Whatever happened to the cricket?
There was a time when one of the things that Mumbai was proudest of was its dominance of Indian cricket. Consider this list: between 1955-56 and 1976-77, Mumbai won the Ranji Trophy on all but two seasons. The Indian team, in those years and later, was dominated by Mumbai batsmen. Hell, there was even something called the “Mumbai School of Batsmanship,” started by Vijay Merchant, carried on by Sunil Gavaskar, and held to be the epitome of Indian batsmanship.
Today, Mumbai’s players no longer fill the Indian cricket team: the current squad to Pakistan has three men from Mumbai, but only one of them, Sachin Tendulkar, has been a regular over the last decade. They’re still one of the top Ranji sides, but they do not dominate any more. Whatever happened to them? Why did cricket decline in Mumbai? Well, my postulation is that Mumbai’s dominance of Indian cricket was affected, in a bittersweet way, by India’s economic development. Let me explain.
India’s part-liberalisation in 1991 played a huge part in Indian cricket’s rise and Mumbai cricket’s decline. There are two aspects to this: one, Mumbai’s relative decline as a cricketing power; and two, its decline in absolute terms as well.
One of the consequences of economic development was that people in the large Indian cities gradually became more prosperous through the 1990s, and more avenues of entertainment and passing time opened up for them. In the 1970s, Indians looked mainly to Bollywood and cricket for spending their leisure time. In the 1990s, the choices expanded for those in the big cities. You could spend your free time hanging out at a mall, playing pool, gaming at a cyber cafe, watching satellite television, and suchlike. None of these choices could come close to threatening cricket’s appeal on their own, but all of them together did. Add to that the fact that middle-class kids in the suburbs normally faced a long commute early in the morning to play cricket in any of the traditional Mumbai nurseries, such as Shivaji Park, and the options that existed in their suburbs itself became more valuable.
Now, while this was happening, the small towns of India got exposed to cricket in a bigger way than before. Satellite TV beamed most international games into their homes, with expert commentary from the best pundits in the world, and got exposed to values a growing generation would internalise: of fitness standards, running between wickets, fielding, and so on. As India’s middle class expanded, kids in these smaller towns also gained the means to take the game, whose aspirational value grew and grew, more seriously. A large number of India’s 21st-century stars — Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and so on — are from smaller towns,
Thus, in absolute terms, Mumbai cricket declined because Mumbai kids suddenly had more options of spending their time, and the opportunity costs of playing cricket rose. And in relative terms, the small towns of India, exposed to cricket but not containing the plethora of choices the bigger cities had, asserted themselves, and Mumbai’s lustre diminished in comparison.
Of course, a trend like Mumbai cricket’s decline can never be explained with a couple of cut-and-dry reasons, because a lot of other factors play their part. For example, once cricket became big commercial property, the amount of international cricket that was played increased drastically, and big-league players no longer had time to play domestic cricket. In the ’60s and ’70s, Mumbai’s top stars would routinely play the Kanga League, alongside upcoming youngsters. Today, they don’t have the time to do so, and the strength of the tournament is thus reduced, as is its attractiveness to young players. What was once so accessible now seems far away, and there are many other things to do.
Of course, this post may just be premature. All it takes is a couple of exciting young stars, an old warhorse or two, and a great new team could build around them. But I think that the best days of Mumbai cricket are behind it. Looking at the processes that have led to it, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Let a thousands small towns bloom.