My father grew up playing cricket. As the English son of an overseas marketing officer for Unilever, he spent his childhood playing in youth leagues in and around Wellington, New Zealand. When I was a child, clamoring for bedtime stories from “when you were little”, he would often recount the story of the Pakistani cricket bat he received for Christmas, aged nine. Dutifully oiled for the requisite three weeks before being taken out to play, the bat cracked, neck from the blade, upon contact with my grandfather’s first bowl–the New Zealand equivalent of a hockey sweater moment.
I’m told there is a photograph of me, aged three, “playing” cricket in a family backyard in Cheltenham, England, but my rearing through cricket must have ended shortly after it was taken. My father lost his sight when I was ten, and, diluted as it was by his immigration to Canada years earlier, his relationship to cricket was lost with it.
Removed from my day-to-day though it is, for me cricket holds the place of romantic fascination. My vague awareness of the sport’s significance in my own culture has been felted together from hazy recollections of men in white on a rope-ringed pitch somewhere on a Welsh family vacation, the numerous attempts by my aunt to explain all manner of nuance and parlance in her London living room, and images of my father shadow-batting in hallways as he transitions between rooms.
When the English arrived in India cricket was already a staple diversion of enlisted men. Of cricket’s significance to life in India, historian Ramachandra Guha notes that the English “invented the game at home and played it in India as a welcome retreat from the utter strangeness of life abroad”. To a Canadian cricket contributes more to the “strangeness” of life than to any sort of comfort abroad, but the English irony is that in their colonial wake they left behind a sport adopted with such fervency as to make it virtually inescapable on the subcontinent, and today in India cricket exists in plural forms. It is a game whose trajectories are infinitely varied, played inside a hemisphere with the batsman positioned at the centre of a bisecting circular plane. Its geometric opportunism allows glancing strikes and power swings to take advantage of the space both in front of and behind the batsman, pushing and pulling a leather ball into the spaces between sparse fielders, and, importantly, allowing runs to be scored without running. It is a game that aims not to dominate an environment but rather allows itself to be formed by it, acknowledging both the fragile materiality of its implements (extensive lore strategizes over the changing characteristics of a game-worn ball) and the scarcity of space (interestingly, the rules of cricket dictate no official size or shape of pitch). It can be played between a single batsman and a bowler, or between teams of more than eleven players a side, fluid boundaries overlapping dozens of coincidental games in crowded public spaces. Concurrent to cricket’s power to adapt is its power to affect change, and across India it has been used as a reconciliatory tool to ease religious conflict. The sport’s technological minimalism and spatial flexibility mean it can be played in any environment with the most basic equipment. While in India I set out to explore these cricketing contexts, gaining for myself not only a long-sought understanding of the rules of the game, but an appreciation of the game’s potential to change the lives of those who play it.
On a Saturday afternoon in Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s largest slums, my guide Shekar leads me through narrow corridors, his feet bare in religious observation, past colorful, crowded homes and over open drains whose concrete covers have been mostly dismantled for their valuable rebar cores. We are looking for cricket in non-standard places, and we find it, tucked between shrines and mopeds, pressed up against walls, and tip-toed atop various scatterings of urban detritus. Wickets are constructed from cinder blocks, old signboards, and kitchen recyclables. It reminds me of the street hockey I played in my youth, taking advantage of whatever space my friends and I could find, and in Dharavi, the sound of a clean bowl, rubber ball on oil can, rings with as much triumph as a goal scored in a garbage can in a Vancouver side street. The elation–the liberation–is the same, and any sense of make-do is hidden in the joy of sport as boys in shorts and ties meet in the maidan after school, forming “elevens” with complicated hand gestures and conveniently dictating that the Canadian bats last.
But not all is fun and games. Cricket remains a gendered sport in India, and throughout Dharavi, boys acknowledge that their sisters are too busy with housework to partake in the sport. For the boys who are fortunate enough to play, however, cricket contains important lessons and opportunities. The heroes of Dharavi cricket are not showy batsmen but all-rounders who display an equilibrium on the field: idols not of strong arms but of fresh minds. For some boys, cricket presents an opportunity to release frustrations in non-harmful ways, and many young batters have found themselves hit for “six and out” as a well-struck ball finds its way over the head-high maidan boundary, into the drain or, worse, into auntie’s kitchen. For others, a future in teaching cricket is a goal, and for others still, the possibility of positions with local companies is even closer within reach. This possibility perplexes me, and it is not until the next morning that I begin to understand what they mean.
Sunday morning on Mumbai’s Oval Maidan and Sunil Gupta is hosting a cricket camp for young boys. A former coach in India’s Ranji Trophy competition, Gupta makes no hesitation in connecting cricket to social development and opportunity for the young boys in his charge. His camp, run at no cost to those whose families can’t afford it, is expressly geared towards developing players to play–and work–for national companies. The system, as explained by Gupta, sounds to me like office intramurals taken to the extreme: most Indian companies maintain cricket teams comprised of employees, competing with other companies for bragging rights and nominal trophies, and it is common practice for employees to be hired for entry-level positions on the basis of their cricketing skills–a sign, says Gupta, of the transferable traits of dedication and hard work as demonstrated through sport. This is the national system referenced by boys in Dharavi, and it places skills in cricket as near to those in writing or mathematics. For the boys here and in Dharavi, cricket is not just a sport: it is a currency, a credential, and a language in which fluency can quickly pay dividends.
For better or for worse, this hiring practice offers Gupta’s boys, with their myriad underprivileged backgrounds (as a case in point, one of his students, an ace bowler, lives at the far end of the maidan in his father’s groundskeeping tent), a chance to greatly improve their lot without the need for family connections or advanced training they can’t afford. But why not approach cricket with loftier goals, I ask? Why not instill young players with the dreams of one day appearing in Test matches for India, where the glory is greater and the salaries are much higher? “Cricket ends at age 35, maybe 40,” he explains, “Even if you play cricket for India, one day you have to retire. Then what do you do? You need a career; you need to have a way not just to support yourself, but to contribute.” This may be pure mathematical realism, given the odds of making an 11-man national team in a country of 200 million boys–most of them cricketers–but it strikes me as a finely-balanced approach to sport, and one possible only when the threads of cricket and life are woven so tightly together as to appear as one cloth.
At 8 am, with the sun still firmly in the east, Sunil’s camp operates quite literally in the shadow of Tata Communications headquarters, the epicenter of Indian commerce and corporate identity. The edifice is cleanly delineated against an uncrowded skyline, rising above the low apartments that line the maidan, and the boys, up early and playing in its penumbra, are edged hopefully in morning gold.