Cricket, up close and personal
A couple of years ago, after I read Sambit Bal's wonderful piece on his cricket-watching experiences at Galle, I got to thinking about which cricket ground had provided the best cricket-watching experience for me. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that once I had moved past considerations of best viewing angles and the aesthetics of particular grounds, I was left with only one choice: the almost-squarish cricket field at my alma mater, Hindu College, in Delhi University.
This judgment is, as I said, not because there were bucolic visions of nature or architecture available. Rather, quite simply, it was at this ground that I've watched the most high-quality cricket, up close, at leisure, and in a state of mind that can only be described as insouciant. And because too, the players were not excessively remote in a crucial way; they were, to run the risk of cliche, just like me and my mates.
In the 1980s (and I suppose even now), Hindu College and Delhi University were the cricketing powerhouses in Delhi. The best high-school cricketers competed eagerly in the trials for admission to the college; some hoped to make the progression to the university team and then the Delhi Ranji team. The more serious followers of the game among us kept track of who was trying out for the team, and who could be expected to feature in the first XI in the coming season. There was always the ever-present possibility that one of these might be an international cricketer down the line.
And from the moment the cricket season started, we, the cricket spectators, were treated to a bonanza of cricket watching, from the extended nets sessions to the fielding practice drills to the warm-up friendlies to the more serious encounters in the college competition. Watching serious cricket talent up close was revelatory in more ways than one: the straight bats, the dazzling strokeplay, the pace of the bowling, the fielders' reflexes, all served to convince us that these young men were on a different plane from us when it came to playing a game we all loved. And yet, they were not that different from us; they had gone to schools we knew about. They were not older men. It was this simultaneous intimacy and distancing that made this cricket watching the most entrancing experience of all.
The college ground itself allowed access right up to the boundary line. One edge was the fence with the Faculty of Management Studies; another a road that ran in front of the Chemistry and Physics departments; one that ran alongside the tennis courts and another along the college boundary road that separated us from other colleges. Tall eucalyptuses, some hedges, some fences with creeper-like growth, softened these edges and rounded out the picture. Legend had it that big hitters had occasionally hit sixes into neighboring campuses; I never saw any of those but some did land on the road that separated us from Kirorimal College.
When games were on, we watched from various angles; behind the bowler's arm from one end, then from another. Sometimes the autumn sun became a little harsh; we sought shade and found it next to the little tea-shop at deep-fine leg. There, armed with a cigarette, a cup of sweet, milky tea, and a fritter or two, we would sit, contentedly, gazing out at the boys in white. Sometimes we were interested in the fortune of our team; sometimes in the fortunes of a player who might be a friend of ours. Sometimes, a Test match would be on. Then, we would monitor two games as the radio commentary kept us abreast of happenings in distant grounds. The immersion in cricket was complete.
It might be asked: weren't there classes on? Perhaps; but it didn't seem to be a pressing concern in those days. I should have been taking notes on the Weak Law of Large Numbers, but the only statistics I was worried about were cricketing ones. The only worry, if there was one, was whether the last direct bus back to South Delhi would leave while I watched.
Years later, when I had graduated, migrated, and when academic performance became a pressing concern, I thought of my college experiences with mixed feelings: I hadn't worked hard enough; I had been a slacker. But somehow, I could never bring myself to wish that I hadn't spent those lovely winter afternoons in Delhi, sprawled out on the grass, watching young men whose cricketing talents provided me intimate access to the highest levels of the game.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here