I have no clue when exactly I got introduced to cricket. I try hard to recall my first memory of cricket. It must be having a light cream colored plastic bat and a red plastic ball. I still have a photo of mine holding that plastic bat, head still in deep concentration, stance as balanced as you could get. I wonder how I had learnt about the stance - considering that there was no television those days. How did I know that I had to place the bat just behind my toes? How was it that when you hit a straight drive, the elbow stayed parallel to the bat?
Television ensured that an interest turned into obsession. My earliest cricket memories are not pleasant. I remember the way Graham Gooch used to sweep the Indian spinners as though he was cleaning the pitch off the minutest dirt; of Javed Miandad hitting a last ball six; a joke of a batsman otherwise known as Mr. Maninder Singh getting out in the last ball against Australia when India needed just a run for a tie. I presume those were the matches that made me a pessimistic viewer. I still remember my dad waking me up at 2.00 in the night to catch the world cup matches live and the times I would gobble up lunch within 10 minutes and have enough time to catch up at least 6 overs at a classmate's home nearby before the school bell rang again.
Television also ensured that we understood the nitty-gritties of the game. Along with other nonsensical things of course. Like rotating your arms as you walk into the ground, jog a bit as you walk to the crease, stop the bowler for no reason as he starts running to bowl, go a few steps towards the leg umpire to take some deep breaths, walk back and dig the ground a couple of times and take stance. And of course, applying saliva to the ball (which did nothing to the rubber ball we used to play with, but used to annoy the orthodox elders enough to give a lecture on enjlu) The hats were a major craze then, the type Gavaskar used to wear. Cooling glasses were unheard of and applying face creams came into fashion only after Alan Donald. Other big thing, of course, was chewing gum.
The resume of any self-obsessed cricket loving kid of my times would be incomplete without the chewing gum. Anyone remember "Big Fun"? It used to have "runs" inside the pack. Ravi Shastri - 1 run, Vengsarkar - 4 runs, the excitement as we opened the wrapper was unbelievable. All we had to do was collect 200 runs and 10 wickets, stick them in a Big Fun Book and hand it over to the shopkeeper, who would give us the Big Fun gifts like bat(?) and a trivia book in return. Wickets were hard to come by, and the conversion rate as expected was 20 runs for 1 wicket. I was so fond of my runs and wickets that I never submitted them, even though the Big Fun gift book was so tempting.
A bunch of equally fanatic cricket loving classmates helped a great deal. In spare time, we would discuss on how the fingers have to be rolled on the ball to bowl leg spin or off spin, how to hold the wrist position which would generate an inswinger or an outswinger. We had our own share of urban legends - one I can think of is, if you are a right hander and try bowling a lot using your left hand, you will "lose" the "power" in your right hand to bowl fast. That was the time when we pronounced "gloves" which would sound like "blouse". And for a long time we did not know that it was "hit wicket" and not "witwicket" :D
This was also the time we got to know about the statistics.
That Kapil had 434 wickets, which was then overtaken by Hadlee. (Correction: That Hadlee had 431 wickets, which was overtaken by Kapil Dev) I was so obsessed with numbers, that I used to keep my statistics as well. It did not take me long to overtake both Kapil and Hadlee. We used to play during lunch breaks and just after school hours near a friend's home. On the exam days, it was cricket with small stones as ball and cardboard (used as support for the answer sheets) as bat. Missing the school to probably attend a wedding or such would mean a risk of classmates overtaking my records (Dont remember if anyone kept a track of their records, that I felt so threatened) I would make sure I gather some kids at the wedding, draw 3 lines of some wall, bowl them some unplayable balls made from paper and snatch a few wickets. The time I stopped counting, I had amassed over 4000 wickets.
Whenever we could not play near my friend's home, we used to play on the road in front of our home - which I now jokingly call the "domestic" cricket! If you have never played domestic cricket in your life, you would have missed a great deal of fun. There were players of all ages - kids who could never lift the bat, to middle aged persons. We used bricks as wickets. Not stacking the bricks, but just 3 bricks laid side by side. Whether you were bowled or not would depend on whether the ball passed over those bricks and at what heights. It was a gentleman's game and nobody took unfair advantage of invisible wickets. The biggest advantage of the brick wickets was that two wheelers could easily avoid by going either to the left or right of the bricks and the cars could pass with the left and right wheels on either side of the brick wickets. Later we started using electric pole as the wickets and a brick (or a stick balanced precariously between two bricks) formed the lone wicket at the bowler's end.
If you have to succeed in domestic cricket, its not just the bowling or batting skills that comes into picture, you need to be aware of the boundaries and limitations - like where the houses are situated, which glass panes are more vulnerable etc. If the ball fell into the bushes at the vacant sites or to the drainage next to the footpath, it was "1 run declared", even if it went past the boundary. If the ball went directly into the compound of any house, it was out! This was to discourage mindless hitting which was dangerous to the glass panes, in turn to the very existence of the game in that road. The compound did not belong to the umpire and it was considered not out. As you can see, the scoring options were limited - no pull shots, no cut shots, no sweep - just tuck and run, straight drives, cover drives. There was no six - a six was considered out, again to discourage mindless hitting. So you had to play well placed ground shots or well judged one bounce to the boundary fours to score maximum allowed runs.
The exposure to "domestic" cricket would help you appreciate why Indians are not complete cricketers. I can easily imagine the Bong uncle who might have never returned any ball that fell in his compound, which restricted Ganguly's God status to just the off side. A narrow lane in Chennai with a big open site on the on side must have made Robin Singh play every ball to the leg side.
My most prolific career was at my granny's place, where me, my brother and my cousin would play hours of cricket, even during my graduation days. We had an open space on the terrace which was about the size of a big room. And the rules were like this. If the ball is hit out on the first bounce, which means it goes down, the batsman is out. To make sure everyone gets a batting chance, it was "pitch catch out" (also called puta catch out in Kannada). This included ball hitting the wall and then catching directly also. Sometimes there would be as many as 5-6 fielders and some of them mighty good. Now, my cousin could bowl vicious legspin (I could never bowl legspin, so I settled being an offie) which would take the outside edge of the bat and go down, no matter how well you reached out to the ball and played with soft hands. So, I changed the tactic and started practising left handed. And learnt fierce cover drives and late cuts not to give any chance for a pitch catch. After playing like that for years, I lost the "power" in my right hand and now I cannot play right handed at all. I am now a left handed batsman - strong on the off side.
From the last few years though, playing domestic cricket has become a rarity. But, even now seeing young kids playing cricket on the road makes me immensely happy. I can see the glimpses of my childhood in them. Sometimes I take the bat from them, play a couple of flowing cover drives. I remember that line from Alejandro Inarritu's delightful "Amores Perros" - "We are also what we have lost"!