The entrance to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link on the Worli Sea Face Road

The Worli Sea Face Road on which Sportsfield is situated

© Associated Press

Feature

How the stars live

One nondescript apartment building in Mumbai is home to some of India's greatest sporting personalities

Ayaz Memon |

"Fresh sea breeze helps in getting the grey cells working," said Ajit Wadekar as he quaffed an extra-large shot of Black Label. We were sitting staring out at the sea from his penthouse in Sportsfield Cooperative Housing Society in Mumbai, a little over two decades ago.

I had called on him soon after he became the first official coach of the Indian cricket team, in 1992, at a time when a coach was also expected to double up as team manager. The view from the apartment was glorious, the Arabian Sea stretching out in a limitless expanse on the horizon. This was long before the Bandra-Worli Sea Link had come up, and the breeze was indeed invigorating.

Those not initiated in the ways and words of Wadekar might have struggled to see the relevance of that sentence to his new assignment. But he relishes one-liners and delivers them with such endearing matter-of-factness that it mitigates banality.

Some can be genuinely pithy and/or funny. "I am the only one on top of Sunil Gavaskar in anything," he quipped on another occasion. Gavaskar still lives a floor below him at Sportsfield, so the truth of the statement was not in dispute.

Upstaging the redoubtable Gavaskar, however, was not a matter of luck or chicanery for Wadekar, but a prerogative, for it was he who was the prime mover in getting the land for Sportsfield sanctioned by the Maharashtra government not long after the 1983 World Cup.

Imagine, for instance, an apartment block in Sydney where Richie Benaud, Steve Waugh, Mark Taylor and Glenn McGrath are neighbours

At the time he was in a senior position at the State Bank of India, hobnobbing with bureaucrats and politicians. When plots of land were being sanctioned to "special interest" groups (journalists, for example, had their own colony, Patrakar Nagar, sanctioned earlier), Wadekar pitched for one for sportspersons too. That he managed to get the plot in one of the glitziest parts of South Mumbai - where real estate now costs in the region of US$15,000 (or upwards) per square foot redounds to his potent networking and astute negotiating skills, foresight and, not least, determination.

"At times it seemed that the project was a non-starter," says former Test cricketer and Sportsfield resident Yajurvindra Singh. "There were seemingly insurmountable administrative hurdles. But then came India's unexpected victory in the 1983 World Cup and everything was fast-tracked."

That would make sense, given the status of cricket and cricketers in India. The sanctioning authorities probably didn't want to be seen as spoilsports amid national euphoria in the aftermath of the win, and when Rajiv Gandhi, who became prime minister in 1984, gave his nod, it meant that Sportsfield was a fait accompli.

Ajit Wadekar and Dilip Vengsarkar: former Test captains and Sportsfield residents

Ajit Wadekar and Dilip Vengsarkar: former Test captains and Sportsfield residents © Prakash Parsekar

The formalities were completed quickly but construction wasn't completed until 1987, as architectural plans were revised along the way. By the time every flat-owner had moved in, the building acquired a unique dimension. Imagine, for instance, an apartment block in Sydney where Richie Benaud, Steve Waugh, Mark Taylor and Glenn McGrath are neighbours; or in Karachi with Hanif Mohammad, Javed Miandad and Zaheer Abbas perhaps attending society meetings to determine whether the water supply was consistent through the block.

Sportsfield is not a fancy high-rise. It is not even particularly high-rising - only nine storeys, built on 1674 square metres of land. Each floor till the seventh has two flats; Gavaskar and Wadekar occupy the eighth and ninth floors. Located opposite the Sea Link exit at Worli, Sportsfield is easily lost among the many buildings on Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan Road.

In all, it is a pretty modest building, belying the stature of the people who reside within. The lobby was quite drab until it was redone, the nameplates spruced up and an MF Husain mural added.

I once got a bollocking from Polly Umrigar's wife as the newspaper I worked for at the time had misplaced a wedding photograph of theirs

For the record, Sportsfield became home to six India cricket captains, among other luminaries, which to my knowledge is unprecedented anywhere in the world. The late GS Ramchand and Polly Umrigar, both of whom captained in the volatile 1950s, lived there; Ramchand's family is still there, as was Umrigar's until his wife passed away last year. Current residents Dilip Vengsarkar and Ravi Shastri are the other two to have captained India.

Other worthies include Yajurvindra and Bapu Nadkarni, who have world records to burnish their renown (seven catches in a Test for Yajurvindra and 21 consecutive maidens for Nadkarni), and the fast bowler Umesh Kulkarni. There were three others who died earlier than they should have - Ramakant Desai, Ashok Mankad and Eknath Solkar. The late Sharad Diwadkar, who led Bombay for some seasons but never played for India, completes the list of cricketers.

