Hong Kong cricket officials fretting about the shortage of playing fields in the cramped territory should visit the Oval Maidan in south Mumbai. There they can see a sports ground that demonstrates how an increasingly stressed urbanized world can find ways to play, and proving the qualified adage that “India is a chaos that works.”

The  22-acre maidan (ground) sometimes features 20 or more cricket matches at the same time. It’s a preview of a crowded future in which a UN study predicts another 2.5 billion people will live in Asian and African cities by 2050.

India’s maidans are not in the same league as New York’s Central Park. But maidans, for me, never cease to amaze and gratify.

Maidans like Mumbai’s Oval and parks elsewhere serve as much needed green lungs for the world’s 40 megacities (population over 10 million). Asia has eight of the planet’s top 10 megacities, with Tokyo topping the list, and Mumbai ranked seventh between New York City (sixth) and Mexico City (eighth).

Amid metal rivers of honking automobiles, the 150-year old Oval Maidan stretches like an emerald island — a soothing sight for polluted eyes and weary minds. Art-Deco buildings from the 1950s flank it on the west. (After Miami, Florida, Mumbai has the world’s second-largest number of art-deco structures) And on the other side looms striking neo-gothic architecture like the Rajabhai Clock Tower modeled after London’s Big Ben.

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British Crown Prince William’s wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, played tennis-ball cricket at Mumbai’s Oval Maidan last year.

Beyond the Oval, 21.3 million “Mumbaikars” bustle in the humming undercurrents of life — all fitting in the city’s vibrant cosmopolitan tapestry. This “city of dreams” where hard work makes dreams come true, is a place of fabulous wealth and of slums; a city with the most billionaires and charitable organizations in India. It’s the city that changed my life, and where I see two kinds of people — those working hard chasing money, and those finding that money is not everything.

Inside the maidan, chaos and order co-exist. A fielder in one match stands where he can be part of three other matches to his south, east or west. How matches finish without casualties is a testament to guardian angels. A cricket ball can cause severe injury. This trailer of the award-winning documentary Fire in Babylon shows the lethal side of the world’s second most popular sport, after soccer:

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Fire in Babylon — when cricket became a war

Unlike young cricketers who played at the maidan 100 years ago, life-changing wealth beckons their 21st-century successors. They could someday play at Wankhede Stadium a kilometer away, earning multi-million-dollar salaries in the Indian Premier League (IPL).

This September, the league became one of the world’s richest, fastest growing sports attractions. Rupert Murdoch’s Star India bid US$2.6 billion for media rights, Chinese company Vivo invested $338 million for title sponsorship. The Indian cricket board headquarters is a kilometer from the Oval Maidan.


Mumbai Indians captain Rohit Sharma in an IPL match in 2016 at Wankhede Stadium, near Oval Maidan.

The maidan remains nearly unchanged amid Mumbai’s decades of changes. The 85-meter (280-foot) clock tower overlooking the Oval was the city’s highest structure in November, 1878. In 2017, Mumbai is 11th in the world for the most number of skyscrapers.

Like its fellow financial capital, New York, Mumbai is riding what may be the world’s biggest skyscraper boom. Hundreds of highrises are under construction, including the 117-floor World One in Lower Parel scheduled to be completed next year, and the 116-floor (400-meter) The Imperial 3, to be finished in 2020.

Which means some architectural genius might create a highrise cricket pitch up among the clouds. “Skyscraper cricket” may not be farfetched, given the decreasing number of playing fields for an increasing urban population.

High-altitude sporting innovations are already happening. Hong Kong cricket administrators are using foldable cricket pitches — the same “Flicx” roll-up tracks that were used in a charity fund-raising cricket match atop Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro in 2014, 5,785 meters above sea-level. It broke the high-altitude record set for a cricket match played at a Mount Everest base camp in 2009.

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Cricketers in Kolkata’s maidan, near the iconic Eden Gardens park and stadium, with the Victoria Memorial in the background.

Cricket is sometimes called South Asia’s “religion.” Playing fields reveal character traits, and Mumbai’s sunny Oval cheerily reflects a city if not a country of challenging contrasts, co-existing extremes and “chaos that works.”

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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