India April 29, 2006

Some thoughts on playing cricket at the Oval

ESPNcricinfo staff
A few days ago I was at morning cricket nets at the Oval Maidan in Bombay, a weekly affair where we exercise our two-bit skills with high seriousness and fidelity to ritual

A few days ago I was at morning cricket nets at the Oval Maidan in Bombay, a weekly affair where we exercise our two-bit skills with high seriousness and fidelity to ritual. Not far from where we were playing a bespectacled young man, clad in a tracksuit and a cap, was conducting some summer cricket coaching with a dozen boys in whites.

Caught up in the mechanics of bowling that outswinger that looks so simple but proves so vexing, I soon became oblivious to them. But a little later, while chasing down a hit, I happened to witness a little scene - a standard fielding drill. The man had lined all his wards up, and was hitting balls towards them; they were supposed to run up one by one, field the ball and throw it back, and return to the back of the line.

Unsurprisingly it was the coach himself who seemed most enthusiastic. He hit the ball and shouted, in a tone meant to gee up the kid, "Come on, get it, it's yours!" But the boy running towards it seemed unable to turn his speed up a notch; in fact he had a struggling, striving air, like a butterfly fighting against a breeze.

And the things that was slowing him down were his shoes, which were clearly two or three sizes too big for him - perhaps hand-me-downs from an older brother or cousin. As he ran in they seemed somehow to have a life of their own, independent of the feet inside them. He stopped the ball, returned it, and ran back, a little sheepish. But no great tragedy need be read into all this. If he was slightly embarrassed, he was still enthusiastic and "switched-on", pursuing his dream, even if in shoes two sizes too big.

In about three years of going to nets now, mostly at the Oval and the more crowded Cross Maidan (where a small rectangular patch of land has a dozen pitches), I feel I've seen enough young cricketers, mostly teenagers from middle- or lower middle-class backgrounds, to grasp what cricket means to them. In fact one needs to say no more than just this: cricket means something to them.

It means something when very little else in their lives means anything, and this overpowering preeminence of cricket in their lives is not merely because of the magic of the game and the impassioned blinkers of youth (think of the boy Sachin Tendulkar, going from match to match on his coach's scooter, and of all the other boys who must have done similar things, if not to the same end) but because everything else in life is so profoundly dull and uninspiring.

Education, for instance, which serves in theory to free us, to make us more aware of ourselves and what we want to pursue, is almost everywhere in our country a bad joke, a set of dud formulae to be remembered and meaninglessly regurgitated. Where it should teach us to take an interest in the world, it renders the world opaque. Who can take any pleasure in school other than that of japes and camaraderie with friends? There is very little about school or college that allows us to dream, glimpse a way forward for our lives.

But cricket - there is a spark in it that rouses ambition and competitive spirits, that gives meaning and purpose to constrained lives. The maidan is a site of dreams. On the field one lives fully, intensely, relying on one's wits from moment to moment. In the angle of one's bowling arm, or the calculation of which ball to play and which one to leave, lies the very same maths problem that induces such sleep in school.

For this reason, even if few of these kids go on to become cricketers of any standing, cricket is good for them because it acts as a beacon in their lives. While most other fields in life lie fallow, the maidans, at least in the imagination, are always green. It seems to me that kids who play cricket seriously - it is almost immaterial whether they play badly or well - learn something about themselves and about life that many others don't.

And yet of course, as one grows older, reality checks in, and other problems and issues present themselves, cricket is usually left behind. Just as on the Oval maidan the heat is fierce and the dust flies thickly, and even shiny new balls become cracked and chapped in a few minutes of use, so the air of the city, too, overpowers people over time.

And sometimes on the train or bus one sees people who one feels must have once been those very same boys playing at Shivaji Park or the Oval, only ten years older now and disabused of the lifegiving illusions of adolescence - still with a bit of fire in the eyes, but undeniably wearied, haggard and disenchanted. Cricket is over; many other things have taken its place.

Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer in Mumbai