I grew up in a family where first came cricket, then Allah, then the Prophet and then his holy book. My father opened the batting for Surat Bohras in the '40s. Sixty years after he was last seen in Surat, an eminent Mumbai lawyer would still recall my father's off drive as "chaapka" (Gujarati for whiplash). Wore dentures through life after he missed a short-pitched delivery. Was the honorary factotum for the local Bohra team. Batted for his side until he was 55. Invited serious players from Surat to take 40-hour trains to play needle matches in Calcutta, and when a tailender from the visiting team took long to emerge from the pavilion, he would paraphrase a line from the Moharram sermon describing the poignantly lopsided battle of Karbala: "Havey tamaara ma si koi ladnaar baaki chhey?" ("Any warriors left in your army?"). The spectators would simply hold their ample Bohri bellies and double up. Described his association with the game in one word: khidmat (religious service).
The rest of the Dawoodi Bohra community, of which I am a speck, was as crazy. The members would institute 12-team cricket tournaments in winter, incestuously only among themselves. Scratch out their Sunday mornings for three months at a stretch with the words "Shield match", which meant that social functions ran the danger of going largely unattended. Placed red flags marking the boundary line on a ground concurrently shared by 33 other teams. Attracted a community crowd of 2000 (women 1000!). Would organise paid thaal lunches on the maidan after the match.
Players would be fed chicken soup for "strength". Matches would be followed by dinner get-togethers where performances would be dissected ("Bhai Taher, tamaaro catch to halvo hatho", or "Brother Taher, your catch was utterly simple"). Families belonging to rival teams would contemplate whether it would be ethical to inter-marry. Someone wearing black sneakers to the match would be dispatched home with a raised eyebrow. Anyone who walked in to bat without the willow in hand would inspire the shouted rebuke of "Saalo naalayak!" (Worthless fellow!) before being presented to a disciplinary committee. Umpires wore coats and black trousers. Scorers came in white, armed with a red handkerchief to acknowledge the umpire's signals. Batsmen played, prayed at lunch and played again. The local priest (aamil) would attend and occasionally be invited to bat a ceremonial delivery while everyone smiled at each other and applauded.
One of our Bohri elders said that his ambition was to beat CK Nayudu's record of playing competitive cricket into the early seventies. Peer pressure was not how much money one would make. It was, "Will you be able to score 25 and save the team when you grow up?" Ladies debated batting orders; some wept when their teams lost. When one shouted to her husband, "Mohammed, tu dil par naa lejey!" (Mohammed, don't take it to heart) after he had dropped a catch, it became a line that other teams mimicked. The Sindhis, Gujaratis and Marwaris, who shared the maidan alongside us, said: "We hit bigger sixes than you guys but the only one who comes to watch us is the damn nimbupani wala [lemonade seller]."
And all this because cricket wasn't just a game for us. In our Calcutta Bohra community of the '50s, '60s and '70s, it was our social identity. When any Bohri migrant came to Calcutta to seek a living, four questions would be asked: "Which gaam (village) are you from? Whose dikra (son) are you? Where are you working? What do you do - bat or bowl?" Character was not whether you were a dullard, drunkard or delinquent, but whether you could middle the ball. And anyone who broke code and disrespected the game was sending out an important Morse of what he was: a "nakkaamo" (worthless). Better be wary of lending him money or marrying him to one of the daughters.
SO IT WASN'T SURPRISING that I grew up to the smell of linseed oil. Ran errands for the adult cricket team. Tied the hankie around strapless pads when batsmen kitted out. Took water to fielders. Carried the peti (kit trunk). Changed scores every over. Played on the street, chaali (landing), hall and maidan. Fasted and played in summer. Was presented with an imported Autograph bat by a well-wisher after hitting an unbeaten 24. Organised night street tournaments. Wrote on the game for a living. Built a large-ish cricket library. Collected memorabilia. Toured with the Indian cricket team as a journalist. Authored four cricket books. Made a cricket film.
And then suddenly it was over. The army built a hideous memorial to the dead of the 1971 war on our patch of the maidan. The community now didn't have a ground to play on and watched Sunday morning television instead. Meanwhile, I too began to research stocks and drifted from professional cricket writing. Mothballed the bat. The family started sleeping through weekends. Cricket discussions were sidestepped; the game was only read about. There was now nothing in life to really call an "achievement", not even a bank balance, because it couldn't be placed between square leg and wicketkeeper for an appreciating assembly to say: "Just like Mushtaq Ali."
