It was a World Series Clash held in Mumbai. It was hot. In the mid thirties and steaming, with the heavy salt air hammering the city with a humid blanket that never lifted. The tamarind trees around the ground had their foliage blasted off and shade was notional at best. Sri Lanka was batting, there had been an appeal and the umpires were closely looking at the wicket to determine if there had been an error. The crowd was screaming for blood. Out! The crowd roared and hooted and the next batsman skipped out onto the pitch with the crowd chanting his demise even before he started. Old men. Young children. Women. Grandparents. To a person, they bayed for his blood. Trouble was, just to confuse the issue, the new batsman was from the New Zealand team.
It was in fact a fast and furious game of cricket held the middle of a slum in Mumbai into which I had wandered. The ground was surrounded by as many as five hundred enthusiastic Indians who were conducting their own World Series Cricket Test. All the players were Indians but they had grouped themselves around the ground according to different nationalities. Here the Indians. There the Kiwis, over there the Sri Lankan team. All with their supporters, flags, home made bunting and the occasional national anthem. Sung in a surreal Indian chant that bore no resemblance to the original but was sung with more fervour than usual. No particular team was batting and anyone could take the field as long as there were no more than eleven. But as each batsman was declared “out” the next nationality would put up their player. Round and round, louder and louder, hotter and hotter.
And what a ground. About half an acre, surrounded by those bald trees (populated by birds that had been eating far too much mango) crowded in by shanties and huts. With not a stitch of grass on it. In fact the most striking thing about this torn up dry ground was the way the broken glass, thousands of pieces, glittered in the sunlight. No one had any shoes, wore hats or had any other protection. Whether it was glass underfoot, the furious pace of the bowling, or the good natured throwing of objects at the players from the crowd, there was plenty that could get a batsman into trouble. And that was before he had to contend with the umpires.
Who held the game up at every appeal and went through the very slow motions of making some sort of deliberation. At one point they tried to determine if a batsman was out of his crease. The trouble was there were a thousand marks in the dust. How could they tell? No one knew but when given out the crowd roared with laughter having appreciated the charade and the batsman left with good grace. I was mesmerised for hours. The crowd was in heaven. The blazing sun was no deterrent. The batsmen were all supported with loud shouts, chanting and songs. Each nation fronted up, batted as hard and as fast as they could until out (a ball caught in the crowd was always given out, so too a ball smacked so far into the shanties it was lost) and entertained everyone until the late afternoon.
A particular treat was to identify myself as an Australian at which point the shout “Steve Waugh” went up. Fortunately I was not asked to bat! But I was made to feel very welcome by the old men on the front bench of the Pakistan team. Who insisted I come and sit with them in the shade, under those mango riven birds above their heads. The very ones I had been avoiding.
Whether it was Pakistan, England, India, NZ, Sri Lanka or anyone else, no one won. But then no one lost either. Which at a certain level of any sport is how it should be.