In recent times, three young cricketers whose names immediately come to mind when Mumbai cricket is mentioned are Prithvi Shaw, Sarfaraz Khan and Yashasvi Jaiswal. Shaw’s family hails from Gaya in Bihar, while the Khans and Jaiswals are from Azamgarh and Bhadohi, respectively, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. What is common to these three players? The pursuit of fame and fortune!
The city of Mumbai has been cricket’s ‘mayanagari’ (city of dreams) for over a hundred years. Wasn’t it Baloo Palwankar who came to Mumbai to play in the Bombay Triangular in 1906? A left-arm spinner of rare quality, he was a Dalit born in Dharwad, now in Karnataka. Despite prejudice and bias, he worked his way into the Hindus’ eleven with his rich repertoire of skills and was a regular in the team till 1920. Later in life, Baloo became an aide to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. He also fought for the downtrodden and is said to have worked with Mahatma Gandhi, too.
Over the decades, perhaps till the turn of the century, Mumbai was the go-to place for the opportunity to learn and play cricket, to find job openings, and if possible, for the very talented to vie for a place in the Indian side.
Kanga League, the monsoon event, imparted lessons in ‘khadoos’ cricket, while the other club and corporate tournaments were fiercely competitive. The Mumbai cricket culture, then, put one through a ‘blender’ and what came out of it was self-belief, grit and finesse. For most players who couldn’t make it big, the city provided a better and secure lifestyle.
There were these two very talented wicketkeeper-batsmen in my junior squad a decade-and-a-half ago. The elder among them, by a year, lived in a shanty, on a small hillock in Trombay. He had lost his father when he was still a child. The younger one came from a middle-class family. Both of them were academically brilliant.
The former played for the city in the Under-19 championships and also represented Mumbai University. After earning a Master's degree in Commerce, and aided by his sporting credentials, he was offered a job by a renowned finance company. He decided to sacrifice his cricketing ambitions to secure his life – and that of his family – by getting into the corporate world. He is now a successful senior manager.
The latter went on to represent and lead Mumbai at various age-group levels. He played for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy, got selected to the India A squad and has been playing in the IPL for almost a decade now. A born leader, he powered the city to its last Ranji triumph in 2016. Having to choose between academics and sport, while in college, he opted for the latter — and succeeded.
The older among the two was a boy named Subhash Panicker; the younger, Aditya Tare.
Under Tare’s leadership, Sarfaraz is now making a strong comeback into first-class cricket, for Mumbai, having notched up a triple hundred against Uttar Pradesh and following it up with a double hundred against Himachal Pradesh. Both these knocks have been masterly and made under intense pressure. The young man has been bogged down, over the last few seasons, by controversies — troubles mostly of his own making: alleged age-fudging, fitness issues, attitude and what have you. What took the cake, however, was his decision to move to Uttar Pradesh from Mumbai a few years ago.
Despite possessing both talent and energy, he was in and out of the Mumbai team, dropped from the Royal Challengers Bangalore squad and then picked up by King’s XI Punjab last season. It is hoped that Sarfaraz, in his ‘second coming’, will let his bat do the talking and keep his mouth shut. With a little bit of luck, he could make it to the Indian team very soon, if not in the Tests then at least in the white ball version of the game.
Shaw’s entry into senior cricket was nothing short of sensational. He scored a debut century in the Ranji Trophy as well as in the Duleep Trophy in 2016-17. After leading India to a win in the Under-19 World Cup of 2018, he made his Test debut for India against the West Indies, and scored a hundred a couple of months before he turned 19. That year, he was also picked by the Delhi Daredevils for their IPL season — a series of successes that he perhaps couldn’t handle.
In November 2019, the BCCI handed Shaw an eight-month ban for a doping violation. Though it was announced that he had ingested a banned substance through a cough syrup, it was also alleged by those in the know that he had got into bad habits, not being able to handle the pressure that accompanies becoming a celebrity and the huge fan-following that he had built up.
Young players need mentors, rather than coaches, till they get used to the adulation and strain that comes from playing for India. The alternative is early burnout.
It is only a matter of time before Shaw makes his way back into the Indian Test team. Again, like Sarfaraz, it is hoped he will have sorted out his attitudinal issues and will be at peace with himself when he is picked. His is a rare talent and I only hope it doesn’t go waste.
Jaiswal left his village in Uttar Pradesh in 2011, when he was only 10, and travelled to Mumbai to fulfill his dream of playing for India. He is said to have lived in tents and sold pani-puri to earn a living while he slogged in the nets at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan. He has played for India at the junior level, but the cricketing world really took notice of his batting talent when he sent Varun Aaron and Shahbaz Nadeem on a leather hunt in the Vijay Hazare Trophy this season, scoring a double hundred.
Jailswal is playing in the Under-19 World Cup right now. He has been picked by Rajasthan Royals for a sum of Rs 2.4 crore for their IPL season of 2020. I reckon, a couple of seasons performing at the senior level should see him in the Indian squad, if he doesn’t lose his balance somewhere along the way.
There have been so many players in the past who have come from modest backgrounds and earned fame and fortune through the Mumbai cricketing route. The prodigiously talented Vinod Kambli was one of them. Eknath Solkar, who was the son of a groundsman at Hindu Gymkhana, was another. Dattaram Hindlekar, Mumbai and India wicketkeeper in the 1930s, was unfortunate to have been paid peanuts by his employers, BPT. He died a pauper at the age of 40. There were also others like Kaluram Pagare and Anil Gurav who fell by the wayside and into bad days. Both of them were very talented batsmen, but probably weren’t mentally equipped to play at the highest levels.
Out of the four Mumbai players who play for India in the different versions of the game now, only Shreyas Iyer has grown up in the city. Rohit Sharma was born in Nagpur and grew up at his grandparents’ home in Borivali. His parents lived in Dombivli. Ajinkya Rahane was born in Ahmednagar and grew up in Dombivli. Shardul Thakur has lived all his life in Palghar.
Is there a message in this for the functionaries of the Mumbai Cricket Association? Have cricketers from the ‘mayanagari’ lost out on their dreams to those from far-flung suburbs and migrants from other states? That, in my opinion, could be one reason why the 41-time Ranji champions are no longer a force to reckon with in Indian cricket.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he believes in calling a spade a spade
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