far the most popular. When India or Mumbai plays city streets become comparatively deserted. TV sets are crowded around as hawkers scramble to witness the efforts of the national team. Those who rise through the competitive ranks to represent the country are raised to the level of heroes, at least when they win. The very select few becoming almost revered as demi-Gods, the merest appearance of their face or waving of their hand to adoring fans, literally in the millions, creating a screaming frenzy. To become a professional cricketer is generally a source of incredible pride, and often a path to a world of prosperity beyond their initial wildest dreams for the average family.
It is almost impossible to visit India and not witness countless mini-games taking place. What marks India out is the appearance of games in the most basic of environments. Be it in the rural fields, “gully cricket” down narrow city alleys, in the open maidans (park areas) up to some of the most famous cricket stadiums in the world. It is this ubiquitous nature of cricket that is found nowhere else and often the use of main roads mean traffic is required to await a break before being permitted access through, priority given to the eager bowler. He who owns a proper willow bat and some stumps is king, never short of friends for an impromptu game. But often it is a case of makeshift possessions – from hardy tree branches or tubes for bats, tennis balls or rolled up paper for the ball and with piled up brick towers or hastily scribbled chalk on the walls forming the stumps. Pads, helmets and cricket whites are for the privileged few alone.
As a visitor it is only too easy to take part in the street and unofficial games. Just hang around a little, say ‘hi’, ask if you can join in and you will be greeted warmly if only because the idea of clean bowling a foreign visitor or smacking them for six means major satisfaction and kudos within the gang of friends. Be warned locals will often take no prisoners no matter your standard! However you will quickly be judged and given a slightly easier time before they take control back and wish you well if they see you’re obviously not up to scratch. Maidan Oval near Churchgate Station on weekends especially hosts dozens of games going on simultaneously in condensed format. The area of Shivaji Park another major spot and considered the cradle of cricket in India where the likes of Sachin Tendulkar honed their young skills.
If you want to watch the higher levels there are state and national championships at local grounds and stadia which provide the next generation of superstar. The most famous being the Ranji Trophy taking place between October and March. Entrance is normally free and you just pick up an entry ticket at the ground as this is considered the people’s tournament and gives an opportunity to watch top class cricket at major grounds like nowhere else. You can check out the local papers, online or simply ask around – someone will know of the games taking place or where to find out.
Whilst in many countries it is the golf course, in India it is often the cricket oval that provides the location for business dealings. It is the place for gossip catch up and social parties. For the less privileged sections of society it is an escape from tough daily grind and survival. You do not even need to be a cricket fan and know all the often comical terms associated with the game to appreciate the display of passion, the cheers which accompany each big shot or wicket and the rising crescendo of a close match. The colourful scenes and sheer enjoyment is infectious and make it an event well worth trying to include in any trip. Friendly locals will generally be more than happy to explain the basics and nobody really needs to know the difference between a ‘googly’ and a ‘doosra’ except the batsman anyway, right!? So get yourself involved, take in a game and enjoy a fundamental part of modern Indian culture.