January 27, 2015

The many crickets of an Indian boyhood

Growing up in India, you play a number of varieties of the game, each contributing to the development of certain skills

Tennis-ball cricket: ubiquitous in school yards, playgrounds and maidans across India © PA Photos

One of the joys of growing up in the India of the 1960s and '70s was the multiple forms of cricket played all around you. There was tennis-ball cricket, cork-ball cricket, French cricket, cricket played on matting wickets, turf cricket with a proper cricket ball, and a host of other forms - some of them possibly unique to India and owing to what one might call our context of scarcity and surplus of imagination. I'd like to ruminate on some of these forms and the special skills they necessitated and developed.

Tennis-ball cricket (though sometimes the ball in question was nothing more than a lowly rubber ball) was the predominant form in most playgrounds and schoolyards, especially among the younger lot. Given the sheer surfeit of players and the need to rotate strike as quickly as possible (everyone fancied himself a bastman, of course) you were out caught even after the first bounce. Batsmen - the good ones at any rate - rapidly figured out the virtues of playing with soft hands, placing the ball into gaps, and using their wrists to control the trajectory of the ball. You could hit the tennis ball a long way if you had the elusive kinaesthetic skill of timing and always hit with the wind and never into it.

As I heard foreign commentators rhapsodise on the wristiness of Indian batters like Azhar or Laxman or Vishy, I've often sent a silent thank you to those days of one-bounce tennis ball cricket that is probably to credit for overdeveloping those skills. As a bowler in tennis-ball cricket you quickly realised your best bet was to perfect the length and vary the pace ever so slightly. With all the tennis-ball cricket played by the youth of India, we should have been churning out metronomic bowlers in the Glenn McGrath mould.

The cork ball was the poor boy's cricket ball. It lasted forever and had the hardness of the real thing. On dusty playground tracks it offered bounce, and you could bowl both fast and spin with it. There was something funny about the cork ball's bounce: upon first hitting the ground it slowed down and sort of stood up, but after the second bounce it accelerated rapidly. As a fielder this meant you either stopped it right after the first bounce (or caught it before, of course) or you were in for a futile chase to the boundary as the cussed thing picked up speed with each bounce. As a batman, if you timed your shot well off the middle, the bounciness of cork ensured that you could hit it a long way. If you were a bowler, again length became your best weapon. Short balls, even by the faster bowlers, stood up and waited to be clobbered. The roughness of the cork ball offered spinners a lot - sometimes too much, as it were - making length crucial once again.

When you had no stumps, not even a wall on which to draw them with charcoal, and a postage stamp of a field, French cricket was your best bet. I have often wondered if this form of cricket is played anywhere at all outside India, and how it came by its strange name. Your legs are the stumps and if the ball hits you below the knees you are out. In some variants, the batsman cannot move his feet and has to dexterously play the ball behind his back even, when needed. Once you struck the ball away - and keeping it well away from you was the secret to success in the game - you scored runs by circling the bat around your midriff, with each circle counting as a run, until the next "delivery" came at you. This version required the least equipment of all (a bat and ball would suffice), and I remember school days where the hard clipboard on which we placed our exam answer papers served as bat and a balled-up wad of paper was the ball.

My first encounter with a matting wicket and a real leather cricket ball was also my education about the chasm that separated all other forms of cricket from the real thing, and the boys from the men. Possibly because of the mat itself, suddenly the distance between the bowler and batsman seemed to have shrunk greatly. Matting wickets offered pace and true bounce (especially if the turf below was hard and well-swept) and you had to judge the length instantly. Batsmen who could hook, pull and cut - all shots played above the waist - thrived on matting wickets, and physical courage was indispensable. It was a delight for bowlers too: the coir offered turn for the spinners, movement off the seam for faster bowlers, and bounce for everyone. And you could bowl a genuine bouncer - as distinct from a half-tracker that floated over the batter's head.

As I watch incredibly talented batsmen like Suresh Raina struggle against the short ball on fast and bouncy pitches, I've wondered if early exposure to a turf wicket, especially in India, isn't a tad underrated. A stint on coir matting might be the answer to Raina's woes. In fact, what if we required about half our domestic matches to be played on matting wickets? It would give our faster bowlers responsive tracks and teach them the virtues of bowling the right length, our batters a chance to get used to the short and sharp stuff, and even our fielders some much needed deep-slip catching practice. It would certainly better simulate conditions in Australia or England than bowling machines or throwdowns can. And it may even help India accomplish something that seems more distant than ever - win a Test series down under or in South Africa.

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu