Letter from… Mumbai
Dear Cricket Monthly,
Cricket has so often risen above the rigid hierarchies of its birth that sometimes it is easy to forget that it belongs fundamentally to the private realm. If you've grown up seeing a game in every lane around your house - as many across the Indian subcontinent do - you can forget that not every game is a public spectacle. But of late I've begun to wonder what the world will look like when we don't play gully cricket any more.
For the last year, the balding lawn in front of the ticketing offices at Humayun's Tomb in central Delhi has been closed off by high blue boards. Trapped inside are the gully cricketers who once played there every free hour they got. I'm joking: in fact, an ambitious renovation plan has evicted them in order to turn the lawn into a parking lot. Presumably nothing else will induce tourists to enter the presence of one of the world's most beautiful buildings.
That lawn is one of the few places in the capital where I saw noodling amateur cricketers noodling about in public at all hours of the day. For 18 months I lived behind the tomb, just outside the crop circle of peace and plenty better known as Lutyens' Delhi. It's a trap devised by aliens, but one in which a prisoner from anywhere else in the country would be happy to turn the lock and throw away the key.
The ticking clock of the Indian city can be heard even here, as though from a distance: the sound of trains, the call of hawkers, the clacking up and down of shop shutters. The sounds of bat hitting ball are rarer. Children run around with footballs tucked under their arms. (In upper-class India, the cleats go on before, not after, you have learned to play: an unmistakable sign of prosperity but an oddly weaponised one.)
If there's anywhere in the world where they should start to play cricket in space, it's above this town, where the lanes grow thinner and the buildings taller
In Lodi Gardens, a vast stretch of kindly British landscaping superimposed on a Pashtun mausoleum complex, the eye collides constantly with sportspersons sweating through neon Adidas shirts as they compete with their own respiratory systems, running or skipping rope or cowering before their merciless boot-camp trainers. Three lanes away, golfers commandeer the 220-acre fertile swells of the Delhi Golf Club, another intersection of late Mughal tombs and PG Wodehouse.
Most places in India compare unfavourably with this abundance of civilisation, if you like this sort of thing. The film-maker Shyam Benegal enviously wrote of this zone as "God's little acre". It is an admirable state, but it does not bode well for the gully cricketer preparing himself or herself for heaven.
I returned recently from this long daydream to Mumbai. Time always passes faster here than elsewhere. I expected, like Rip Van Winkle, to have fallen rather badly behind. If there's anywhere in the world where they should start to play cricket in space, it's above this town, where the lanes grow thinner and the buildings taller every day. (But no - science fiction too must be manufactured in controlled surroundings. The first antigravity pitch will no doubt be invented in a rooftop lab in Gurgaon, or perhaps in a plastic cell holding N Srinivasan, the Magneto of world cricket.)
"Space", in any case, is Mumbai's weightless, more expedient word for "land". Here too cricket is ceding ground. When I left the city in 2013, the pitches in Shivaji Park were already in mixed use. More schools and parents in the city's preeminent cricketing district were accommodating football programmes than ever before. City non-profits promoting leisure and play for lower-income people were steadily choosing football - easier to teach across constraints of gender and purchasing power - over cricket.
Football: weather-resistant too
Football: weather-resistant too © AFP
The hope that Mumbai would soon be a smart city, full of privately owned infrastructure that would open doors and operate vehicles without human intervention, and complete the transformation of labour into capital, was still a pipe dream. But its rhetoric was embedding itself in visions of a future different from the present. It is the task of blueprints to design cities without citizens: under the circumstances, sport can only be imagined if it is decorously incarcerated in facilities and complexes.
The streets are not, at present, quite freed up for the march of progress. On my first Sunday afternoon back, I took a slanting, slippery run through my new neighbourhood. It was raining, and the buildings were growing shorter, giving way from the railway and the main streets to quiet roads that sloped down to a fishing village. Even the passing cars sounded squelched and beaten. I ran head down, trying to find the dissolving pavement with my toes.
I heard the match well before I saw it: the bitten-off thump of a shot, the heels scuffing between the wickets, the cheers of a ring of men watching a game in a muddy circle between a ring of small houses. I watched as the ball flew off someone's bat, shaking the slush off itself, arcing out in the direction of the grey, limitless expanse across the road - the sea. This sport is at least as adaptable as we are: and if we don't become creatures of the air, we will probably learn to play on the water.
Supriya Nair is an editor at Brown Paper Bag. @supriyan
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