August 20, 2013

Once upon a red-clay wicket

Learning the virtues of pitching it on a good length is easy when you end up breaking light fixtures every time you don't

Playing on improvised pitches teaches you priceless lessons in the art of the game © India Today Group/Getty Images

I remember when there were rough, unruly chips of laterite that jutted out from the red clay across a portion of our front yard. Mindless of the occasional uncertainties of bounce, we used to play cricket, lovely, carefree cricket, on them.

There used to be a bamboo gate that opened out to furnish us with the most splendid cricket pitch and run-up you could imagine. Half of our pitch was tarred - not very uniformly tarred. This tarred bit blended almost inconspicuously into the faded yellow cement flooring of our front porch, around mid-pitch. The other half was hard red chip and clay, which eventually lost out in the battle of attrition with rain and tennis and rubber balls bowled with rare energy. By the time we all had reached the ripe old age of seven or eight, this half had thus gradually eroded and settled into a nice, fairly even patch of earth. We bowled only from the tarred end as the bounce off the slightly haphazard tar was far too unpredictable, even by our fairly flexible standards, to be used for batting. The bamboo gate served as the straight boundary, and our run-ups started beyond the boundary. Never did any of this strike us as particularly odd.

The mid-pitch porch floor formed a negligibly small incline with the patch of clay, noticeable only to the discerning eyes of the better bowlers amongst us. Sometimes we pitched the ball unerringly on this innocent little incline and smiled in disdain as the ball skidded bouncelessly along the ground beneath the flailing willows of hapless batsmen. With more than a touch of arrogance, we called this deadly ball the yorker. Our sprightly young minds, brought up on a surfeit of Joel Garner yorkers equated anything that snuck beneath a helpless bat and spreadeagled the stumps with those famous balls.

At our parochial best, these days we like to remind ourselves that we had a slope, albeit one that sloped toward the batsman and even had a Nursery end, there being a nursery (school) past where the keeper stood. Okay, we couldn't bowl from the Nursery end, but at least, I suppose you could say, unlike poor Thomas (Lord), we didn't have to go looking for our Lord's. But I digress slightly.

Our pitch was very much a didactic old one, teaching you priceless lessons in the art of cricket. The porch roof was strategically placed, at just the right height, forcing you to pitch them on or around good length, unless you wanted to bowl our "yorker". Thus, most of us, by the time we were lively young devils of ten or so, considered ourselves past masters of good, tight line-and-length bowling. Those of us who weren't quite so adept broke the shade of the bulb (and then the bulb itself) that hung down tantalisingly from the centre of the porch roof. Even now I wince at the thought of the bulb when I bowl a few over-pitched ones.

Red brick flowerpots that lined the pitch, which would most certainly have stood the test of time and many a heavy monsoon rain, knew not what hit them as cracking cover drives picked up speed on the soft earth. Much to my mother's dismay, scattered shards were frequently all that remained of her favourite plants. Not to be denied, however, we ploughed on inexorably in search of cricketing excellence.

Our on-side play was severely restricted by the presence of the house itself, with a few irritating windows to boot. It was also decided on general consensus that we wouldn't have runs behind the wicket - a fence and a few bigger trees proving insuperable obstacles, even to the young mind. No wonder most of us who learnt our cricket on this stately strip are such good front-of-the-wicket off-side players (or so we claim). For a while, every time I played a spanking off drive, I remembered the tiny gap between the ochre-red pillar on which the porch roof rested and a sandalwood tree that, sadly, some desperate soul took his saw to, a dozen or so years ago. The few times we let ourselves loose on the leg side, we left indelible marks of the red soil on the walls of the house. As a result of which, I used to try making myself scarce when the painters came along.

Square cuts were an inexhaustible source of runs, as there was a welcome clearing between two hibiscus plants about where point would be. We learnt to pick this gap without fail as we matured in cricketing terms. Some of the more adventurous among us even ventured to bat left-handed and pull excitingly through this small open space. As our young bodies grew and put on muscle, the boundaries had to be pushed back a metre or two. The imposing compound wall of the house in front now became the cover boundary and was peppered by intrepid lofted cover drives.

Most of us young scamps who played on this pitch were about the same age. But as always, there was this one older boy for whom slightly different rules had to be laid down. Hurried parleys between us younger ones resulted in an absolute peach of an idea, or so we thought then. This latter-day WG Grace was to be given out even if he were caught beyond the boundaries, and unlike the Doc would have done perhaps, he agreed to this hurriedly devised formula. And so the optimists among us were positioned at shrewdly thought-out points; for instance, one behind the wall that served as the cover fence, and another beyond the straight boundary.

Since the splendid wall at cover was on a slightly elevated piece of land, as compared to the batting strip, the bowler could barely see some of his comrades on the field. Often he just about caught an unkempt mop of hair bobbing about animatedly out of the corner of his eye as he rushed in to bowl. The fielder was, however, at an advantage since he was on a higher piece of turf. He also had a metal gate over which he could watch the batsman and plan his moves accordingly.

Late one evening I was one of the fielders behind where the bamboo gate opened out, right behind the bowler's arm, when the senior worthy smashed back an imperious straight drive that hit me plumb in the midriff. The ball rolled slowly down to settle nicely between my knees as I bent over. Untouched by concepts of serendipity as yet, my fresh young cricketing mind dwelt on this dismissal many a time that summer.

A few months later that year, I happened to get my hands on Great Moments in Indian Cricket, by Partab Ramchand. A particular passage caught my eye. It described Neil Harvey turning his back as Nari Contractor went into a full-blooded pull, and the ball lodging between his knees. People in the know say I was occasionally seen walking around with a silly smile plastered all over my face around the time. Maybe, I think now, I owe them an explanation, or two.