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Growing Up in the 1990s: Cricket

Growing Up in the 1990s: Cricket
According to the author’s friend, one reason India never really played any other sport, is Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar © Getty Images

Growing up with cricket in the 1990s was different from what it is now. Hriday Ranjan takes a trip down memory lane to relive an era that remains only in our memories.

I have a friend who says that the one reason India never really played any other sport, is Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. The guy was so good, that he hijacked the imagination of an entire generation of children.

He said this after we grew up, of course. Because if he had said it back then, someone would have slit his throat; or worse, burnt his collection of Trump cards.

I don’t fully agree with what he said, but there is some truth in the fact that we were obsessed as a nation. And never again, in my opinion, will that level of obsession be replicated. For two reasons:

  1. There was hardly any other sport. Sania Mirza had not debuted yet, and Vishwanathan Anand would feature in Sportstar frequently, but we would skip the pages till we reached the interview with Venkatpathy Raju.
  2. Cable television had just been born, and unlike our earlier generation who depended on the papers and radio, we could actually watch our heroes in action; this catapulted even bored children into fanatic worshippers.

All this led to a nationwide obsession with one sport — cricket. Your knowledge of the sport surpassed any ranks you scored in class, and the lack of knowledge on cricket, or an interest in it, brought about a social leprosy that was cruel. I have had friends who didn’t like cricket too much complain to me about it. When they would tell people they didn’t really follow cricket, people would gasp, as if they had said that they have only one kidney; or no heart at all.

We played cricket at school, and then returned home to play some more cricket, and then played some cricket in our fantasies. It wasn’t surprising that cola companies would come up with lines like ‘Eat, sleep, breathe cricket’ to promote their unhealthy crap down our throats. Now, cricket in school was a civilised affair. The school provided the bat, the ball, and the stumps — thereby negating any favouritism or nepotism in the process. There would be a toss, and the game would be played in spirit of the game.

Or in the fear of the PT sir.

PT sir would be overseeing the action, and so everyone would behave themselves, which basically meant not reaching for each others’ throats at the slightest provocation. If the ball went out of the wall, we would all request passerby to throw us the ball, the bell would ring, and we would all go back to class, smelling like a bunch of obstinate buffaloes. It was a very civilised affair.

Not so civilised once school was over, though. Here, it was a Game of Thrones. You had to conquer a pitch, stake your claim over it by digging holes and drawing the crease. You had to build your army of soldiers, those who would be willing to sacrifice their home work to play a game with you. One of your army reached the ground early and put the stumps in place and dutifully waited for the others to arrive.

You played on the pitch, fighting among yourselves like hooligans. But once there was an external threat, you bonded like blood brothers to fight for your pitch. Finding a place to play was the major source of worry, especially with the bindaas lives that dogs and cows lead in our lives.

And cows came with their own set of worries: over-enthusiastic bulls who wanted you to learn Life Processes much earlier than your scheduled day of enlightenment. You scrounged the nooks and corners of the earth, to find that perfect spot to lay your stake on, and then drew the crease and put the stumps in place.

Of course, once your land was marked, and you had a thriving civilisation of cricket fanatics, your pitch would be the cynosure of evil preying eyes:

  1. The elder boys in your area, eyeing your pitch
  2. The college-going gang who just wanted a place where they could sit in a group and talk and laugh (basically the morons)
  3. Cows who wanted to sit in the middle of the pitch and ruminate on the larger questions of life. Who would choose exactly the middle of the pitch to drop a massive dump of dung, which is cow graffiti for “I was here”.

Unlike the cricket at school, playing cricket at home was a sordid affair. You fought for it with your life, and held it close to your heart. But the struggles didn’t end there. After you had vanquished the demons outside, you had to deal with the politics of your own army.

Every pack of kids playing cricket will be witness to three broad categories of players:

The Franchise Owners: The franchise owners would be the ones who owned the bat, and thus, the game in entirety. The owner of the bat wielded an enormous amount of clout in the scheme of things, considering that his possession – the bat – made the key difference between a set of boys playing cricket, and a set of boys hanging out with three sticks, one rock, and a rubber ball. The franchise owners generally called the shots in the game. And even when the merely defended the ball, they would call it an exquisite shot.

