An afternoon at the cricket
In mid-2009, I played my last competitive cricket match — a knock-out qualifier for our new side to make it into the lower-most tier of the city cricket league. It seems long ago. It was only a year into a small-time
leg-spinning career, more Anil Afridi medium pace than spin. The memories from that phase are of feverish anticipation on match day mornings, looking forward to what all it could bring — full tosses that disappeared to the fence, the occasional one that spun back in, albeit unintentionally, a direct hit from backward point. Moments from the cricketing phase are far clearer than anything else I remember from those years, a number of them involving team-mates who were far more gifted, who seemed destined for greater things some day. A stunning catch, sprinting from mid-on, to a lofted straight drive, a six over covers and an outswinger that left the batsman gasping and thundered into the keeper’s gloves — the kind I’d only ever seen on television.
Fast forward to this day. Here I was, at the Bombay Gymkhana, watching a jigsaw puzzle of cricket matches, pieces astray, yet somehow in co-ordination so each of them could see their own complete pictures. For the spectator, it took a while to breath in, let alone get a hang of what was going on. Thanks to Twitter, I’ve heard stories of 10+ games on at a time, a perilous co-existence, week after week.
These were cricketers at pretty much the same level we tried to enter back then, the lower tiers of the city league. Yet, they were plying their trade on the holiest soil of them all, when it comes to Indian cricket. There is little about the Gymkhana that hasn’t been covered in popular literature, most prominent among them being Ram Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field. It is where Indians — the Hindoos, the Mohamedans and the Parsees — began playing cricket, learning from their British masters.
Among my lasting memories from the book and about the Gymkhana, is how Indians got possession (or permission to play in, whichever suits you) of the ground to play the game. It isn’t quite Lagaan, yet, there are similarities you can’t ignore. The British used to played two sports — polo and cricket — at different parts of the ground. The centre pitch was used exclusively for cricket, and a part outside the playing area was used for polo. They let their horses’ hoofs create pot-holes all over, and when the Indians’ cries became too loud, let them play cricket in the polo part of the ground. From there, it is a bit of the get-better-in-minefields-and-challenge-the-masters-on-their-own-pitch routine that Gowariker brought to the fore in Lagaan.
Stories such as this adorn every other page of the book and it has been quite the labour of love, and labour — where the game is in this country today.
More than a century on, the division isn’t based on race anymore, rather on sheer merit — more important, ‘higher division’ games on the larger showpiece ground and the ‘lower division’ ones on the other, open area.
It is the Phil Hughes year, weeks after #PutOutYourBats and all the tribute. It is also the year of the Israeli umpire’s death. Tragedies somehow seem to come to the fore all too often these days, than before. After Hughes and previously, Raman Lamba’s death from not wearing a helmet at short-leg, frivolity towards player/umpire safety, from the grassroots levels to the very top, is simply not acceptable behavior. Let’s face it, the game is simple everywhere — the red cricket ball being hurled at the bat, and then from the bat to various parts of the ground. Contact of the speeding ball with the human body, is, more often than not, a cause for concern.
The sight of the Gymkhana today, while invoking a lot of romance about the game and its ubiquity in our country, was scary all at once. If my count was right, 8 competitive games were being played in what would be the area of two grounds. Parallel to each other. One behind the other.
Mid off from one game would stand next to third man from another, square leg umpires would stand with their unprotected necks, yes, the Hughes region, facing the lashing pull shot that could come their way any time in the day. There is a road that runs through the Gymkhana, where hawkers — vending everything from desi , Adibas wrist bands to pieces of clothing — stand. The long on fielder takes position next to one of them.
At first, I wondered if batsmen would restrain themselves from playing the big shots, as the region around the bowler was filled with people walking through the ground. It seemed impossible, considering the competitive spirit around it — reserve players, kids and coaches egging their teams on, with banter of all manner and nature, taunts of ‘aloo’ at the opposition bowler, you had it all.
The first ball I saw from a left armer was an in-dipper, cramping the right hander for room. Bowled. Celebratory high-fives, followed by forced separation of the huddle — a ball had landed on the pitch from the game behind. The fielder ran through the huddle, stepping on to what would be the ‘danger area’ umpires usually warn bowlers about. Here, there was just applause from the fielding side, ‘badhiya fielding bhai’, a pat on the back. Boom. The throw perilously whizzed past a few tender, unaware, spinal cords to reach its destination — the wicket-keeper at that other game.
Another time, a straight hit crossed a few gamboling children and chit-chatting young girls walking on the road, landing beyond, on the grass on the other side. The players in the tent turned around nervously that side — not to check on the safe landing of the ball, but concerned about whether the catch had been taken. Safe landing and two runs ensured, life moved on. The throw traced yet another scary parabola. Bat on regardless, seemed apt for this ground, these matches. Couldn’t choose a better city either.
You can’t imagine a parallel of this dangerous magnitude in any other sport. Yes, we’ve heard of footballing games in Brazillian parks, but that’s not a ball of this potence. I can’t even imagine a deuce court in a tennis qualifier being used as the ad court for the adjacent game. Six tennis singles matches on 3 courts? With that soft ball? No way.
Why this mindlessness with cricket, then?
You might laugh at this, but in the one hour I spent watching this madness, I could see how this could be solved. I might be horribly ignorant here and would be happy to be corrected by those in the know, but, the Gymkhana is a huge area, spanning 6–7 grounds comfortably for games at this level. Yet, the pitches, almost all of them turf ones, are scattered around a much smaller area, more like the practice pitches you see at the edge of some grounds, or the ones unused during international games near the square leg umpires.
The parts of the Gymkhana farther from these games had amateurs leisurely playing rubber ball cricket, without any of this potential peril facing them. Move some of these pitches there, maybe?
On the way back home, I saw at least four other grounds, where a single game was being played, with all the protection for the body. Except one right opposite the Gymkhana, where there were multiple games like this. Even they seemed far more organized than that crowded metropolis of a playing area.
It’s not like this was the first ever time I was viewing something of this magnitude. From school grounds, back in the day, to the larger public parks across Indian cities, this is a common sight. Parallel pitches, overlapping fields. The difference? Never with a cricket ball. Not once.
Some times, even rubber ball hits are dangerous of a comparable degree. But, more often than not, given the leisurely nature of these games, from gallis to grounds, players understand the constraints and avoid playing shots potentially dangerous. Or worse, there are cries from all sides to get that player out of harm’s way, on time. And this was with less dangerous material — soft corks, tennis ball rubber and the like.
But hey, this was manly, ‘professional’ cricket. Life just moved on for everyone, apathetic to everything except runs and wickets.
Sometimes, as a lot of people reminded us rightly, the game just does not move on. Going back to the very premise of the game — to have fun, to get competitive juices flowing in a mock-jousty way, to pull ourselves away from the humdrum and worries of our daily existence — it is ironic that we invite such potential trouble on us, even while playing it. The game must always be the reason to be the gift that keeps on giving, never taking anything that’s ours, because of our own carelessness, that too.