I've lived away from my birthplace of Mumbai since I was 17 years old, but whenever I'm back I always make it a point to visit Shivaji Park. Each visit is always nourishing because each visit always reinforces in my mind how much Mumbai's Maharashtrian culture shapes its cricket.
It's a culture that, above all, emphasizes the work ethic, and it's a culture -- anchored in one's family -- that demands total dedication to the field of one's choice. Cricket is only one of those fields, of course; but Shivaji Park -- named after a great Maratha warrior of the 16th century -- is a metaphor for excellence: men and women who grew up around it have gone on to become great scientists, writers, and statesmen.
Shivaji Park is a vast green expanse in Mumbai's Dadar, a teeming, heavily Maharashtrian neighborhood; it's the lung of the area; and it's a cradle of cricket. On any given day -- even on weekdays when school is open -- you will find scores of boys in white; they are furiously batting, bowling and fielding, often under the watchful eye of their coach. The grass isn't even, but that doesn't seem to bother the boys. They come to play because Shivaji Park is hallowed ground. It has produced dozens of first-rate cricketers not only for Mumbai's Ranji Trophy teams, but also for India's representation in Test matches.
Of those cricketers, Sachin Tendulkar is, of course, arguably the most famous. He went to school nearby, and was coached at Shivaji Park by Ramakant Achrekar, a legendary taskmaster who spotted Sachin's cricketing talents early on and who relentlessly made him focus on the game.
Sachin rose in cricket well after I'd left Mumbai to study in Boston and then join The New York Times. He's 40 years old now, and recently retired from competitive cricket to much fanfare; I'm 25 years older, and still in competitive writing. Sachin said that it was time for him to leave the game because cricket was tough on the body, and that training became more and more difficult for him. Writing is no less punishing, especially on the mind; it's far less lucrative, for the most part -- at last count, Sachin was reported to be worth $160 million.
In my time, the boys of Shivaji Park would gawk at players like Ajit Wadekar and Sunil Gavaskar, both whom went on to lead India and also gain fame as batsmen. When I was at St. Xavier's High School in Mumbai -- then known as Bombay -- Sunil Gavaskar and I briefly played on the same team in the Giles Shield tournaments. I remember opening the innings once with Sunil, and I was out first ball, clean bowled. Sunil outshone everybody, making century after century; I was an abject failure at cricket, assigned finally to keeping the score in competitive matches.
In those days, I would aver that had I been born in or near Dadar -- like Sunil -- and had I had the chance to practice at Shivaji Park, I, too, would have been a cricketing great. I was born and brought up many miles to the south. It was hard for me to eventually come to terms with the reality of not possessing cricketing skills; I practiced and practiced, but I just didn't have the right stuff.
So I focused on writing, but I lived in America -- too far away from India to deal with cricket (nowadays there are cricket leagues in America, peopled mostly by expats from Britain, the West Indies, and, of course, the Subcontinent). Sunil Gavaskar went on to become a giant of the game, and I applauded him from a distance. I once ran into him in Sri Lanka while I was on a writing assignment, and in a conversation he merrily recounted the big-scoring games of his school days. He did not do so boastfully. Privately, I was astonished at his humility.
That same sort of humility was evident in Sachin when I met him briefly some years ago at a London hotel where the Indian team was staying. He asked more questions of me than I could of him. I thought to myself, "How does he manage to be so level headed despite his fame and fortune?"
I think I know now. The humility, that sangfroid, stemmed from exposure to Shivaji Park. Dadar is the great leveler of Mumbai society. If you're good, you just show it, you don't talk about it. And if you're not good, then you won't last long in Shivaji Park.
I never even made it anywhere near there. No matter how much good fortune I was to obtain through the world of writing, I will always rue not being a cricketer. So that's why I visit Shivaji Park -- to look at the cricketing stars of tomorrow, to wish them well, and to mentally will them on to a future of much joy in the game. Looking at these youngsters, I cannot help but wonder how my life would have turned out had I been a part of Shivaji Park. The future is theirs, however, not mine. Looking at these youngsters my overriding thought is: May there be many more Sachins. I just know there will be many more Sachins.