The Enthusiastic Gamers: These were the guys who would be instrumental in the day to day running of matters like the pitch and the space. These guys wouldn’t be great at the sport or anything, but made up for that with sheer enthusiasm. They would arrive first and leave last, and generally did the rounds, calling you out from your house when your mother was trying to stuff food inside you.

The Icon Players: Every league of gully cricket would have these icon players. These guys didn’t own the bat, but they owned the game. The franchise owners couldn’t do anything to these guys, thanks to the latter’s superior cricketing skills. Also, the Icon Players would be pivotal to things when challenged by other leagues to a cricket match. They had to be humoured; else they would drift away to another league.

Every gully cricket league had these three types of players, each of them ensuring that the game ran along smoothly. Of course, if you owned the bat, were enthusiastic, and were the icon player — well, there was no stopping you. You were the Lalit Modi of the league, and anyone who objected to your actions would be sent a 10,000-page reply, in four cartons. But the process did not end with securing the rights to the pitch. There was the other nitty-gritty to take care of.

Firstly, the ball: it is a well established fact that India is the only country where people play cricket with a tennis ball (Okay, may be Pakistan and Bangladesh too). But what is not mentioned is the number of tennis balls that were used to play cricket. When you are a younger child, it is always ‘Soft tennis’. Since there is more money in the league when you’re younger (since your parents are still trying to pamper the apple of their eyes), soft tennis balls are popular. They came in shiny, fluorescent yellow and had the name of the company written in bold black letters. A soft tennis ball would often provoke ridicule among the elders; the users of the Hard Tennis ball.

Quite simply, the Hard Tennis ball was a tennis ball that was hard. The ball itself had two colours, yellow-red, or yellow-pink. The market leader was ‘Vicky’, and to lose a Vicky hard tennis ball, was tantamount to banging your friend’s car into a tree. The hard tennis ball could hurt if you got hit on the nose, and care should be taken to avoid injuries. By batting all the time.

Third, and a poorer cousin of the tennis balls, were the rubber balls. They were simple rubber balls, the kinds that Dronacharya used to make Pandavas and Kauravas play with. Through all these years, it went through only one type of evolution. The makers had made the effort to add fake rubber stitches to make it seem like a cricket ball. The rubber ball was used when funds were really tight, since they came cheap.

On the flip side, they lasted for a maximum of three days, and if an Icon Player was knocking the ball around, it could crack in half. It was only much later, when your innocence was robbed off you by the Biology teacher, or the video rental store nearby, that you started playing with what was called as ‘Cork ball’.

Cork ball was made of some sort of synthetic cork material. It never broke, but did cause considerable damage to people’s noses. If parents got a whiff that the cricket was being played with a cork ball, there would be hell to pay. But the larger repercussions of using a cork ball were that the bats would crack.

You needed adult cricket bats for this. Not the ones that had a picture of Sachin Tendulkar, with the words — ‘For Tennis Ball Only’ written in small letters below. Setting up a new league entailed going through the grind each and every time.

And just when everything was set — you had a pitch, a bat, and a Vaanar Sena of your own. You found an ideal location for the stumps and drew the crease. The crease was measured by putting the bat on the floor and measuring it till the handle, and then adding the length of the handle only, to draw the final line. This line, of course, existed merely in the mind, as it would be erased, tampered with, and redrawn on numerous occasions through the game.

But for now, you had found an open space, and there were a few cows grazing in the distance, pretending they aren’t interested in your superhuman batting skills. But then, there would be other obstacles on your way. The ball would fall into the gutter, go into a house where a pissed off aunty wouldn’t return it to you, or God forbid, to a group of seniors who were playing at a distance. Now, I don’t know why, but if a ball goes into the pitch of seniors playing, they would

(a)      Hide the ball, or

(b)     Throw it in a drain, or

(c)      Throw it so far off that it would take half an hour to find it. When I was younger, I used to think the seniors near my house knew that we were better than them.

But when we grew up, I realised we did exactly the same thing. Perhaps it was a sign of growing up; of being tough on the streets; or something like that. But what did one do when the sun had set? When you couldn’t play cricket anymore because there would be drug pedlars who would give you chocolates and kidnap you and take out one of your kidneys?

You started playing cricket indoors; corridors, garages, houses, dormitories, everywhere. If there ever was a league of indoor cricket, India would kick Australia’s arse and become the king of the sport. Not only did we take our obsession with cricket indoors, we also enacted new rules that could be adapted to the change in scenario. Like the Hong Kong Super 6′s, indoor cricket had its own set of rules:

One-Tup-Out: Since you were playing indoors, you couldn’t dive around as you would normally in the ground. So the rule here was that if you caught the ball after it bounced ONCE, the batsman would still be declared out. One-Tup-Out required Bradmanesque skills if it was a small enclosure, and general public apathy towards the rule gave birth to the second rule.

One-Tup-One-Hand: This rule said that you could catch the ball after it bounced once, but to be fair to the batsman, you could only catch it with one hand. The One-Tup-One-Hand rule would have larger repercussions on real cricket much later, when rules like one bouncer per over were drafted in to benefit the batsmen.

Three-Miss-Out: This rule said that if you missed touching the ball with your bat on three deliveries, you could be ruled out. Critics have pointed out that this rule could be inspired from baseball, to which the makers of the rule nonchalantly pointed out that it was called ‘three miss’ and not ‘three strikes’, and hence it was merely an inspiration. Indoor cricket was great for afternoons, when elders either went to work or took a nap. It could be played without making much noise, and the only risk was breaking a few things in the house.

Indoor cricket, some would say, required a lesser amount of cricketing skills, and sometimes turned out to be more enjoyable than the game outdoor. Here, there was nobody picking on you, no need to put your hand in a drain, and the ball rarely got lost.

But what if you did not have access to a bat or ball at all? Like in school, when you were forced to study? Of course there would be a way out!

“The absence of a bat and ball do not stand as obstacles to the obsessed.” — Anonymous.

The chewing gum scene back then was just turning bright. For years, we chewed on Big Fun, simply because they gave cricket cards free with each pack. It was a different matter that the bubble gums themselves felt like scented tails of pigs. But we chewed on, since there was a cricket card to win. Somewhere along the line, came Center Fresh.

Center Fresh produced chewing gums that were actually enjoyable. For once, a chewing gum didn’t seem like the necessary penance to achieve something else. There was a nice jelly in the middle of the gum, but best of all — they provided cricket cards. Bright, colourful cards that had no spelling mistakes, factual errors, and the pictures were bright and clear.

Not like the Big Fun cards, that looked like the receipt of a weight checking machine at the railway station. Of course, there were the cricket cards that were available in the market. You could simply buy a pack and laugh at all those people who were chewing gum like maniacs to collect the entire pack.

Cricket cards of that era seemed to be frozen in time. I remember the numbers changing just twice in all the time I played with them. The statistics were pretty simple — Matches, Runs, Highest Score, Batting Average, Wickets, Bowling Average, Best Bowling; there were a few Trump Cards in the pack, but you could still beat a Wasim Akram card on the basis of batting, and a Mohammad Azharuddin card on the basis of bowling.

There was a sense of fairness and justice in the entire process. There were WWF cards too, but rumours had begun to float that the matches were all fake, and seniors at school would sometimes snigger if they saw you with WWF cards (or snatch them away, depending on their IQ). But since cricket cards were based on actual facts, and you could actually see the matches on TV, and read about them in print, they were considered holy. Possessing a good collection of cricket cards automatically meant that you social standing would shoot up; people would generally invite you to their discussions, hoping that you’d decide to bring out the cards.

However, cards came with their own set of risks. If you were caught playing cards in class, you were in trouble. The cards would sometimes be thrown away, or torn, or simply confiscated. Numerous trips to the Staff Room to find them would prove futile, and it would be the end of your prized collection. Also, some of us had spiritual parents, who thought that playing cricket cards is the gateway to more sinister habits, and we would grow up to be gamblers who would blow up all their hard earned money. Making cricket cards a considerable risk, on occasions.

What did one do if their cricket cards were taken away from them? Give up on cricket? Hell no! There would be other options, obviously. For those who had access to neither bat, nor cricket cards, there was Book Cricket.

