A tour of Mumbai's cricket landmarks

Srinath Sripath
From the late 19th century, the city has been central to the history of the game in India - as a walk through downtown will show

The Bombay Gymkhana pavilion © Getty Images

A lone guard stands looking over the verdant expanse of the Bombay Gymkhana's ground. Close to its western periphery, a group of girls are playing knockabout football. There is a goalpost there, and I ask if there's a football tournament on. "Football nahi hai. Match tha aaj", the guard says. (There was no football today, just a match.) Pointing in the direction of cricket equipment lying in the empty clubhouse, he adds : "Hong Kong wale khel rahe the. Nets us ke liye hi hai." (A group from Hong Kong was playing. The nets are for them.)

The word "gymkhana" originates from gend-khana, literally "ball-house", and the Bombay Gymkhana's patch of land has been witness to ball games of all kinds over the years. Yet it is implicitly understood that when you say "match", it is cricket you're referring to.

The Gymkhana is nearly 150 years old, and is now surrounded by the pick of Bombay's colonial heritage structures - the High Court, St Xavier's College, Mumbai University, and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station (formerly Victoria Terminus). When cricket was first played here, none of these buildings existed, and it was mostly just one long expanse extending to the sea, popularly referred to as the esplanade by the British, and just maidan by the Indians.

I take a taxi from the Gymkhana to Marine Drive, the avenue running along part of the city's south-western coast, to find exactly how large the esplanade was, and to get a sense of how many different games might have been played simultaneously. As my taxi passes through a dense array of old buildings, through the area referred to as Dhobi Talao (Washerman's Lake), a number of small shops selling sports goods unveil themselves. One of them, Nadkarni Sports, used to be a haunt of Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli during their school days, when they played together for Shardashram Vidyamandir. When the ride ends, at Marine Drive, the meter reads 1.5 km.

When Indians first started playing cricket in Bombay, thanks in large part to patronage from Lord Harris, who was governor of the territory in the 1890s, the game was organised on the basis of religious affiliation. A walk down Marine Drive reveals as much, with the Catholic, Hindu, Islam and Parsi Gymkhanas located next to each other, as you go south.

The pioneers were the Parsis, who took on the British at their own game, touring England twice in the 1880s and sowing the seeds of cricket fandom in the city. In 1889 they beat a touring English side in a two-day match, with over 12,000 people watching. There are multiple accounts of how the city was gripped through that week.

The grounds along Marine Drive were the setting for the Bombay Pentangular tournament, which was hotly contested between the Gymkhanas and the Europeans, until Mahatma Gandhi's famous line: "Can we not have some field of life which would be untouched by communal spirit?", along with the Board's active promotion of the Ranji Trophy, put an end to it in the early 1940s. While these Pentangular tournaments, the reason why cricket became a metaphor for the tussle between colonialists and the natives, are widely known and celebrated, one of the Parsis' greatest contributions to Indian cricket is often overlooked.

Zaheer Khan walks through a water-logged Parsi Gymkhana Ground on Marine Lines, 2005 © Getty Images

About a hundred metres from CST, across the road from serial award-winning Cannon Pav Bhaji, almost hidden by the rows of vehicles next to a traffic signal, is the Bharda New High School. Established by Parsis in 1891 as the New High School and later named after one of its co-founders, its teams dominated the Bombay schools scene in a way that is paralleled most closely by how Bombay has dominated Indian cricket's domestic circuit. Of the first 45 editions of the Harris Shield, India's oldest inter-school cricket tournament, Bharda's teams won 22. In years when they didn't win, they were most often runners-up. At first glance, a list of the school's famous alumni reads like an Indian cricket Hall of Fame roster, with Vijay Merchant, Polly Umrigar, Nari Contractor, Budhi Kunderan and others featuring. In fact, India's Test team that played Pakistan in 1961 had four members from Bharda High School's Harris Shield teams from the '50s.

Over the years, the school lost its pre-eminence on the cricketing circuit, and little is known about it is today outside of occasional anecdotes from cricketers and scans from magazines like the Illustrated Weekly.

One of Mumbai cricket's most passionate chroniclers, Theo Braganza, who runs Marine Sports, a bookshop and memorabilia hub, is one of the few who remembers. An anthology he edited to commemorate the centenary of the Harris Shield in 1997 has chronicled the school's performances over the decades in extensive detail. When I visit him at Marine Sports in Dadar, he produces restored copies of some of the earliest works on Indian cricket, including Framji Patel's Stray Thoughts on Indian Cricket, published in 1905 and cited in Ramachandra Guha's more famous work A Corner of a Foreign Field.

Braganza has held honorary positions in the city's cricketing system over the years, including that of secretary of the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Scorers of India. He also runs a cricket heritage tour of Mumbai, a day-long traipse that takes in most of the city's cricket landmarks, with commentary by experts. In the past, some of the city's best known cricketers, including Sunil Gavaskar, have tagged along.

Braganza is full of tit bits about the city's cricket history. Sample this: during the Second World War, parts of the city's maidans were commandeered by the British Army, and some of them, such as the cricket pitch used by the Bharda High School, were lost forever, as is recorded in an article titled "Release This Playground!" in a 1967 issue of the Illustrated Weekly.

The Esplanade, 1930 © PA Photos

Braganza points out how crowds in Bombay, ever since the Pentangular, have been instrumental in the city becoming India's primary cricketing centre. Also, cricketers knew Bombay's club cricket was among the best ways to announce themselves on the big stage, and a number of stars migrated from other cities to be part of it. When Vijay Merchant set up the Kanga League, possibly the only monsoon cricket tournament in the world, in 1948, to help cricketers prepare for similar testing conditions when they toured England that year, it added to the city's attraction as a cricket centre.

Clayton Murzello, group sports editor at Mid-Day, who once managed a Kanga League-winning club, recounts how school and club cricket flourished in Bombay, in contrast to other Indian centres, for the better part of the 20th century. Through the halcyon years of the Kanga League, he says, "star cricketers used to represent their clubs, while administrators, selectors, patrons and club secretaries would turn up to watch them play". In Bombay cricket, as Murzello says, everyone has a story about the passion and rivalry on view: like that of Sunil Gavaskar landing in the city after a stint at Somerset and heading straight to the ground to represent his club, Dadar Union; or about how Sanjay Manjrekar, inspired by Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar, chose that club over his father Vijay's, Dadar Union's bitter rivals Shivaji Park Gymkhana.

Much has changed since the natives were denied the right to play cricket by the British many generations ago. As I pass the Police Gymkhana, the last in the series of cricket clubs along Marine Drive, towering billboards featuring cricketers representing the city's IPL franchise, Mumbai Indians, scream "Cricket meri jaan" (Cricket, my love) from above. Many of England's biggest stars represent Indian city-based franchises now.

For every story about club cricket losing its prominence and off-field issues plaguing the Harris Shield in recent times, there are heartening tales of cricketers from India's hinterland establishing themselves on the national stage through the IPL, and of Gymkhanas embracing cricketers on merit rather than on communal affiliations. One thing hasn't changed, though - Mumbai still remains Indian cricket's most eminent powerhouse, and its people love the sport as much as they ever have done.

Srinath Sripath is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo