A Cricketing Passage to India: Watching and playing the national sport
“Woooosshhhh” goes the sound of the red painted tennis ball as it flies past my head. The laughter from the boys standing nearby, when I swing my arms round and try to hit the ball that has already passed me, is thunderous. Welcome to Indian cricket. Street style.
I had come to India to watch England play two Test matches and then, in an effort to gain an understanding of the country, to see a few of its sights. Street cricket wasn't on the agenda. But the sights, though beautiful, had left me empty and the freneticism of Indian life bewildered me. I needed to connect with India in another way, and found cricket was the answer.
You can forget the Taj Mahal anyway, if you are a fan of cricket. The sight you want to see is Eden Gardens, Kolkata; cricket’s answer to that great palace. I was there for the third Test against England and it was from the upper tier of the pavilion end that I could appreciate its splendour. The panorama of Kolkata lay before me, visible through a misty sunset, creating a spectacular backdrop for the serenity of the game itself, which England won easily.
Next stop was Nagpur. "Nagpur. Where is that?" Not even the travel expert in London giving me my jabs knew where it was. Having now visited I am not surprised. It is called the city of oranges on account of it being a major trader of the fruit. Unfortunately, I only saw one. And that was concrete.
I was here for the fourth Test, which, sadly, was as dull as the city itself. But the lack of visual treats meant that I sought more conversational ones. This came in the form of a steward called Rahul whose seat was beside mine for the full five days of the game. In-between him unsuccesfully preventing people drinking bottled water – an example of crazy Indian bureaucracy - we were able to discuss an array of topics. Subjects like the Indian approach to life (don’t worry, chicken curry), the installations of ATM’s (his job) and the best vegetarian restaurants in town (his uncle’s) all passed the time as England won the series.
After the Tests were over, I moved on to the golden triangle (Agra, Jaipur, and Delhi) to take in the sights. It was at one of these, Fatehpur Sikri Palace, in Agra, where I came across a group of boys playing cricket. With a cardboard box for a wicket, the foundations of an old fort as a boundary line and a pitch that resembled the surface of the moon, it was time for my first game of street cricket.
Regrettably, I never managed to get my bat to connect with the ball. I was never much of a batsman anyway. Unhappily, as it turns out, I am not much of a bowler either. My bowling was despatched around the ground by a boy not much bigger than the bat he carried. This was my cue to leave, using an old back injury - which flares up when humiliation is close - as an excuse to shake hands.
After spending a curious day in Jaipur being bullied by rickshaw drivers into visiting sights I didn't want to see, I craved more cricket. I now realised that only when watching or playing cricket did I feel a kinship with this perplexing country. I scoured the local papers. The only game nearby was in the Ranji Trophy, India’s domestic competition. Finding the ground involved talking to several rickshaw drivers who had made me so miserable the day before. They all assured me they knew the way. I plumped for a driver who “1000 percent knows this place.” He drove off confidently before doing a three-point turn and coming back to his starting point, albeit on the other side of the road, to ask other drivers for directions.
Having gladly arrived at the ground, it took a few seconds to sink in that this was actually a cricket stadium. It wasn’t like the Test match grounds I had seen or the, razzmatazz of the IPL grounds. My arrival was greeted with bewilderment from the spectators like the scene in American Werewolf in London when the American backpackers enter a Yorkshire country pub. My lack of Hindi and the rudimentary English of the crowd wasn’t important though. We all talked cricket. My knowledge of the nicknames of the Indian players (Sachin ‘Little Master’ Tendulkar, Rahul ‘The Wall’ Dravid) brought smiles and meant I spent a happy afternoon altering my negative thoughts of the city.
When I checked into my hotel in Mumbai I realised that when Pakistan are playing cricket in India, everything stops. I was shown to my hotel room, and four people were sat on my bed watching the end of the Twenty20 international. When I informed the manager I was told they were cleaning the room and was sent elsewhere to wait. Coincidentally, when the cricket finished, so did the cleaning, and the manager showed me back to my room with a smile and a “very clean now, sir."
It is at Mumbai, at the Oval Maidan, where hundreds of games crisscross with each other within a confined space in front of the High Court. This is where I had my encounter with the red tennis ball and my battle with the blessed thing wasn't over. I was determined to hit it at least once on this trip. With the laughter subsiding from my first attempt, the moment the next ball was bowled I ran after it and got a great contact, sending the ball skywards. As I turned round truimphantly to face the hysterical boys, another boy, who I thought was playing on a different pitch, caught the ball near the boundary. The laughter of the boys then reached a crescendo.
I didn’t mind though. Cricket had proved to be a way of joining in with a country that had mystified me. And with games to watch almost all-year round and street cricket everywhere; it is the perfect destination for any fan of the game. Just try to get some practice in before you leave.
The writer flew with Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com), which flies from Heathrow to Mumbai and Delhi.
Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com) operates the same routes.
Air India (0871 781 3706; airindia.in) operates the same routes.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (for Indian national team fixtures and domestic fixtures): Bcci.tv
The IPL (for T20 fixtures): Ipl20.com
A Five Point Guide to Street Cricket
1. Always keep your eyes on the ball (the pitches are awful so the ball will deviate from its path after it bounces).
2. Expect a high bounce (they will be using tennis balls).
3. Get to the pitch of the ball (to negate that dodgy bounce).
4. Make sure you know where the fielders are (this is especially useful at the Oval Maidan, as several games intermingle).
5. Play with a smile on your face (particularly if you are rubbish. It makes it look as though you are very casual about the whole thing).