But the equity of Sportsfield does not depend only on these flannelled fools; there are other sterling names to contend with: Wilson Jones (India's first billiards world champion, also deceased); Nirupama Mankad (nee Vasant) who was the national tennis champion several times over, and later Ashok Mankad's wife; Pradeep Gandhe, the badminton star who won medals at the Asian Games; and finally MM Somaiya, who was a member of the 1980 hockey team, the last to win the Olympic gold for India. Suffice to say Sportsfield represents not just a history of Indian cricket but perhaps of Indian sport till the 1980s.

Sunil Gavaskar outside the apartment building, 2005

Sunil Gavaskar outside the apartment building, 2005 © Getty Images

Getting into Sportsfield was never easy. It wasn't just that you needed a wide and impressive body of work as an athlete behind you - the hitch was that if you owned a house elsewhere in Mumbai in your name, you were ineligible. Michael Ferreira, for instance, a world billiards champion many times over, could not be accommodated because he owned property in Bandra. Sandeep Patil, who was allotted a flat, surrendered it when the building was being constructed after ownership of his previous residence was transferred to his name. That turned out to be a boon for Yajurvindra, who was on the waiting list. Another to pull out was the badminton player Nandu Natekar, who also had a flat in the city at the time.

I've been a regular visitor to Sportsfield over the years. The first residence I visited was that of the Vengsarkars. Many moons ago we were to collaborate on Dilip's autobiography. That never materialised but several splendid evenings, of good food, good music and good old rum, more than made up for it.

Over the past quarter of a century, for various reasons and purposes, I've found myself in practically every resident's house: to interview Solkar, or for a Hindustani classical music concert in the Gandhe household, several parties and dinners at the homes of the Shastris and Singhs, and a couple of times at those of the Gavaskars and Wadekars.

"I am the only one on top of Sunil Gavaskar in anything" Ajit Wadekar

Among the major highlights was visiting Somaya and getting to hold his hockey gold medal from the Moscow Games when I was doing a story for the 2012 London Games. Not all visits have been as joyous, though. I once got a bollocking from Polly Umrigar's wife because the newspaper that I was working for at the time had misplaced a wedding photograph of theirs that we had borrowed for a story.

"It was the only one," Dinu said. I told her technology had saved the day and that I would send her a scanned copy of the original. That made her even angrier. "That would not be our photo," she hollered.

My first and only visit to Mankad's house was after he died in his sleep. His body was still in the bed. Nirupama and the family remained stoic, but it was one of the most emotionally draining experiences of my life.

My ongoing fascination with Sportsfield is not just that so many extraordinary sportspersons should live in the same building. Instead, it is more about how they coexist. Top athletes have giant egos, so it's impossible not to wonder whether there have been run-ins in all this time. Having spoken over the years to these stars, their families and associates, it would appear that this housing society is little different from any other with ordinary folks like you and I. There are misunderstandings, sometimes even open confrontations, often on issues such as parking space, but also quick reconciliations.

Hey there, neighbour: like every housing society, Sportsfield has its share of arguments and skirmishes, but the residents rarely let problems fester for long

Hey there, neighbour: like every housing society, Sportsfield has its share of arguments and skirmishes, but the residents rarely let problems fester for long © Prakash Parsekar

"Quicker than in other housing societies perhaps," ventures Yajurvindra, "because of the background of people. Sport is a great leveller. It helps us balance things out and the camaraderie comes about again quickly."

It's not that life in Sportsfield is without drama. In 2000, for instance, just after the revelations of Hansie Cronje's match-fixing became public, Manoj Prabhakar - who became a kind of whistleblower in the drama - landed up at the building and in a sting operation, got Shastri, Gavaskar and Wadekar to talk about the controversy, which he filmed on a spycam. Prabhakar wanted to get Vengsarkar too, but he was not home at the time.

None of the three said anything substantial as far as the case was concerned. But the temerity of Prabhakar in attempting to entrap senior players and peers became the talk not just of Sportsfield and Mumbai but the entire cricket world. After the episode security at the building became far more stringent. Anybody arriving with even a briefcase - for that was what Prabhakar was carrying for the purposes of the sting - had to be searched.

The other event that caused a flutter was when, about 12-13 years ago, it became public knowledge that Sachin Tendulkar might move from Bandra to live in Sportsfield. There were some stories in newspapers, and talk in sports bars and the drawing rooms of the cricketing fraternity. This never materialised. Unconfirmed reports suggested there was speculation that Tendulkar was only willing to consider moving there if he was allowed a penthouse, and the society did not have the FSI (Floor Space Index) to add to the existing construction.

In any case, by this time Tendulkar had renewed his deal with Mark Mascarenhas and WorldTel for somewhere near a billion rupees and was looking for an independent plot of land, not a flat. He found it a few years later in Bandra, where he has built a state-of-the-art, high-tech home, which is also one of the city's bigger tourist attractions. That, in turn, worked out brilliantly for Wadekar. He remains the only one on top of Gavaskar.

Ayaz Memon has written on cricket for over 20 years, during which time he has covered a number of tours and six World Cups

 

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