The institution of the Shivaji Park is a crucial component of a Mumbai cricketer’s grooming process. The likes of Vijay Manjrekar, Subhash Gupte, Ajit Wadekar and Sandeep Patil, right down to to Pravin Amre, Ajit Agarkar and Sameer Dighe cut their teeth on the turf here.
How, then, could the most celebrated cricketer of the modern era not have come through it?
For Sachin Tendulkar, it was necessity, and destiny, that saw him spend four years of his growing days at the Shivaji Park.
It was tough for Tendulkar to travel from Bandra to Shivaji Park, Dadar. Changing two buses to get to the ground, lugging his kit on those slender shoulders, he was never late, and was always the last to leave. But, the return journey was taking its toll on the 11-year-old.
With cricket already an inseparable part of Tendulkar’s life, his parents took the decision of shifting him to his uncle’s home in the neighbourhood of Shivaji Park — a momentous decision, as Tendulkar recollects it.
A doting aunt ensured Tendulkar remained focussed. With the commute problem taken care of, he could now devote his energies to chasing his dream.
It was cricket and nothing else, and Shivaji Park embraced his cricketing ambitions and allowed him to prosper.
Curious cricket lovers would flock to watch him practice, under the unforgiving eyes of his coach Ramakant Achrekar. There were moments when his transgressions provoked a slap — the little master would describe it as a square-cut — from the coach.
Tendulkar would spend the entire day at Shivaji Park — at nets or playing matches — when there was no school to attend.
Meanwhile, his aunt ensured that he did not miss home too much.
“She would even press my legs when I was tired, and asleep,” Tendulkar would say, recalling his Shivaji Park days.
It is another matter that his aunt once said she would have preferred it if Tendulkar had chosen to pursue carrom or chess; at least he would not have to do it under the blazing sun!
Amre, Vinod Kambli, Tendulkar and Dighe formed a gang that was hugely competitive.
Amre has fond memories of those days.
“I can tell you, he was amazingly committed. He would learn so fast. His talent often left us dumbfounded,” he recalls.
Dighe has a lasting memory.
He says: “I never saw him taking rest during nets, whether at Shivaji Park, or when playing for Mumbai or India. You will never see him relax or sit on a chair the entire nets session, because he would treat it as a match.
“He would often remind us that no decent cricketer would sit down on the field during a match. So, why do so at practice?”
Amre recalls how he once lost a pair of shoes to Tendulkar.
When the young Tendulkar expressed interest in a pair of half spikes that Amre had procured from abroad, Amre told him: “I will give you the shoes if you hit a century.”
Sure enough, a match later the shoes no longer belonged to Amre!
Tendulkar is a three-time champion at Shivaji Park’s single-wicket tournament — in the third instance he beat current National selection committee chairman Sandeep Patil for the title.
He has rarely missed an event at Shivaji Park.
In 1998, Tendulkar floored the organisers by showing up at the grounds, despite having arrived in Mumbai only in the early hours from Sharjah — after the tournament in which he cracked two glorious back-to-back centuries against Australia to win India the trophy.
Tendulkar continues to visit Shivaji Park, and never tires of narrating stories from his teenage years at this hallowed cricket field.
Some of his visits are past midnight. The Ganesh temple nearby is close to his heart.
“It gives me peace,” he says.