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Cradle to rave: Bombay Gymkhana, CCI stand tall despite lack of cricket

The City of Dreams is a storehouse of traditions that shaped the game in India. 

Published: 11th May 2019 01:44 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th May 2019 01:46 AM   |  A+A-

) The Bombay Gymkhana pavilion built by architect Claude Batley.

Express News Service

The City of Dreams is a storehouse of traditions that shaped the game in India. Venkata Krishna B checks out the present state of Bombay Gymkhana and Cricket Club of India and finds that, though not the hotspots of bat and ball any more, the institutions have stayed relevant in their own ways...

It is just another evening near the Churchgate area. As one evades the packed traffic along Mahatma Gandhi Road, hundreds make their way out of Azad Maidan. Almost 99.99 per cent of them have just used the path by the side of the ground, to cut short a two-ki­lometre walk to the Churchgate Station from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Term­inus. A floodlit game is underway, but except for those seated on the lawns of the Maidan relaxing after a long day, few have their eyes on it. A couple of middle-aged men spit their paan masala, not far from the boundary line, as the fine-leg fielder screams, “Bhai, idhar nahi.”

Across the boundary line on the south, Bombay Gymkhana stands majestically lit. The wooden floors, staircase and the pavilion overlooking the Maidan was built by architect Claude Batley in 1875. It still looks posh, the splendour of the Raj evident in almost every brick laid by the British. Patchworks are done without disturbing the originality. Members re­lax here and there with their beer and bridge.
It can’t get more contrasting than this in just a few yards. But that is how it is in Mumbai and that is how it was in Bombay. The gulf between the ends of the economic ladder is seen everywhere. Under the Raj, entry was denied to locals. Even now, those under a certain cut-off don’t get access. Till well after Independence, the club was out of reach for women. Only in the 21st century were they allowed membership. Today, it is one of those clubs where you can find women during the day, making a stopover after picking up kids from the school or chatting with friends. 

The walls are decorated with pictures of the polo, tennis and rugby teams of the club. Cricket doesn’t find much space except for in the trophy cabinet and the bar, which greets the entrants with a huge photo of Douglas Jardine and CK Nayudu, taken just moments before the historic moment when Gymkhana hosted the first ever Test on Indian soil, between MCC and India from Dec 15-18, 1933.
It has long ceased to be the heart and life of Indian cricket. Within a kilometre of the Gymkhana, came up Brabourne Stadium and then Wankhede Stadium, reducing the importance of the grand old venue. RN Renjen, CEO of Bombay Gymkhana, is quick to remind: “Now, you find the stars of world cricket assembling in India. Back in the 1920s, when the club used to host the famous Quadrangular Tourname­nt, the best ones played here.” Before Ranji Tr­o­­phy became the pinnacle of domestic cricket, the Quadrangular was played with teams from the English, Parsis, Hindus and Muslims.
While the tournament was hugely popular, there were moments of tension among the communities, which threatened India’s freedom movement. “As the tournament was getting popular, Mahatma Gandhi didn’t entirely become a fan. Although he never wanted cr­i­c­ket to stop, he wasn’t encouraging something which was dividing the communities.” 

There are stories of the Hindu team taking back an invite sent to PA Kanickam after learning he was Christian. With cricket being divided on caste and racial lines, the tournament continued despite opposition, and even became Pentangular following the inclusion of a team called Rest, comprising Christians, Buddhists and Jews. As nationalistic feelings intensified, there were more voices favouring geographical representation rather than community-based. In 1946, the Board of Control for Cricket in India stopped the tournament and Ranji Trophy became the premier event.

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Today, Bombay Gymkhana rarely finds mention in India’s cricketing landscape. With the arrival of academies and coaches, the Gymkhana isn’t the first thing locals Google for cricket. But leisure activities have ensured that it remains relevant over the years. Today, the bigwigs and rich of Mumbai pay a huge sum to be part of activities in this historic location. “We haven’t offered membership for a few years now, but almost every day there is someone inquiring, only because of this club’s history. We still have a cricket team that takes part in Mumbai Cricket Association tournaments, but we have other sports like rugby, tennis, table tennis and squash where our teams are still one of the best,” says Renjen.
Madhav Apte is among the oldest surviving Indian cricketers at 86.

He is still active, so much so that until recently his routines included a visit to the Gymkhana to play badminton and reminiscing about the 1940s and 50s, two glorious decades he spent playing cricket at this venue. “The Pentangular is often credited to be the tournament which he­lped India become a Test team, but it wouldn’t have happened had the Parsi Gymkhana and Islam Gymkhana not promoted the game. Even before Hindus, Parsis were hooked on to it.” The first first-class fixture on Indian soil was inevitably played between them and the British, when Hindus, Muslims were yet to develop a liking.

Rarely seen in cricket these days, the Parsi community in Bombay was the first set of Indians to take it up seriously. In 1886 and 1888, their teams even toured England. They won only one of the 28 matches, prompting Wisden to write: “From a cricket point of view the tour of the Parsis was a failure, and we had not thought it worthwhile to print any of the scores.” But Apte recalls how the Pentangular helped the community grow from strength to strength. “PE Palia and MS Colah were big names. Even back then, they used to travel across the country to play. Later, we saw the likes of Rusi Modi and Polly Umrigar. The quality that stood out was flair. Every time you th­o­ught they were fading, a newcomer would come up. After Umrigar, (Nari) Contractor and then came Farokh (Engineer),” he says.
That supply line has long stopped. No Parsi after Engineer has played Test cricket. In India’s recent domestic season, only one Parsi took the field — Arzan Nagwaswalla for Gujarat. 

