Maidan cricket in the eyes of Emma Levine

Sachin learnt his batsmanship on the streets and fields of Mumbai and surely what is good enough for a god is good enough for the rest. By Ted Corbett.

If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, as the old saying has it, and professional American football owes its success to good coaching in the colleges and the draft system, where is the basis of Indian cricket to be found?

On the streets of course where wickets are pitched that ignore the traffic and in crowded fields where boundaries criss-cross one another, where one match hides among many fiercely contested other games and where a fast bowler may begin his run-up alongside an unknown mid-on and cannot be sure just where his wicket-keeper is standing.

Dress owes nothing to formality, bats hang together from some inherent unidentified force, helmets are an optional extra; it would not do for such hidebound politically correct men as earn their living at ECB and MCC; but it shows the essential spirit of India's vibrant cricket midway through the World Cup for which they began — rightly — as favourites.

After all Sachin learnt his batsmanship on the streets and fields of Mumbai and surely what is good enough for a god is good enough for the rest.

There is, as you would expect, little formal organisation behind these impromptu games, no report for Wisden, nor the great newspapers and if the umpires are close relatives of some of the players, so be it.

These matches deserve to be recorded and there is now an exhibition in the Nehru Centre in South Moulton Street in central London that provides more than a record of informal Indian cricket. It touches its soul, it defines its pleasure and, naturally some might say, and oddly others might decide, the work of a tiny woman and her inquisitive camera.

She is Emma Levine, no bigger than two bob's worth of halfpennies, but brave enough to face the nomadic tribes of Central Asia to make a television series about their strangest sports and resilient enough to overcome a nasty illness a few years ago and soldier on at her chosen way of life, snapping the beautiful, the bizarre and the noteworthy wherever it occurs.

Like all travellers, she has adventures not least in getting her collection to the exhibition centre where a mishap meant that, with only a few hours remaining, her precious prints had to be redone and hung and defined, happily just in time.

The (mostly) Indian expats who went by invitation to the opening ceremonies and to hear Ashis Ray talk about some of the aspects of the history of Indian cricket were enchanted by her work.

I asked him if he thought Indian cricket owed her a debt for recording the glory of street and maidan cricket. “There is a special place for Emma,” he said. “No-one else has shown our cricket as she has done.”

Afterwards I met her parents whose home ground is Bradford, the great, sometimes ugly, still being rebuilt Yorkshire city that was the centre of the wool trade and is still thriving although government cuts mean that some parts are torn down when there is no money for the rebuild.

Mr. Levine went quiet when he told me how horrible parts of the centre of the city had been left. I have had my share of fun in discussing the tardiness of Yorkshiremen with a pound and their determination that they are God's chosen people but no-one can decry their pride.

The city is also the centre of the Bradford League where many great Yorkshire cricketers of the 1920s and 1930s learnt their craft. Emma's father, another tiny figure but full of memories, saw them all: Sutcliffe, Verity, Leyland, Bowes and Emmott Robinson; men who are just names to me although I saw Bill Bowes on the day he announced his retirement in a Yorkshire game against Derbyshire at Scarborough just after the Second World War.

He was always a lean man of 6ft 4in, even when in his pomp he bowled Don Bradman for a duck at the height of the Bodyline series but years in a prisoner of war camp had sapped his strength and he turned to an easier life. Yes, cricket reporting, which even the great unfit came accomplish without extra training save for the downing of a pint or three.

My grandfather took a Baptist church living in Bradford about the time Mr. Levine was born because he had heard glowing accounts of the education for girls in the city and my mother headed to Birmingham University thanks to the truth of those tales.

In Bradford she watched SF Barnes — whose motto might have been Have Pace, Swing, and Control; Will Travel — cause the batsmen of her beloved Bowling Old Lane to crumble no matter which side he was playing for. In her 90s she was still embarrassed by the misunderstanding of the maid who was instructed to take her to the ground and who mistook the piles of sawdust for what J. B. Priestley called “recent evidence of cows.”

“Everyone in the ground turned round and stared when she said ‘You'd think they clean up the mess before they played'”. Such misunderstandings are anathema to Yorkshire spectators and the maid is lucky she was not marched from the ground.

No such faux pas in the Levine family. When Emma travels she emails me for such news of Yorkshire as she cannot find on the internet, her dad seemed as keen as ever for them to win another championship and he and her mother as proud as you might expect that their daughter had found a special niche for her talents in a far country that has embraced cricket as fondly as any Yorkshireman might.

Another Bradford League star had his moments in India recently Asif Rauf was an immaculate, energetic umpire in the England-Holland game. He began a short Bradford League career with four centuries in five matches and was as popular as any of the great men of pre-war Yorkshire.

One day, bless him, he could be declared a freeman of Bradford with Emma at his side. They would both relish that for entirely different reasons.