The sad tale of Mumbai cricket

WHEN the past seems to occupy more time than the present, when the glory of the days gone by seems more interesting than the excitement of what lies ahead, you know a team is in trouble. With successful teams, the present is intoxicating, there is a fever that makes the past seem irrelevant. The great joy of celebrating the moment overcomes everything else. With poor teams, cricketers of another era seem to become better players with every passing year, legend slowly overtakes reality as the mind desperately tries to move away from the present. Time hangs heavy.

You can see that with West Indies cricket, in the sad, moving images that fill our screens. The past is king here and the present a mere footnote. But the West Indies are not alone. They played their first Test in a city with a great heritage but if they had picked up the signs around them they would have realized that Mumbai cricket too lives in a terrible, pathetic reality. They are associates on a similar journey downhill.

But they too are not alone. Wisden Asia recently commissioned four fine writers to pick all time elevens of four legendary state sides. Barbados may not take too kindly to being called a state, but sometimes definitions need to be given a little latitude! The other three were Mumbai, New South Wales and Yorkshire, each once synonymous with the quality of cricket played in its region, each forced to look tenderly at its past in the face of a dismal present.

Tony Cozier's Barbados had Malcolm Marshall, now so sadly deceased, as its most recent player. Steven Lynch's Yorkshire has Darren Gough in it but the player immediately before in chronology was David Bairstow, as it happens, also not amongst us. Gideon Haigh's New South Wales has no place for the Waugh twins or Glenn McGrath and their youngest player is Allan Border who too, left them early for Queensland. And Ramchandra Guha's Bombay, while it has Sachin Tendulkar in it, has to go as far back as Sunil Gavaskar and Padmakar Shivalkar to find a recent player.

It tells a story. And while the fortunes of New South Wales, Barbados or Yorkshire might hold academic interest to cricket lovers here, it is Mumbai we need to be worried about. The sad attempt to paint the ground to hide dismal patches during the Test match was, to me, more symbolic than anything else.

When we were at school, as part of our Hindi syllabus, we had to study a story called "Pardah". It told of a once proud man, now reduced to penury, trying to hide the tragic reality of the times behind a curtain. Outside it, he walked tall in an ageing sherwani, behind it his family lived in great poverty. The curtain, the pardah, was a symbol of the reality he was trying to cover up. And once the moneylender tore it down, the little shroud of dignity vanished too. It is a beautiful, but sad story and as I saw the patchy, painted outfield I wondered if Mumbai cricket was a bit like the old, proud nobleman trying desperately to put a veil on its depressing present.

Sachin Tendulkar is the last heirloom. For a while Sanjay Manjrekar and Vinod Kambli looked like being great descendants of the old masters. The truth today, and it is a difficult one to digest, is that apart from Tendulkar, Indian cricket does not even miss Mumbai. It throws up men of some potential, as indeed all of India does, but these are men of average performance. Worse still, of very average attitude. From being its strongest torch-bearer, Mumbai cricket has become irrelevant to India.

Bob Simpson was telling me that at his training camp for young cricketers at the Cricket Club of India, they could only find one Mumbai cricketer worthy of selection. Two weeks ago, a full strength Mumbai side went to the little known JP Atray tournament in Chandigarh and lost all three matches. Two weeks before that the MCA Colts had returned from the Buchi Babu tournament, beaten and tossed around like a poor first round contender.

Then I saw television pictures of the Test match and they told me what I knew already. The Wankhede Stadium had once again turned up for a celebration wearing very old clothes. And the inauguration of the new Sachin Tendulkar Stand filled me with gloom. There was chaos; people falling over each other, trying desperately to get into the frame, large uncontrolled crowds jostling around. One of Mumbai's finest was having a stand named after him but there was no trace of dignity.

But what hurt even more was David Shepherd's remarks at the end of the Test when he lamented the obscene chants that were coming from near the North Stand. That was once the place where the knowledgeable club cricketers gathered to enjoy a day's play. Now they do not even have the culture to treat a visitor with courtesy. Of all the falls that Mumbai cricket has had to endure in recent times, this must be the hardest, the most stunning, the most shameful. Playing bad cricket can be a passing phase, as the selections at the top of this article illustrate, but making obscene calls at visiting cricketers is a sign of degradation.

Mumbai cricket has some decent people running it but it staggers me that in the corporate capital of India, and some say that even that baton has passed to Delhi, these people have to finish their jobs, as professors and stockbrokers, to come and run the office. They shouldn't have to do two jobs. Mumbai has more tournaments than anywhere else in India and keeping track of those is a full time job, not the preserve of harried, overworked secretaries, however well-intentioned they may be.

Mumbai, like New South Wales, Barbados and Yorkshire, needs to put its past in a museum; honour it, but keep it firmly there. The more the past encroaches on the present, the more difficult it will be to shake it off. Then they must roll up their sleeves, accept their current irrelevance and begin the long grind back. Mumbai still has a lot of committed well-wishers, if it wants them.