Ah, open books!    Getty Images
Ah, open books! Getty Images

It is a curious sport, cricket. Despite the fact that you know you will never make it big, you still go to bed with dreams of walking down The Long Room. I wonder what forced me to drag a bat to play with my friends every day. Yes, I was one of those with a 95-rupee SS bat (how, why do I remember the amount?). No, I never abused the privilege.

We played Eight8 cricket long before the advent of Twenty20 (what option did you have with five players a side?). This also means we played multiple matches a day, typically with reshuffled sides. This, in turn, meant that nobody remembered what happened in the matches the day before.

The best batsmen were also the best bowlers (and best fielders who kept wickets as well), while the others made up the numbers. I used to belong to the middle level. In other words, I sometimes got a 20 or took 2 wickets, or perhaps stopped a scorching dive, but not too frequently.

It was not that we managed to acquire a corner in the park: we lost the one-sided battles of territorial supremacy every time. We were restricted to a gully an alley, a street with a tennis ball (called a cambis ball in Kolkata); and several of our rules were made up.

Looking back, I still wonder what pushed me to join the gang every afternoon. But then, others did the same…

But this is not about outdoor cricket. This is what we did when it rained.

You cannot play cricket in rain, not even tennis-ball cricket. That is sacrilege. You can however, play football, but would that not been too anticlimactic?

So we I resorted to several curious adaptations of cricket. As is true with most houses in most big Indian cities, there was little space for actual physical cricket. So we had to adapt for alternatives.

Booking and dicing

The first of these was book-cricket. This is the easiest of all to understand. Take a book and open it to any random page and look at the last digit of the number on the page on the left. 2, 4, or 6 would give you as many runs; 8 would yield 1; and 0 would get you out. Whether you want to play one versus one or eleven versus eleven is up to you.

Of course, this was more in vogue inside classrooms. In fact, book-cricket attained such popularity that we did not hesitate to play even when the teacher was at his/her business provided, of course, we were on the last bench. There was no shortage of books, you see.

This is more serious than it sounds: score-sheets were maintained, and even leagues were run.

Obviously, this led to tampering books to make a particular page (obviously, marked a 6) a standout. This was done trickily: the page was pulled so slightly that you could feel it, but you had to make sure that it was not overdone.

So laws were introduced: you would be given out if the same page was opened thrice in succession. So they marked multiple 6s throughout the book.

The authorities added another law, perhaps the finest in the illustrious history of book-cricket: you had to play with your opposition s book. So they started marking out the 0s…

A variant, probably an invention of mine, involved a die. You basically tossed the die and go the same way as book-cricket. You would be given out if it was a 5.

Given that our lives were mostly confined between home and school (and gully cricket, if I may remind), we had never really mastered the lost art of die-tampering. We probably lacked the talent or intent or both of Shakuni.

The matches were expected to be slightly more high-scoring, since the probability of anyone getting out at any given ball had dipped from 1/5 to 1/6. Unfortunately, there was no tampering, and hence no flurry of sixes…

Unfortunately, dice-cricket never took off. Lack of die was never an issue, given the popularity of ludo. The problem lay elsewhere. The same teachers that would bring up die at the drop of a hat during probability periods, in higher classes, would not accept a die inside a geometric box for pre-teens.

Yes, life used to be unfair, perhaps even more so. We were literally forced to pounce upon book-cricket with more gusto…

The greatest innovation of them all

The 1980s were a different era. Leo had (probably) not penetrated the Indian market. There were board games, of course. Business (an Indian version of Monopoly where Calcutta came in a brown card and cost Rs 5,000) ruled the market.

Then there were little figurines of nothings with static limbs. There were also cap-pistols (don t ask) that were used generously throughout the year. Children played with doctor-sets and kitchen-sets, but that was it.

Amidst all this someone came up with a wonderful something: Table Cricket. I do not remember the brand, but the product was certainly called Gold Cup. I clearly remember the words written in massive capital letters on the box.

Table Cricket was cheap, and the rules were simple:

– There was a green elliptical sheet with concentric ovals with 1, 2, and 3 written on them. There also was a pitch.

– There were two sets of wickets that needed to be placed on either side of the wicket.

– There was a long plastic object that you needed to place at an incline. The cross-section looked like a V (somewhat like a Scrabble tile rack). The small metal ball was supposed to be rolled along this.

– The bat came with a holder. You got runs depending on which ellipse the shot crossed.

– There were fielders with Vs at their feet that stopped the ball. If the ball got trapped it led to a dismissal.

The overall thing was fun, especially if there were two players; then began the problems. I managed to lose the little metal ball. This, however, was rectified easily. There was a motor-repair shop next door that used ball bearings a lot, so we got a near-infinite supply.

Next, the bat broke. It had to be replaced too: we sawed off the bottom half of a toothbrush. The bat, thus, became thicker and heavier, and boundaries became more frequent.

The third problem was not a problem per se. The white fielders with green Vs at their feet were too faceless. There was little you could do. You could jot down names on their backs but then, the same fielders had to be used for all teams.

Then a Eureka moment happened: it had to be matchboxes.

Sachin-1
Getty Images; design: Neeraj Kathale

Smoking was not as big a no-no in the 1980s as it is today. If lung cancer was there, the awareness was not as far-reaching. Clay ovens and kerosene stoves were both common in those early days of gas cylinders.

In other words, there was no shortage of empty matchboxes. They could act as fielders, of course. All we needed to do was to open the boxes halfway through. See the above image.

The boxes could capture ground-shots with the open front side (A) or lofted shots with the semi-exposed interior (B).

All we needed to do was to acquire those huge charts titled Indian cricketers, Australian cricketers … the ones that carried mug-shots of 15 or 20 cricketers.

The greatest indoor cricket game at least in an era when computers were not common in average households was thus conceived.

Bat, check. Ball, check. Ground, check. Laws, check. Personnel, check.

Voil ! Game on.