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Sunil Gavaskar and Milind Rege are still in their teens, at the Brabourne Stadium which houses the Cricket Club of India (CCI). They are there to watch Tiger Pataudi, who they have read and heard about. They are consumed by an unusual sight. It is common for batsmen to receive a standing ovation for their deeds. Rege and Gavaskar saw something unique. In fact, the former says, it is the only time he saw anything like that anywhere in the world. “Pataudi tossed the ball to Chandra (Bhagwat Chandrasekhar) and before we could realise what was happening, the entire crowd stood in unison and started clapping. We didn’t understand what was happening.

It took us a moment to realise that all the cheering was for Chandra. I never saw or came across an incident when a bowler marking his run-up got such kind of attention,” Rege recalls. The legends of Vijay Merchant, the Apte brothers, and Dileep Sardesai were born here. Once Abbas Ali Baig even got a kiss from a lady while batting.

What goes around, comes around. This best defines the CCI, which came into existence in 1933. While the Bombay Gymkhana Club was the torchbearer of cricket in the city, it had its flaws, the biggest being non-Europeans denied access to the pavilion and watching area. Disgruntled locals made an issue of it, but the monopoly it enjoyed made them arrogant, quite like the BCCI of the pre-Lodha period. It changed when the same treatment was meted out to the Maharaja of Patiala. 

A noted patron of cricket, the Maharaja persuaded Delhi-based English businessman Grant Govan and Anthony de Mello (the first president and secretary of BCCI) to champion his cause. With their help, a stadium was built at CCI, thanks to Lord Brabourne, the Governor of Bombay, who gave the land. The biggest attraction was the pavilion balcony, from where one feels close to the action.
“It was the first stadium in India built exclusively for cricket. The CCI preamble mentions as its key objective — ‘To promote and encourage the game of cricket in India’,” says Sachin Bajaj, who has been associated with CCI in various roles over 25 years.

Compared to Bombay Gymkhana, CCI has shown better vision and drive to make cricket an integral part of the city. “Back then, when we didn’t have a stadium, it was all about the maidans. With Gymkhana having its reservations, the CCI’s vision to build a stadium made a huge difference. We suddenly had all the infrastructure thanks to the businessmen involved with CCI and even the BCCI had a good rapport with the club,” recalls Apte, once a Sheriff of Bombay and also a former president of CCI.

Though the CCI was registered in Delhi, it soon became the headquarters of Indian cricket as the offices of the BCCI started functioning from its premises. Later on, under Raj Singh Dungarpur, the club thrived. Carrying on the legacy, Dungarpur ensured the CCI remained a cricketer’s club. 
Leave aside his relationship with Lata Mangeshkar, which still makes many associated with the CCI smile, there is overwhelming acceptance of his contributions to this institution. “Raj bhai believed CCI existed for cricketers. He was a cricket romantic. He had a huge vision for the club, and he was the one who first made reciprocal agreements with the MCC, MCG and even New Zealand Cricket board. Whenever teams visited India, they would make a stop at the CCI,” Rege recalls.

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Rege, who was introduced to the CCI by Dungarpur, played a pivotal role in ensuring a 13-year-old got a membership at the club. When Sachin Tendulkar was an unheard-of name in Bombay, Rege had auditioned the kid before Dungarpur and Apte, who somehow wanted to make the boy, their very own. But there was one roadblock.

“The club rule stated you had to be 18 to become a member. Apte and Dungarpur saw the boy and were hell-bent on giving him membership. There was opposition, but Raj Bhai stood his ground and said, the club is for cricketers. In a matter of days, Tendulkar was a CCI member.” 

The CCI stands just across the Marine Drive, a stone’s throw away from Wankhede Stadium, which came into existence following a rift between the Mumbai Cricket Association and authorities at Brabourne Stadium over ticket allocation for big matches. Years later, a disgruntled MCA would do to CCI, what the CCI had done to the Gymkhana. But that’s another story. “It is still the best club in India, but not necessarily the best for cricket. Times have changed. Back then on any given day, you would have the likes of Merchant, Umrigar, Manjrekar around the club because they focussed on cricket. Today, it doesn’t have cricketers running the committees. Despite all this, the CCI has retained its nostalgia,” says Rege.

While the arrival of Wankhede Stadium meant a drop in the frequency of matches at CCI, a renovation for the 2011 World Cup ensured Dungarpur’s last wish become a reality — Test cricket’s return to Brabourne Stadium. Sharad Pawar, when he was the MCA president, granted the wish. But three months before that India-Sri Lanka fixture in 2009, Dungarpur died.

He didn’t live to see Test cricket return to his adopted home, but nevertheless, he had the time to write: “I still cannot believe that international cricket is poised to return to the CCI in such a big way. It’s almost like a widow getting remarried and starting a new life. But make no mistake, the widow is still exceptionally beautiful.” Oh yes! 



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