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8 January 2020

Cricket contains multitudes, and they can all be found on a patch of dusty grass in a park in Mumbai

The Oval Maidan in the heart of south Mumbai, flanked by law courts and the university, hosts dozens of overlapping matches.

By Ed Smith

I  was awake late last night but I’m up with the rising sun – dozy, but quickly lacing up my trainers and out walking on the Mumbai streets. It’s early on Sunday morning and not too hot. I’m here attending an England cricket training camp for some talented young players who may go on to achieve (or resume) international careers.

I’ve been in India for four days but in order really to go anywhere these days you have to leave your phone behind. In the last 12 hours, I’ve used Skype, FaceTime, text, WhatsApp, email and held a press conference via telephone dial-in.

As is often the case in cricket, my colleagues in England selection and coaching have been spread across time zones – England, India, South Africa, New Zealand. I glanced at a work message for the last time at 2am last night – a wise use of jet-lagged time or just poor self-discipline? So it’s nice, as the hotel door clicks behind me, to feel the absence of a phone in my pocket.

A few years back, Mike Atherton took his Times readers with him on a stroll around the cricket milestones of Mumbai. Read it; a journey into cricket’s soul.

I know those steps well – I’ve been coming to Mumbai for 20 years – and I know where my walk will take me. It is not an original choice, but the Oval Maidan works every time.

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It is probably beyond me to describe the Oval Maidan without lapsing into cliché. From a bird’s-eye view it would look utterly confusing, a crazy quilt of incoherent cricket matches. But at ground level, somehow, a kind of cooperative disorder emerges.

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A central city park in the heart of south Mumbai, flanked by law courts and the university, hosts dozens of overlapping matches. The level of seriousness, the standard of play, the age of the players, even the hardness of the ball: each exists on a broad spectrum. Individual absorption coexists with a collective sense of amused chaos – the silent protagonist that unites the whole scene. At the Oval Maidan you learn that two noises in quick succession – first the crack of bat on ball, then an urgently raised voice – tends to mean that there’s a ball flying in your direction from an adjacent match.

Let me narrow the lens. Where, exactly,  did I stay a while and watch? As a selector, you are always filtering information about cricketers – how they hold the bat, take stance, the arc of the bat swing, their run-up to bowl, the interplay of deliberate and intuitive movement, the subtle signifiers of naturalness and authenticity that the best players often possess. Not just the quality of the different pieces, but also the way they fit together. You know you rate someone when you want to see more.

And so it is at the Oval Maidan this morning, in leisure as in work. A teenage boy is hitting balls thrown at him by a friend, striking against the perimeter fence. He is slight and short, maybe 5ft 6in. The identity of his hero is obvious. He is using an MRF bat like the Indian captain Virat Kohli; he grips the bat just like Kohli; he moves his feet into a preliminary alignment just like Kohli. In stance, swing, movement – a mini-Kohli.

It is easy to see who he’s following, but to which tradition does he belong? That’s more complex. The Mumbai boy is hitting a white ball (as used in glitzier one-day and Twenty20 cricket rather than Tests), and is dressed in a loudly coloured one day-style shirt and sports sunglasses – he could almost belong in an Indian Premier League match, which is doubtless where he dreams of ending up. But the studious repetition of grooved shots, his old-school, side-on stance, the certainty that he has been taught by instruction as well as copying the greats by observation – these all hint at an older classical tradition, the one that links the modern Indian game with the cricket played by my father in England in the 1950s. A white floppy hat tops off the look. He is modern and classical in one.

Less than five yards from him, another set of stumps is arranged for a game played by eight men and women. There is an argument about whether the batter is out. She maintains that the stumps were unfairly close to the batting crease: I had no chance! The bowler isn’t having any of this defence: That’s out, you’re out. The umpire adjudicates that it was out. The batter is defiant, her body language says “I’m not going anywhere”. There is a stand-off – everyone staying just the right side of a row. They’re enjoying the dispute, actually, teasing each other as much as disagreeing.

The mini-controversies keep coming – wasn’t ready, too close, doesn’t count, that’s not out. The umpire, who I now realise has organised the game, has a masterly ability to use eye contact simultaneously to provoke mischief while diffusing tension. He’s partly egging the players on, adding energy and spark, while also keeping things light and sociable. He is adjudicating a bounded game while orchestrating a wider one. He’s leading playfulness.

Everyone is constantly communicating, yet not a word has been spoken. They talk only in cricket and sign-language. All the players are deaf.

I’ve watched long enough that it feels expected for me to throw the ball back when it occasionally comes my way – part observer, part boundary fielder.

So much sport and life sustained and nurtured by a few yards of dusty reddish grass. The aspirational teenager dreaming of more serious cricket ahead; right next to him, a recreational counterpoint – play itself as the principal destination. It’s quite something that cricket, here at least, can do it all. 

Ed Smith is national selector for England Cricket

This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran