Wisden Asia Cricket

June 2005: Column

The Lutyens Variant

Four stumps, pad, bat, ball, and you're good to go. By Mukul Kesavan

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I speak for no one but the boys I played with 40 years ago. The cricket we played each afternoon in Pandara Park wasn't the authorised version but nor was it authentically local. It wasn't representative of neighbourhood cricket in India, or even Delhi. It was the kind of cricket boys played in government colonies, localities where civil servants and their children lived. These neighbourhoods were concentrated in the city the British built to serve as colonial India's capital, so I suppose our take on the game could reasonably be called the Lutyens Variant.

This wasn't cricket as played on the maidans of Bombay or Calcutta. New Delhi wasn't a high-density metropolis where a public green like Shivaji Park was shared out between a hundred games. New Delhi was a capitol town and Pandara Park was an expansively built colony, laid out at a time when space was no consideration. When we moved into the double-storeyed house that my father had been assigned ('allotted' was the official term), my brother and I had a choice of two parks large enough to play cricket in. Pandara Park's 100 or so semi-detached houses were built around these flat, grassed-over, hedged-in greens that were made for cricket. Some perversely placed trees, mainly neem, kept them from being perfect playing fields, and ugly flowerbeds crammed with red cannas were natural ball-traps, but we were privileged children: we never had to play more than one game per ground.

Every day in the mid-sixties at four in the afternoon (4.30 in summer), a dozen children converged on the triangular park (because it was larger than the round one at its wide end) carrying between them four stumps, a bat, a ball, and sometimes, gloves and pads. The gloves and pads depended on the P_____ boy.

Since the basic action of the game could occur without protective gear - boy bowls to boy with bat - our salaried, seniority-rich, cash-poor parents weren't keen to spring for extras. Even stumps. It was technically possible to mark a wicket on a tree and bowl to it from 22 paces but the tree's emerging root structure meant you had to stand yards in front to get predictable bounce. But between half-a-dozen sets of parents senior enough to be entitled to Pandara Park housing, we could generally raise four stumps. Nobody had six - that would have been showing off because we needed just one to mark the bowler's end, and if the batsman was short of the bowler's crease, breaking the wicket at the other end counted as a run-out. All the stumps we ever used then had their business ends shod in wicked pointy metal, the better to drive them into the ground with. I never saw a set that ended in blunt wooden points.

The P______ boy had political parents so he owned a proper kit: pads, gloves, six stumps, keeper's gloves, even four separate bails! He was fat and couldn't play at all, but he was biddable and content to stand by the hedge at the edge of the action in return for the use of his property. He didn't come out to play every day, though, which was inconvenient and strange. Sometimes servants would be sent to call him in before the evening was done, and that was really disruptive because we had to take his stuff off and give it to him in the middle of play.

But things got better and by the time we were teenagers we had pads and gloves of our own. But no one wore two pads even when two were available. Their straps cut into the skin of those who wore shorts (and most of us did), they were so wide across the knee that they rubbed together and twisted round and made us waddle between wickets like we had a dhobi itch. Common practice was to wear one on the leg facing the bowler. This allowed us to rehearse the rudiments of technique, like getting in line or playing forward, because without pads on pitches with uncertain bounce, the first order of business as a batsman was to keep both shins outside the line of the ball. Nobody took guard in colony cricket, but I used to station my feet a few inches outside leg stump and my first instinct was to slide my left foot towards midwicket, so when the ball arrived I could take a swing at it without risking injury. We had been taught by pain a simple cricketing truth: you couldn't do bat-and-pad without pad.

Our wickets were often longer than the official 22 yards. We would walk 22 paces as an approximate measure, and because we were children, we over-compensated by taking big steps. Conversely the depth of the crease was less than it should have been. It was measured by laying the bat perpendicular to the line of the stumps and then adding the length of the bat handle to the length of the bat. Since our bats were less than full size, our creases tended to be shallow.

Bats tended to be small because they were the most expensive part of cricket kit and had to be kept going a long time. The small bat and the absence of protection together produced the Mohalla Stance. This was an open, two-eyed stance, the left shoulder pointing towards midwicket, the bat grounded between the batsman's feet as he stood crouched in a near-squat to fit himself around his tiny instrument. Not everyone stood in this way, but the low stance was a useful height from which to jam down on the surra, or shooter, which, given the surfaces we played on, arrived every over. When the ball bounced, the open stance was a good preliminary position from which to play the cross-batted swipe or lappa.

The etymology of 'lappa' is uncertain. I've always thought (and still do) that it's taken from colloquial Hindustani and related to words like lappeybaaz (a person, like Shahid Afridi, given to lappas). But I was recently confounded by the entry for 'lap' in Michael Rundell's Dictionary of Cricket: "lap n 1 a cross-batted stroke - somewhat like a pull - played especially to a ball pitching on or outside off stump and sending it into the area between mid-wicket and square leg."

I couldn't have come up with a better definition in English for a lappa if I tried, so I've decided that this English use of lap must be a colonial derivation from the Hindustani lappa. Notice that this definition of 'lap' in a book published 20 years ago is different from the current use of 'lap', which generally refers to the paddle sweep favoured by batsmen like Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar, as in, "... he lapped it very fine between keeper and leg slip".

