Those unofficial ‘Tests’: growing up with cricket in the playgrounds of Bangalore

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When the cricket bug infects you in childhood, it is contagious and terminal. Only age and vocation can cure it. Only you’d hate to leave the hospital — er — playground.

Memories of a childhood spent playing, tinged with bittersweetness. | K.R. Deepak

It was around 5:30 a.m. on one of those quiet, peaceful mornings in Bangalore. Heavy rain had fallen the previous day and the effect was quite visible everywhere. A young boy, not more than 15-16 years old, was walking gingerly. He observed the roads, the fallen twigs, the puddles, and shrugged. Nonetheless, he kept walking to the playground near his home. The ground was in quite a mess too; there were wet patches all around and nothing suggested there could be play that day. The boy had other ideas, though. He walked into the ground and evaluated his options. He quickly ruled out the possibility of getting help from friends. Few would be up this early and certainly nobody would journey to the ground just to fix this issue. He stared at a massive, unused garbage bin. Quickly, a thought flashed in his mind.

He had watched cricket for years on TV and found it rather intriguing when effective drying measures were used to address terrible playing conditions after a downpour. He had no access to any such advanced techniques but had to make do with what was available. Soon enough, early morning walkers and joggers looked on, rather surprised, at a boy pushing a large concrete bin all around the ground, especially the ‘pitch’ and ‘infield’. Some could be forgiven for wondering if all was okay with the boy. A few regulars, however, had witnessed this sight many times. They knew me well enough to understand that very little mattered to me except getting the ground ready for a ‘Test match’.

 

 

After the ground was deemed ready for cricket, I had a massive challenge ahead. Think back to the days when nobody really knew much about mobile phones, let alone own one. I had cleaned up the ground, picked up the bat, ball and stumps from a friend’s garage and set up the playing area. Given the possibility of someone stealing the cricket equipment, I could not really bring myself to leave the ground. Yet, I had to ensure we start the game at least by 7 a.m. With just 45 minutes remaining for the scheduled start (in my mind), I almost always employed what I felt was a divine gift to me — serious lung power. After taking up a strategic location in the middle of the ground, I let out the first roar.

This roar, aimed at waking up my friend Hari, was usually successful. He promptly woke up and reached the ground in the next ten minutes. Often, he knew what he would be tasked with. There were days he helped me clean the ground too. But on most days, he had to employ the landline to wake up friends whose homes were beyond the reach of my earth-shattering bellows. In the matter of a few minutes, I had managed to gain the attention of 5-6 friends or their parents. The parents, in quite a few cases, were irritated that someone had woken the whole house up on a holiday but quickly accepted that nothing was really going to change. Meanwhile, Hari had telephoned another 10-12 friends and received their confirmation too. It really was going to be a full house, I felt. There was one problem though — bringing my friend Raghu to the ground.

Raghu was quite often the life of the matches we played. Equipped with an amazing, natural ability to excel in any sport he took up, he would bring a terrific sense of competition to the ‘Test’ matches. I very well knew that the game would never quite be the same without his participation. However, to bring him to the ground was a major ordeal. In the past, I had walked to his place, which was thankfully not too far from the ground, and let out a massive shout. Usually, his dad was the first one to step out. He had reprimanded me a few times and once asked me whether I had any exams or academics to worry about at all. Well, I did. But cricket just happened to matter a great deal more. I could have stood there and argued but time mattered, at least to me.

So, I devised a fool-proof plan to get Raghu to the ground on time. The great king Yudhishthira had to utter one lie to win a war. I had to utter the same lie on a hundred occasions to ensure Raghu’s participation. I got Hari to dial Raghu’s landline number (which I still remember — an exceptional memory for useless details, I tell people when they ask how…) and tell his dad that Raghu’s friends, who were invited by him to join us for the cricket, had journeyed nearly 15 km and turned up. Now, this made his dad wake Raghu up and push him to the ground. By the time we started, it would usually be around 7:30 am, a full two hours since I first set foot on the ground. I never complained. Not once. Only cricket could have done that.

 

 

On most days, we would have around 16-18 players. That was a fantastic number to begin play. The best part was that everyone wanted to play a ‘Test’ match. But why so? We had started, like most other kids, playing limited-overs matches. Somehow, we never quite seemed to enjoy those as much. With some boys drifting off and a few others feeling that they could not quite contribute in this abbreviated format, we decided to try and play ‘Test’ matches. We modified a few rules; a circle just past the infield was drawn (we placed stones) to ensure that no aerial shots were played. Any batsman who hit the ball on the full beyond this circle was out. In addition, every mode of dismissal was allowed, including the often controversial LBW. And yes, this was ‘short cricket’. Bowlers would throw or ‘chuck’ the ball. By not employing the full-length bowling, we saved time and brought in a great deal of variety. We had pace, bounce, spin, left-arm variety and much more thrown in to the mix. To top it all, we had enough players to set a classic ‘Test-match’ field. How did the contests pan out though, one may ask?

