February 5, 2012

Out of the classroom and onto the pitch

While digging through a collection of letters I had written to my mother during my boarding school years, I chanced upon one dated March 8, 1981

A few days ago, while digging through a collection of letters I had written to my mother during my boarding school years, I chanced upon one dated March 8, 1981. In it, I wrote:

Today was a cricket match between the staff and the students. The students won in an exciting finish by just two wickets with five minutes left. The staff scored 163 all out. The students looked in a bad state with the score at 110-7 with just 20 minutes left. Then one boy came in scored 15 runs in four balls and really inspired us. Then we just hammered our way out.

As far as match reports go, I'd have to give this one a D. Why is the reporter specifying time left when there must have been an overs-limit in effect? Who scored 15 runs in four balls? What does "we just hammered our way out" mean? How? Where? Why is the first sentence so awkwardly phrased? Besides, the reporter makes it sound as if he was playing in the match. Was he?

I can answer some of those questions, but not all. I do not know why I was obsessed with time rather than overs. My guess is that I still thought, in those days, in terms of temporal limits when it came to cricket; I was a child of Test cricket, and while I had lived through the 1979 World Cup disaster, the limited-overs and 90-overs-a-day sensibility hadn't really kicked in.

I do not remember the name of the hero who scored 15 runs in four balls, but I do remember how he did it: three boundaries off the first three balls he faced, and then a scampered three that let him retain the strike. (I don't remember what he did thereafter, but I remember that burst kickstarting the "hammering our way out".) And while I might have been "inspired" and while I might have used the inclusive "we" in this little match report, the closest I got to the action was about 50 yards or so; I was safely ensconced in the spectators section along with a couple of hundred other excited, blazer-and-tie wearing schoolboys.

Our boarding school's annual Staff versus Students match was an annual highlight of our cricketing calendar. The students won most of these encounters but the result was never a foregone conclusion. Our staff included several young teachers, fresh college graduates, some of whom had played cricket at the university level. They might have lost a little of their edge, but they got it back pretty quickly with a little net practice. A cricket match against the staff was a serious contest for our school team; one that often stretched them to the limit, as in this classic.

Given the power dynamics at play between students and staff in our boarding school, a cricket match represented an opportunity to turn the tables, to reassert ourselves in a sphere where, even if only temporarily, we became equals. No quarter was given; none was asked for. While the games were always played free of sledging and rancor, the competitive edge was never missing. The students did not want to lose, and our identification with the team was complete (we did, though, generously cheer on good shots by the opposition).

When the game ended, we walked off the ground, back to the dormitories, back to prepare for the next day's classes, back into a domain where we would assume our familiar positions in the configurations of teacher-student relationships; back to being commanded, taught and guided. But we did so in the knowledge that for at least one day, we had seen these Masters of our Fate as humans, their weaknesses exposed on a cricket pitch.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

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