As an adult, I think of the ball as the most beautiful object in cricket - the polished red leather, the seam, the way it can be worked and twirled, the perfect size of it - but for us as children, the fetish object was unquestionably the bat. There was a ritual attached to it. New, it had to be seasoned with linseed oil for two or three weeks before it could be used. We had no idea what the oil did, except turn the unmarked off-white of the bat-face piss-yellow. I oiled reverently: what I hated doing was the other part of breaking the bat in - pounding it with a ball, because this disfigured the brand new bat-face with red blotches. My understanding was that the pounding got the new bat used to the rigours of impact. I think we thought of bats as inert in some ways, but living creatures that had to be treated gently and not rushed into experience. I say this because there was another kind of bat, which we treated like a dead thing, like an instrument merely: the parchment bat. This was a ready-to-use bat that didn't have to be seasoned: it came with its blade wrapped at intervals in three-inch wide bands of thread and the whole sheathed in a thick membrane. The only reasons to buy it (besides the labour saved on seasoning) were that it was cheaper than a willow bat and seen as more durable because the membrane (probably some kind of intestinal skin) and the bands of thread kept its blade from chipping. But no one bought parchment bats if they could help it, because they were hideous to look at and, more importantly, had no 'stroke'.

A bat's 'stroke' was a compound quality made up equally of the feel of its sweet spot and the way the ball travelled on impact. Bad bats - and parchment bats were the worst - had no 'stroke' at all: all the batsman felt when ball struck bat was a jarring shock that travelled up the arm, and the ball just didn't 'go'. The good bat produced a low, cushiony thunk when the ball was middled, and the ball flew.

Most bats were used well past the time they began to go at the splice: it was common to see a batsman, in between deliveries, holding the bat in front of him, face down, and shaking it hard to test the extent of give. Quikfix was always used to join a dislocated splice. It never worked but we had to try.

There was, generally, just one good bat in the neighbourhood; the bat the non-striker carried was basically for show and because it was strange to run between wickets empty-handed. Every time a single was taken, the batsmen met mid-pitch to exchange bats. This was generally prefaced by gently slapping bat faces in solidarity, a sort of pre-modern high-five. All batting occurred at one end, the one with three stumps, and if a batsman ran a single off the last ball, he walked back to the batting end to take strike.

The order of play was settled in two ways, depending on turnout. If there were upwards of 10 players present, we played teams. The two best players would be nominated captains and they would select players alternately from the talent available. It was embarrassing being left till last, but the consolation was that selection was guaranteed. When the turnout was too small to make up teams - say, a small, uneven number like seven, the batting order was settled by 'numbering': one boy stood behind another and signed numbers from one to seven by holding up his fingers; the boy in front allotted each mimed number, without knowing what it was, to the assembled batsmen (batting was all we were interested in; no one ever fought for a turn to bowl).

The turnout also determined rules for run-making. There were never enough players, specially in the two-teams version, to field behind the wicket, so batsmen were seldom allowed to run for shots placed backward of square on either side. No one wasted any time practising the cut or the glance. For years I imagined that the cut was an involuntary or voluntary edge that slid through slips; only much later did I learn that it was a stroke played with the face of the bat. (I also thought, for purely phonetic reasons, that lbw was lpw and sightscreen was sidescreen. Like an illiterate I knew what the sound signified without knowing how it was written). When the attendance was specially poor, on-side runs were banned as well. Hedges and ball-obscuring flowerbeds were dead zones: if the ball got lost in them, batsmen stopped running.

There were two other iron rules not found in the laws of cricket. 1) Double-touch was out. If your bat touched the ball twice, either unwittingly or to keep it from trickling onto the stumps, you were out. And 2) the idiot law which laid down that when one of a team's last pair of batsmen was out, the innings was over, had no traction in neighbourhood cricket. Last Man Batting was an iron law. The last wicket in Pandara Park really was the last wicket, not a weaselling description of the second-last wicket.

The interesting thing about Pandara Park cricket was that it existed in itself. Nothing depended on it and it led to nothing: it was as purely recreational as a game could get. It was part of no league, for example. Bangalore had a many-tiered league, as did Bombay. Delhi had some club cricket but its government colony babalog lived and played within the bounds of the neighbourhood. Very occasionally there'd be a Sunday match against some similar sarkari locality nearby, but whole seasons could pass without such a contest. The ambitious, talented ones developed their skills through other institutions: either school cricket or by joining the coaching class at the nearby National Stadium.

Neighbourhood cricket depended on our enthusiasm for the game and our membership, courtesy our parents, of Pandara Park. There was a lovely purity about that informal immersion in cricket, that unconditional pleasure in each other's company and the game itself. Time and distance and nostalgia make it shimmer like some amateur Eden. But it wasn't that. Tangavelu, who was my age and lived in Pandara Park and loved cricket, didn't play with us in the triangular park because he lived in our servants' quarters. There were two servants' quarters to every house and there was no shortage of the servant young. They didn't play cricket in the park, not even at inconvenient hours when the bona fide children of the neighbourhood weren't using it. Like all amateur idylls, Pandara Park cricket was based on a rule of exclusion. Still, it's hard not to love it looking back because it was ours and there was joy in those afternoons and that was the world as we were given it in New Delhi in the sixties. These would be better memories, though, if I could remember asking Tangavelu to play.

Mukul Kesavan is an essayist and novelist based in New Delhi

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Mukul Kesavan teaches social history for a living and writes fiction when he can - he is the author of a novel, Looking Through Glass. He's keen on the game but in a non-playing way. With a top score of 14 in neighbourhood cricket and a lively distaste for fast bowling, his credentials for writing about the game are founded on a spectatorial axiom: distance brings perspective. Kesavan's book of cricket - Men in Whitewas published in 2007.
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