I remember feeling grateful to the person who invented the game. It was an ingenious concept. You held a text book in your hand (preferably of the subject of the ongoing class), and opened a page randomly. You then looked at the page on the left. The last digit of the page number denoted your score. For example, if you opened page no. 54, your score for that delivery would be four. If you got a page that ended with zero, you were out.

While purists preferred the Test match method where every player was allowed to play ten batsmen, those with lesser patience opted for a limited number of book openings, and the total score was accumulated. Agreed, it did not set your pulse racing, nor did it come with ups and downs of playing a sport. But it could be played right in class. You needn’t even speak to each other, and if a teacher arrived, you would look like two kids looking at a text book and making notes.

After the Dronacharya Award and Arjuna Award, if the Government decides to award innovation in sports, probably name it the Ekalavya Award, then the inventor of Book Cricket should win it.

But teachers in our school eventually got a whiff of our nefarious activities. They probably saw a long list of numbers and wondered why the guy was practising basic addition in Class VII. But Book Cricket was busted too. And now with Book Cricket out of the question, was there anything else I could do?

How could I contain all the enthusiasm for cricket that was bubbling in my mind, threatening to spill out? I devised my own way. I realised that there was something that no one could take away from me. Something that was deep within me that only belonged to me. My dreams.

We would be asked to sit for hours at a stretch to meditate, and I had a tough time reining in my mind, that was running like a wild horse towards Raveena Tandon. I started daydreaming about cricket.

So when everyone would be asked to close their eyes and meditate, and I was done with my customary meditation for Raveena, I would start daydreaming about cricket. It would begin with me bumping into Debasis Mohanty randomly while playing cricket at the local Shahid Sporting Club: just a regular ‘Hi-bye’ sort of a meeting, not for me the falling over and taking pictures. I was cool. He would be talking to a group of (less knowledgeable) kids about cricket, when I would barge into the discussion and spell bind him with my vast and expansive knowledge of cricket.

We would strike an instant connection and sow the seeds of a deep friendship. Later that day, when he would bowl to me in the nets, he would be surprised to know that I was quite a talented batsman too, with my flowing drives and booming pulls over mid-wicket. Later he would call me to his house for lunch, as we would sit and discuss, like two brothers, everything from W.G. Grace, to why swing bowling needs to be promoted if we wanted to win more tours overseas.

This would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and when India would play a home series, he would write to my school asking for permission: permission for me to join him while he was preparing for the series. ‘He has got a deep understanding of cricket and we in the Indian team are of the opinion that we could benefit from his inputs, and together bring unending glory to the nation. Hence, we kindly request you to let him accompany us.’

Who would deny a letter written like that? Our Headmistress would let me go, and I would join the boys in preparing for the tour. I would have chats with them on specific tactics for specific bowlers (‘Sachin, you need to be a little careful while playing Cronje, he’s gotten you out a few times earlier).

I would also advice Javagal Srinath run in hard for the first few overs, since he was our best bet to take early wickets, and my friend Deba could come in as first change and look at causing further damage. Venkatapathy Raju, whom I never liked much, I would barely talk to.

I would spend hours in my dream land. When I would walk, I would be either practising a shot or doing my bowling action. At home, when I was asked to sweep the floor, I would practice some drives (was never really good with the sweep, only cowards play that shot). It reached a stage where I would be doing the bowling action even while walking for lunch, or coming out of the assembly. And so would a lot of other classmates of mine.

Finally, the class teacher announced that no one was allowed to do the bowling action. If anyone was found doing the bowling action, they would be banned from going to ‘Games’ on that day (she obviously knew little of the other methods we had devised). Once when I got caught doing the bowling action, I was tempted to explain that I was doing Shahid Afridi’s action, and technically it wasn’t really a bowling action, as his action had been called for scrutiny by the ICC. But better sense prevailed. I quietly accepted the slap on my cheek, did not show my other cheek, and left.

Cricket, you see, was not a game played on a ground, with a bat, ball and sticks.

Cricket was in the heart, the soul, in the blood running in our veins.

Cricket was in the mind.

(Based in Hyderabad, Hriday Ranjan blogs at http://heartranjan.wordpress.com/. His first book Xanadu Nights should be out shortly. His Twitter handle is @heartranjan)

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