Mumbai may be a city of diversity but there is no doubt that it is united under the language, and in some cases religion, of cricket; it is everywhere and it is huge. Cricket is a sport that knows no boundaries and the innovation of its disciples means that no open space is safe from their nomadic reach. Groups of players can be seen wandering from street to car park, bat in hand, searching for the next fix.
Whilst most surfaces are tolerated, there is a preference for would-be cricketers to flock to the many city parks, or maidans as they‘re known locally. As a result, daily attendance can easily breach the hundreds, and the relatively small grounds become so packed that games often overlap. One of the most popular venues is the southern-located Oval Maidan, where the matches are presided over by a horizon of prestigious buildings.
Although an attempted flying dismount from the train had left me with a reluctant ankle, I had been enticed by the ‘gateway drug’ of street cricket and, soon enough, found myself staggering across the Oval on the lookout for a game. My enthusiasm was there, but I had failed to observe the unofficial dress code of all-white kit, and my yellow shorts did me no favors amongst the traditionalists.
Fortunately, I spotted a group of ‘plainclothes’ who had been exiled from the good pitches and had settled instead on a cordoned-off section by the fence. The players’ liberal attire was also reflected in their attitude, and my approach was greeted as if I were an old friend. Soon enough, I was thrown the ball expectantly and, with the pride of a nation at stake, I bowled a shapely full-toss which was punished to the far-reaches of the park. My second ball suffered the same fate and I had to wait some time before I was given an opportunity to make amends.
Following in the same trend as my last deliveries, my next ball drifted lazily through the air. But at this point, the balaclava-clad batsman had let his confidence get the better of him and, having dodged past his wild swing, the ball thudded into the garbage bin which represented the wicket. Riding this wave of form, I seized the bat from him and eyed up his cock-eyed companion whom I assumed would be doing the bowling.
What I had failed to acknowledge was the monster that they had been preparing out of my line of sight and was now being summoned by his keepers to exact revenge on my British heritage. There was a fire in him which I knew, all too well, would only be extinguished by my tears of submission. He now held in his hand a prototype ball which lethally combined the bounce of a tennis ball with the hardness of a cricket ball.
With my protection comprising what was effectively a small stick, I desperately searched for any kind of natural armor in the bushes, but he was already galloping in. A black crow flew ominously across the pitch and, as the first ball whistled an inch past my hip, I finally understood that he was targeting my family tree and planned to erase any chances I had of having children. He was toying with me before he went in for the kill. His second delivery sailed over my head and it was only the fourth time lucky that he struck gold in the form of my ribcage.
Leaving me precious few minutes to recover, I was then drafted into the match that, apparently, being hit in the ribs constituted training for. The captain placed me in an innovative fielding position which saw my head stationed four inches away from the temperamental bat of a neighboring match. I was further inspired when, later on, I noticed that the opposition had placed their oldest and most rotund player in the same position.
The standard of cricket was surprisingly high and every mistake was taken collectively to heart by the whole team. There was no room for baggage and, when I dropped a catch, I was viewed by an older player as if I had just emptied a bag of shit at his feet. I began to recognize that the manifesto for batting was ‘hit out or get out,’ and the path that wound through the park was consistently peppered by monstrous shots. I pitied the fielder who was placed in that particular firing zone, but his commitment was such that, when one ball was struck in his direction, he was so intent on catching it that he backed into a book stall by the path, scattering fake copies of War and Peace as he fell.
As it grew darker I kept expecting the game to be called off, but it was only after every movement became a gamble as to where the ball would land that we finally trooped back. As was tradition, we headed to the maidan’s pavilion. Or rather behind it, where there was a small crowd gathered round a simmering vat of tea. The cauldron belonged to a permanently cheerful local, who was introduced as something of a legend. As proof, he was surrounded by an assortment of newspaper clippings which pictured him with identical smiles and different Indian celebrities, including members of the national cricket team.
Before I left, one of the players put his fatherly hand around my shoulder and, unknowingly dismissing my ten years of experience, asked, “so Christian, how did you enjoy your first game of cricket.”