“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.
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 moved on from Jaipur and 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 sitting 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 was at Mumbai, at the Oval Maidan – where hundreds of games crisscross with each other within a confined space in front of the High Court – I had my encounter with the red tennis ball. 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 triumphantly to face the hysterical boys, another boy, whom 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 left me overwhelmed with awe. 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.
About the Author: Robert Davies. I am 36 years old and originally from England but have just moved to Bangkok. My passions are sport and travel and I often like to combine the two. Find me on Facebook or my blog.