Raghu and I would select a couple of players to pick the teams. It wasn’t that they would really be captains. Some of us, including me, would really decide the strategy once the matches started. Often, Raghu and I would start in opposing teams. This provided a bit of spice to the contest since we pushed ourselves to outperform the other. Subhash, an outstanding all-rounder, and Karthik, who was one of the most stylish batsmen to watch, were also often on opposite sides. The pool of players included the ultra-consistent Hemanth, who seemed to have a great deal more time than most when he batted, and Aditya, who was nicknamed ‘Dravid’ for he possessed an exceptional defensive technique and quality strokes. However, the one player teams often tried to poach was Bharat. A plucky left-hander in the Chanderpaul mode, Bharat could not be easily dislodged. Ungainly and fidgety at the crease, he more than made up for it with some highly efficient batting which left opponents scratching their heads. He could bowl too; his left-arm spin accounted for many players who could never quite come to terms with the change in angle. The contests featured many other talented players, including my young cousin, Arun, who ensured that he would visit Bangalore every vacation just for the cricket. At times, he would be up even before me and push me to get to the ground earlier. He would guts it out in challenging conditions against the bigger boys and came up with quality performances on many occasions.

 

 

And what about me? I had a bit of a reputation for being the go-to man in a crisis. While I could play my shots, I often eschewed them and instead focussed on building an innings, knowing fully well the value of a sizeable lead. Much to the dismay of opposition bowlers, I often exploited the short boundary square of the wicket on the off side and scored a lot of runs in the point region and towards third man. When I batted, teams placed two slips, a gully and a point fielder but still found that I often managed to thread it through. Most importantly, however, I stood as the umpire till my turn came to bat and again, after I was dismissed. Everyone knew that umpiring was a major challenge in our matches. With the LBW in play, they felt it was best to have me adjudicate as often as possible.

Not surprisingly, my sister, who was usually sent to the ground to try and drag me home for breakfast or lunch, found me umpiring every time she came. I never wanted to leave, not even when there was clearly a major reason to do so. On one memorable occasion, my dad stared in disbelief when I refused to leave to school to check my 10th board results. I defended my stance suggesting that the results wouldn’t change if we went after three hours. Although my dad had the final say, he got a good glimpse of the cricket tragic in me.

The matches were long. On some days, if the first match ended early, we were able to squeeze a second one in. The popularity of these ‘Tests’ soared. Friends from the other end of town came in to be a part of these fantastic matches. There were few places in Bangalore where one could have access to the full playground and be part of a highly competitive game. This was clearly one such venue. What started as an experiment sometime in the late 1990s, when I was in 8th grade, went on uninterrupted for almost eight years. We played ‘Test’ matches on every holiday and throughout the summer vacations. Often, it used to be around 2 p.m. when we finally wrapped up play, just in time for a quick shower, lunch and two hours rest before resuming hostilities, this time with football.

 

 

Sadly, like most other lovely things in life, these ‘Tests’ too came to an end. In 2005, I left to the U.S for studies and that abruptly stopped the matches for almost a year. Nobody else would quite be prepared to do the ‘dirty’ work. You had to be up early, walk to the ground, clean it if necessary and embark on a 1-hour project to bring everyone to the game. Even before I left, I knew this was not everyone’s cup of tea. There was a brief revival when I came back to Bangalore twice on vacations. More than 22 players were present the moment they heard I was in. My child-like enthusiasm for the game had not dimmed at all. In the past, I had played with a fever on multiple occasions, willed myself to the ground despite major protests after a hernia surgery and prioritised the early-morning ‘Test’ matches over everything else. This time, however, there was one adversary I could not quite conquer — age.

The boys had grown older. Their priorities had changed. Work, rest and girlfriends mattered more now. For someone who never quite felt anything else mattered as much as playing, this was a rude awakening. Within two years, the ground was gone. The local corporation felt it was time to come up with a park for the residents since there was no play happening anyway. Many playgrounds all around Bangalore suffered the same fate. Whenever I walk close to the park (I hardly feel like walking inside the park), I reminisce every moment and often tear up. I have played a fair bit of cricket since — in the U.S and after getting back to India. But nothing comes close to those lovely ‘Test’ matches. These may not have been authentic Tests played with the red cherry. However, the compelling contests, the mini battles, the variety of characters on the field, the strategies, the sledging, and most of all, the love we all had for the game made these matches just as memorable.

 

 

I have been asked many times if I ever got back as much as I gave to the cricket. My response is instantaneous: “I got back way more than I gave…” Not once have I felt bad about doing all that I did to get the matches underway. Cricket has given me so much joy and left me with memories that will last a lifetime and beyond. There can never be enough I can do to give back to the beautiful game.

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