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Azad Maidan: A Mumbai cricket nursery like none other

Yashasvi, Sarfaraz are the latest examples of maidan link to the Mumbai school of batting.

For a long time, Mumbai cricket has been synonymous with Shivaji Park, Matunga Gymkhana and Cross Maidan, but during India’s third Test against England at Rajkot, one of the metro’s less spoken of nurseries, Azad Maidan, had its moment in the sun. As Rohit Sharma, Yashasvi Jaiswal and Sarfaraz Khan dominated the England bowlers, the cricket world marvelled at how Mumbai’s maidans keep churning out run machines.

While most maidan grounds have short boundaries, at Azad Maidan and Shivaji Park one will have to do a lot of running to accumulate runs(Getty Images)

Rohit’s journey from the Borivali suburb to India captaincy is well documented, while the success of Jaiswal and Sarfaraz turned the spotlight on the 25-acre expanse of land in South Mumbai that is home to 22 pitches and plenty of multiple matches-inspired madness.

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“In recent times, all good players were coming from Shivaji Park, Matunga and Cross Maidan. Abhi do bacche nikle hai Azad Maidan se joh bilkul sher jaise hai, hamey garv hai (Now, two lion-hearted cricketers have emerged from Azad Maidan),” Ramadhar Jaiswal, an Azad Maidan product like Sarfaraz and Yashasvi, said.

Ramadhar lived in a tent at Azad Maidan for a couple of years as a schoolboy and has spent most of his life at the ground, as a cricketer with Mazgaon Dock and then as a coach at the St Xavier’s College ground. “The pitches at Azad Maidan are bald and dusty; your footwork against spin, your ability to play the turning ball, is honed on such tracks. When you get to play on the Gymkhana (after this), it feels easy, and when you then play on Wankhede, it’s a piece of cake. That is what Azad Maidan teaches you,” said Raju Pathak, who was the school coach of Sarfaraz, Jaiswal and Prithvi Shaw at Rizvi Springfield in suburban Bandra.


While most maidan grounds have short boundaries, at Azad Maidan and Shivaji Park one will have to do a lot of running to accumulate runs. “It’s such a big area, the boundary line is very arbitrary… it’s endless. Only when the batters start turning for the third run that the umpire starts to make up his mind whether it can be signalled a boundary,” said Mushtaq Shaikh, who has followed in his late father Channawala’s footsteps and maintains pitches at the Azad Maidan. And then you have the chaos of having so many pitches in a small area.

“You have 10 guys fielding around you with matches happening side by side, the distraction players have to face… It is the toughest form and school of cricket, end of story,” said former Mumbai batter Zubin Bharucha, who too started his cricket at Azad Maidan with Parsee Cyclist in 1984. “That is why it is producing a Jaiswal, Sarfaraz, Tendulkar, Kambli and Rohit.” Constant matches mean overused pitches. Hence most matches are played on underprepared pitches and the outfield is uneven.

Azad Maidan can’t be compared to the state-of-the-art academies that are mushrooming around the country. It doesn’t have a Division A club in the Kanga League; reputed coaches prefer to set up their centre elsewhere. The Maidan though stands out for what it does offer — fierce competitiveness, abundant opportunities and continuous encouragement. If you work hard enough you will find success, and support too. For example, Jaiswal, who couldn’t afford the coaching fee, was coached by Ishrat Khan for free at Muslim United Cricket Club. The club’s owner, Imran Kodia, allowed Jaiswal to stay in his tent for free. They look for that one genius who lurks among the thousands who are playing. Jaiswal was one such talent in Ishrat’s eyes.

“I was bowling slowly at him and he said, ‘Sir, fast dalo na, yaa toh maroonga, yaa toh khelonga’ (‘Sir, bowl quicker. I will either die or play’). When an 11-year-old boy said that it touched my heart. I told myself he has something special and that meant extra throwdowns around the maidan,” remembers Ishrat.

While Sachin Tendulkar was ferried from ground to ground by his coach Ramakant Achrekar, Sarfaraz Khan would get to bat in multiple matches in a day at one maidan, Azad is so big. Same with Jaiswal. “The benefit of living at Azad Maidan was that Yashasvi got to play a lot of matches. Before the Metro work began, on weekends 22 matches were played simultaneously. On odd days also 10-12 matches are played, school-college matches are there, practice matches,” says Ramadhar.

Zulfiqar Shaikh, ground in-charge of Muslim United Cricket Club which took the young Jaiswal under its wings at a tender age, says: “Yashasvi lived with us in our club tent for three years. The entire day he used to keep playing; wearing his pads, at some or other ground he would be doing his knocking. He would rush with his bag wherever a match was being played, and request to play. Same

routine every day. It was living, eating and sleeping cricket. Pappu sir (Ishrat Khan) used to come and teach him.” Ditto with Sarfaraz. “Naushad has worked very hard on him. He was at the ground (John Bright Cricket Club) all the time, starting at 5.30am,” says Zulfiqar.

In the name of facilities at matches, the players just have a tent as the changing room. Though one would ideally want infrastructure to be upgraded with toilets and dressing rooms, some argue that it is the hard toil that is producing the Jaiswals and Sarfarazs. Playing here, you constantly hear “don’t throw your wicket away, hit the ball along the ground, you have to get a hundred”. They don’t necessarily come from the coaches; everyone is speaking the same language that you imbibe it.

For Bharucha, the value of that grind is in the volume of runs produced. Tendulkar’s 15,921 and Sunil Gavaskar’s 10,122 alone make it 26,000-odd Test runs. Add up from Vijay Merchant (he played for Fort Vijay at Azad Maidan) to Rohit Sharma, the figure could well touch one lakh runs, from a 15km radius, including Shivaji Park, Matunga’s Major Dhadkar Maidan, Cross Oval and Azad Maidan.

“Such volume of runs don’t come from an unstructured system. It comes from a very powerful framework upon which all this is built. That is the part which people don’t understand — the framework becomes the culture,” says Bharucha. It’s like Brazilian boys playing football in the favellas and beaches. It toughens one, the ability to grind it out in the open maidan under the blazing sun. 


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