And just when all the good things in life were in the past tense, I received a call one evening from the owner of one of Kolkata's largest printing presses, CDC: "Khelogey?" (Will you play?) This was an invitation from him to join his band of Rotarian cricketers. Me? I hadn't fingered an abdomen guard in 16 years. He put me at ease: we play for fun; our average age is 40.
One part of me said "Chhor yaar!" (Forget it). Another said, "Humour yourself." One part of me said, "Can't become younger!" Another said, "Just try." One part of me said, "What if you break a bone?" Another said, "It will heal." One part of me said, "You won't be able to see the new ball." Another said, "Reflexes can sharpen."
So at 47, two years ago, I returned, white-haired, to my mistress after 16 years. I now play cricket four days a week. Sometimes we play the 6.30am game, finish at 9.35am, do a Schumacher on our way home, shower, skip breakfast and are at the office by 10.15 as if nothing had happened. We can generally buy any Mongoose we fancy, we can fly to most locations to play matches and get back to our desks by Monday morning, we can organise multi-team tournaments in Kolkata and send out invites all across the subcontinent, we can hire a bowling machine for an hour if we feel the on drive needs to be strengthened. Our problems are those that money cannot buy: the younger lot in our team wants us to induct more of their age so that we can win for a change; the older ones feel that we are engaged in the pioneering exercise of building a unique geriatric playing community.
And despite an ongoing dilemma about whether we are a social group masquerading as cricketers or a team of cricketers with a social personality, we have evolved into a team that can dip into its pocket and make the world a better place. Two years ago we cleared 70,000 sq ft of weeded overgrowth on Kolkata's sprawling maidan with a hired payloader bang opposite ITC Limited (within a week, boys had descended on the patch to play their cup matches). Later, we planted 36 foxtail palms on the fringe so that all those who drove on Chowringhee could savour the view (35 survived). We took our team to play competitive cricket in one of Calcutta's largest correction homes (no longer called jails) with a team that contained six lifers, which was our way of connecting with people in for the long haul. When we took our team to play Kashmir's cricketers this November, we presented a customised ambulance to diagnose underprivileged Kashmiri sufferers from cataract, and we flew in two cataract surgeons to operate on 41 Kashmiris who could not afford it.
One of these days we will be listed as an endangered species. In the good old days there would be a number of geriatric teams to play with, but there is no other 40-plus team that plays cricket competitively in Kolkata any more. Most play into their late twenties, but once they land a job or get a promotion or GDP growth crosses 8.5%, they apply for long-term leaves of absence, retire and become expert critics instead.
Social analysts think they have it figured out: an increasing proportion of the population is accustomed to air-conditioning and does not want to risk the tropical sun. People work on Saturdays in most places. Indians are largely overweight, with a growing tendency to be arthritic. Once an Indian makes money, he tends to look down on egalitarian pursuits like cricket and up at social passports like golf. The weekly grind of commute-con calls-competition takes so much of the juice out of living that our exec would rather sleep through the weekend. And in the last decade, the gap in competence between the 20-year-old and the 30-year-old has widened so significantly that only masochists dare continue.
So it is not that our wives have not hinted that we Rotarians should hand in the scoresheet. I have only to present my case to those of my team who are in the danger of being persuaded: following my reincarnation, the paunch has ebbed. Play 29-year-old fast bowlers on the front foot. Now keep wickets to quick spinners, standing up. Hit the first straight six of my life. Scored an unbeaten 42. Restored my son's respect among his friends. Recovered my self-esteem.
There is a lesson in this for all of us. If we could get those jockstraps out, sweet-talk other geriatrics out of the closet, travel to where we can find peer sides, call meetings where we discuss field placements instead of market share, pant our way through the quick single and then cry "No!" when the non-striker suggests a second, take half a day off to be at a match without guilt, and laugh our way through games even after we have been thrashed, then this middle-aged cricket thing might be just the antidote for a world overrun by pessimists and insolvents.
Should you need to play our team of Kolkata-based Rotarians, wherever you may be in the world, send me an email