February 12, 2006

Uncertain Wickets

In the early eighties television was still some way off from becoming the staple diet in the small, sleepy town of Ponda where I went to school. It was 1983, the year India won the Prudential World Cup. Streets had emptied way before eight that big night, the time Ponda usually went dead on a normal day, and hordes of people had gathered in the few homes that had television, and huddled before grainy screens where an elephant's bottom would have been indistinguishable from a cricketer’s, they had urged Dev's devils on, going berserk when the mighty Caribbeans finally bit the dust. I was just out of primary school then.

Goa had received its first television signal the previous year; the 1982 Delhi Asian games and the following year big time cricket had finally entered the living rooms in the nondescript colony where I lived along with a boisterous gaggle of friends, pushing nine years on an average and unscrupulous to boot in the evenings we trooped out for a bit of rough and tumble.

Sundays were exclusively for cricket matches. The teams we, the Young Stars club, usually played against were those from Chirputae, Goa Milk Dairy and Haveli. The gaggle from Haveli had named themselves: Tufaan.

I fancied myself as an opening bat, and was often sent as one; I doubted the intentions of my captain though. It could have been anything from using me to take the shine off the ball to tiring the opposition bowlers from their youthful exertions in trying to knock my teeth off the ground. Then there was this little matter of expending the overs of their 'strike' bowlers so that when they had tasted blood, usually mine, they would fall back satisfied, cooling their heels while their slow pokes came on, to take on whom would emerge the 'Tigers' from our ranks. I rarely lasted long enough to sample these blokes turning their arms over. But then that was the whole plan, all I had to show for my efforts would be a bruised something, a score more often in single digits, nearer zero that is, and a stiff behind from watching teammates put the 'enemy' to sword.

The few times that I batted lower down the order it was unsettling to watch my teammates knocking up runs where I would have invariably pushed and prodded before deliverance came knocking at my stumps. At such times, occasions were few when I did not pray asking my teammates to be sent back to the pavilion, under a mango tree beside grazing cows, so that I could get my share of the batting. HE did not disappoint me often. Nevertheless team spirit was high and the desire to win at any cost, strong. The bowlers exemplified it; they would rub the ball vigorously on their backside and in the groin for good measure, ‘to get shine' they said, but all they managed in wearing out was not the batsman they bowled to but the desi half-pant off their reddened behinds. If the batsman got going the fielders had their task cut out, often running after the ball they could only have imagined seeing, if indeed they ever did, for boundaries came by the dozen from the ball whizzing past between their legs. I 'defended' more deliveries with my bony knees and shin than with the bat I had trouble lifting.

On the cricket maidan, after our first meaningful engagement with the Milk Dairy XI, it became imperative that we change 'Everything is fair in love and war' to ‘Everything is fair in love and war, and cricket’. The Dairy cricket team had a girl member. Priya Ghate was probably tougher than some of other 'milk thumbs' making up their playing XI.

Match day would see the two teams arriving on the ground eleven each but more often than not the dairy team would have an extra 'milk tooth' tagging along, sometimes several; I presume there were not many ‘young stars’ where I lived for we rarely ever had the luxury of an extra teammate who could keep the match scores. So it was inevitable that the batting team would detail one of its team members to log in their score book runs scored and for extra measure add 'phantom' runs for us to chase. The Dairy team had managed to turn this into high art. We were aware of the 'extra' ministration the scoring book received at their hands but having none of our own to spare, to keep a check on them and maintain a separate score book, we had to make-do with the mid wicket fielder taking responsibility for recording the opposing team’s batting scores, run by run, while he fielded. He kept the score book by his side, sometimes forgetting to record the score in a moment of excitement on the field, occasionally by design. It was no surprise that the two score books rarely tallied. When it was our turn to bat we 'nursed' our score book to health. Fights would erupt and more time was spent defending our respective totals than in meaningful play but it added to the overall excitement, and passing stray dogs sensing the sharp edge to the atmosphere joined in the ‘festivities’, forcing us to argue in even louder voices, to be heard above the barking; some solution would eventually be found; a rematch. Not that things actually changed much in the rematch.

One pair of batting pads meant the wicket keeper didn't have any to wear. The two batsmen wore a batting pad each. It was the same with batting gloves; how a right handed batsman managed to bat with a right glove on his left hand, the one facing the incoming ball, is a matter of conjecture. Anyone who could knock up some decent scores, a nine was decent enough, and knock back a wicket or two, was picked up to be the captain, or he had to be the one who owned the only bat, the only ball and the only pair of pads. Leadership was about practical matters. If runs ‘had to come’ they would, a 'leader' strategising or specifying how much we needed to score wouldn't have made a difference either way, we performed as much as the other team allowed us to, nothing more, nothing less. The captain went to the toss and specified the batting order if we let him and that was it.

There was never a time when our club did not need finances to keep things afloat, and cricket was the last thing our parents thought fit to spend money on, not after the losing struggle they fought each day to get us to exchange the cricket bat for textbooks. Pocket money was an unheard of concept then but not cashew nuts. Hills that rose protectively over the ground were home to cashew nut plantations. A kilo of raw cashew nuts fetched ten rupees. A second-hand bat from a comparatively richer club cost about thirty rupees, it was another matter that the bat the Tufaan club sold us for twenty seven rupees after hard bargaining was cleverly taped up to hold the splintered bottom together, coming apart after the first crisp drive that was hit off it. The Tufaan club swore by god that they had sold us a ‘superb’ bat. The gods we subscribed to were all benign creatures; they did not meddle in matters concerning 27 rupees budgets.

It had taken us three kilos of raw cashew nuts to raise the finance for the bat; then there was the small matter of buying a new leather ball for each weekend match. We chanced upon a simple solution. We raided the cashew nut plantations in groups; three on trees doing the plucking, three below to collect the cashew nuts and two to keep watch for the owner and his dog, the only dog I ever managed to outrun in my life. The cashew nuts were sold at a local shop. With money thus ‘earned’ we bought an entire cricket kit part by part, none of our parents got to know of our enterprise; it spared us spankings and worse, the lectures. Back then immediate necessity governed our actions.
And so the days flew by. I made many friends. Cricket kept us healthy, out of trouble and competitive. Victories were savoured and defeats forgotten. Team spirit was learnt on the maidans and so was the ability to relate and sustain relationships with one another. Not giving up until the last ball was bowled set the course for the approach some of us adopted, subconsciously, or at least tried to. Cricket was more than a just a game; a part of growing up that few text books or television could ever teach us.

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