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Cricket that was

Reminiscences about the gentle pleasures of cricket in the pre-war era

Cricket that was

Cricket was not always the many-splendoured spectacle it has now become. There were times when there was very little money in it and almost all players were amateurs. When a player retired, they used to pass the hat around and collect money for the poor soul's retirement.

Before the war, the most popular tournament was the so-called quadrangular in Bombay, later enlarged to pentangular. There were five teams in the latter - Hindus, Muslims, Parsees, Europeans and the Rest, meaning mostly Anglo-Indians. Nobody took these 'communal' divisions seriously. There were different gymkhanas in Bombay for each of these sides and they decided the teams.

Today, you can see those gymkhanas alongside Marine Drive, facing the sea. Each gymkhana had its pitch or pitches where the players practised. We, schoolboys, crowded around the nets to watch the players and often did some fielding. It was all very informal and some of us were often invited inside the gymkhanas for a soft drink and pastries.

I first saw C K Nayudu there, as tall as a palm tree, hitting balls like nobody's business, often across the Marine Drive right into the sea. He was the most popular player of Hindu Gymkhana and permitted young boys like us to fetch the balls. And if you stayed long enough until the sunset, he would gift the ball to you.

But the man in the public eye, who made cricket popular in Bombay - and perhaps the rest of the country - was a fast-talking barrister called Bobby Talyarkhan, who sat with his mike hour after hour in Brabourne Stadium and gave a running commentary on All India Radio that was quite a feast for the ears. Those were the days before the war when there was no TV and very few homes had radio sets. In our building, there was only one family with a radio set, out of a total of about 40 and that was our only live connection with the matches. We squatted on the floor, about 20 or 30 of us and listened in pin drop silence to Bobby's mellifluous voice as he described in his clipped British accent how Amar Singh's ball sliced through Mushtaq Ahmed's wicket or Nayudu hit one of his sixers, as the whole world came to a standstill while wickets fell and centuries were scored amidst the roar of excited crowds in the packed stadium beside the sea.

The pentangulars were played during the Christmas season when Bombay was at its best. We took a train or often a tram to Churchgate, then as now, a popular terminus and made our way to Brabourne Stadium less than a furlong away. Despite huge crowds, we could always manage to get a ticket - often for no more than a couple of rupees - and after fortifying ourselves with soft drinks, made our way into the crowded stadium, which at the time was only a couple of years old.

If there were no tickets, we would go to the nearest Irani restaurant just across the road from Churchgate and sit there listening to Bobby, downing cup after cup of sweet tea under the watchful but friendly eyes of the owner. The man, also a cricket fan, often took pity on us and gave us something to eat, enough to keep us going until the stumps were drawn. We sat as close as possible to the radio set, hanging on to every word from Bobby and when a wicket fell or Nayudu hit his favourite sixer, someone would go out and buy a garland of fresh marigolds and put it gently on the radio set as it crackled above the roar of the crowds.

Then came the war, not the best of time for a game like cricket and our friend Bobby disappeared from the scene, and the stadium itself, we heard, was taken over by the army. The gymkhanas shut down one by one and the pitches went dry until suddenly one day, the war was over, and it all started again.

But that, as they say, is another story!