July 25, 2014

Losing to India

An Englishman discovers cricket fervour in India, and realises he can't quite win a game against Indians back home either

You'd be hard-pressed to find a rank bowler or a player who can't hold a bat on India's maidans © AFP

It was a perfect English afternoon for cricket. There was rhubarb crumble cooling on the tea table in the pavilion, the green hills of Chalke Valley blazed under a cloudless sky, and a local enthusiast had parked his convertible by the boundary edge and turned up Test Match Special so we could follow the final day at Lord's.

Alas, as we heard on the airwaves of the England wickets falling, so did the Authors wickets tumble in our game against Osians, a touring team from Mumbai who were also experiencing the joy of beating Englishmen on English soil.

The Wiltshire track wasn't quite pacy enough for us to regularly hook to the midwicket fielders, but the Indian visitors soon discovered that our inability to move out of the crease without missing the ball was our Achilles heel - unlike the national side, whose Achilles heel was actually Matt Prior's heel. We stuttered and spluttered before setting a measly total, and shortly after demolishing that rhubarb crumble the Osians' batsmen demolished our target.

Not that I was surprised at the result.

On my first trip to India, nearly ten years ago, I'd arrived at Mumbai airport with barely more than my backpack and a Lonely Planet. I'd have been better off packing a cricket bat. From the morning I woke up, already ill, cricket would be my guide. My experiment with street food had ended with me curled on the floor of the hotel toilet, and for three days I couldn't move from the foetal position. Thankfully, India were playing a Test match, and the soothing commentary of Sunil Gavaskar, along with the mint-green light of the outfield flickering from the TV screen, nursed me back to health. Well, at least be able to stand up and walk to the Azad Maidan park, home to over 20 cricket grounds, each outfield overlapping, so that any shot fired from one game is live round into another - not that this put off the hundreds of men and boys trying to emulate the 664 record stand shared by a young Sachin Tendulkar.

Despite dehydration and stomach cramps, I walked up to a game and asked if I could bowl. I wasn't expecting to finish the over, or to be asked to join the match, and then to bat, but the moment I pitched that first ball I transformed from a foreign tourist into a fellow cricketer.

In my four months of travelling around India, I played nearly every day. I played on a litter-strewn waste ground with bats cut from tree bark. Games by runnels of sewage with balls of tape. Players invited me to weddings and funerals. The magnanimous host of cricket welcomed me into all castes, and I ate in grand colonial houses, in twee stone cottages perched above tea estates, and in desperate slums.

And I never faced a rank bowler, or a player who couldn't hold a bat. There were games I joined where young men crippled by polio sent down ripping legspin, games where malnourished boys still had the fight to bat and bowl all day.

Although I was supposed to be in India to work on my first novel, cricket fervour was a contagious fever. The day after finding a cheap hotel by the sea in Kovalam, I took a rickshaw to the local sports shop and bought a set of stumps and bails. With teams made up of dishwashers and porters from the cafes and restaurants lining the shore, we woke at dawn and played frenetic games in the surf on a wet sand wicket smoothed by the Arabian Sea. One of the quickest bowlers I've ever faced was a tandoori chef built like a circus strongman who loved nothing more than to tear in and leave scarlet bruises on the body of a pale Englishman. If he were plying his skills in England he'd have been on the verge of professional cricket, not baking naan bread.

So in 2013, when the Authors, a team of middle-aged writers with boyhood fantasises of being professional cricketers still intact, toured Mumbai and Rajasthan, my knowledge of what was to come was sobering - a handy tonic, considering the bottles of Kingfisher beer. We played on a mud-baked track in an air base, on a Rajasthan Royals outground against Sreesanth and IPL squad members, and on coconut matting in the desert. And we lost every game, including a match under lights against the Osians, the very same side now fielding on the verdant pastures of Wiltshire, "Our conditions", as we had rallied ourselves in the pre-match team talk.

However, like England discovered on a grass-topped wicket in St John's Wood, "our conditions" were quite suitable for Indian abilities. With fluid, shot-playing batting, along with dead-eye spinners and opening bowlers who were well aware of what happens if one side of the ball is shinier than the other - see Ishant Sharma for details - the tourists outclassed the hosts, in both internationals last Monday afternoon.

As the tired egg-and-bacon brigade trudged out of Lord's, the sun set glowing on the emerald hills of Chalke Valley. Some of our Indian victors ambled around in flip-flops, taking photos of the wooden pavilion and the rusting tractor, while others still had the verve and zest to bat and bowl in the nets.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky, was nominated for the IMPAC literary award