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January 14, 2000


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Shoba Narayan

Making Sense of Cricket in New York

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Cricket mystified Shoba when she grew up in India. Last year, when she watched her husband pay exorbitant bribes so that their co-op board would let him install a satellite to watch the World Cup, she began thinking of her own childhood experiences with cricket.

And when she watched Silicon Valley whiz-kids gather at 2 am at Komala Vilas, a south Indian restaurant in Sunnyvale, to watch the World Cup over steaming plates of idli, she continued wondering about the cricket mania. And within few weeks with crisp spring weekends beckoning hundreds of cricket lovers to playgrounds in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Shoba would continue musing about cricket.

One of the most humiliating memories of my childhood is this: I am standing holding a cricket bat in a bustling street corner in Madras surrounded by a cluster of scrawny ten-year-old boys. After days of arguing about how unfair it is that I, a competent cricket player cannot participate in their games simply because I am a girl, after days of bribing them with chocolates coupled with abject pleading along the lines of how I will leave them alone if they let me play one game, just one game, the boys in my neighborhood have deigned to let me be a batsman for a day.

There I stand, clutching my bat, facing my childhood nemesis, a precocious kid by the name of Vikas (now a sedate college professor in Cleveland). Vikas prides himself on his Chandrasekhar-like 'googly' and bowls to the running commentary of Karthik, the neighborhood nerd who affects the sing-song, anglicized chant of Narottam Puri.

"In comes Vikas Jain spinning the ball in a finely tuned googly to the batsman Shoba um.. Narayan, who swings the bat and the ball flies into the air right into the home of ..." Crash. Silence. Nobody moves.

Mr Gadgil, a stern mustachioed military man, leopard-walks out of his compound and bellows, "Which of you chimps threw the ball at my glass window?" The lecture continues. Hasn't he told us a million times not to play outside his compound, and if he catches us playing there one more time, the consequences will not be pleasant. As for the ball. We can kiss it Goodbye. Mr Gadgil won't give it back unless one of the fathers pays for his damaged window

With one shot, I have gained the name of the neighborhood scourge, the killer of cricket games, the lousy batsman who roused the tiger in Mr Gadgil and ousted us from our make-shift cricket ground. The girl who makes a precious cricket ball disappear and subjects the team to the ignominy of playing with a tennis ball, of all things. The boys treat me to nasty looks and whispered threats. I have become the plague.

There will be more games, of course. Mr Gadgil's window has been broken before. The boys will loiter on the culverts and whine to their parents. After a few days of this continuous complaining, one of the fathers will approach Mr Gadgil in desperation, assess the damage inside his compound, pay Rs 100 for replacement of his window and the game will resume. But I will not be able to participate in it. Forever. Worse, my name will go down in the annals of neighborhood history as a lousy batsman. A girl who aspired to be a cricket player. A mouse who wanted to be a lion. "It is impossible," the boys will say nastily. "Girls can't play cricket. It is not in their genes."

Our cricket ground was the street corner in front of my home. At 5 pm, about 15 boys would gather from all parts of Indira Nagar and the game would commence. It would always end with a measuring tape. Two boys would stand at the stumps and have a heated argument about whether the ball was a Four or a Six. Names would be called, threats exchanged, nasty slurs would be bandied about the IQ of a batsman who could not even decipher the distance that marks a Four.

The measuring tape would be produced and the boys would laboriously measure the distance from the stumps to the boundary, a line in the sand that inevitably became erased by running feet. The batsman would point at one line and call it the boundary. The bowler would point at a line farther away and insist that that line was the boundary.

"But that was yesterday's boundary."

"No, this was yesterday's boundary."

"Want to bet? Let's measure it again."

Out came the measuring tape. Again.

The stumps themselves were three lines drawn on a neighbor's wall with green chalk. The wall also substituted as a fool-proof wicket keeper that bounced the ball back relentlessly, as if underscoring the lousiness of each batsman. The square leg stood by the transformer box which took many a beating from the ball, leading crotchety old men to complain that the frequent power outages in our colony were because of our cricket games.

The mid-off, long-off, mid-on and long-on stood by clumps of thorn bushes, common in South India. Long hours in the fading twilight were spent searching for the precious ball which fell into the thorn bushes and the victor usually emerged jubilant but scratched beyond recognition with streaks of blood.

The road neatly intersected the bowler and batsman with the passing Ambassador or Fiat interrupting yelled insults from the bowler to the batsman and vice versa. In a feat of heroic concentration, the batsman were able to ignore clanging milk-men, wandering buffaloes, honking bicycles, ambling matrons, crying children and leisurely dog walkers, all of whom used their 'cricket ground' all through the match.

I was never part of this coterie. And I was unwilling to become a permanent part of the girls contingent who were relegated to playing with dolls, hop-scotch or simply gossiping and making eyes at the boys. No, I wanted to be one of the guys, much to the eternal dismay of my brother, Shyam, who would frequently and vociferously complain to my mother that 'Shoba didn't behave like a girl.'

The game itself didn't captivate me as much as the fervor it evoked in the boys. My brother was wrong. I was behaving like a girl. At age 12, I was invoking one of the most feminine of all emotions, even though I didn't realize it. I was jealous of cricket because it took the attention of the boys away from me. I wanted to be the object of their concentration, subject of their fiercest passions and the most precious of their possessions. I wanted to be that cricket ball.

I wanted to be like the cricketers who could inspire awe, reduce them to abject, tongue-tied humility and be the object of their dreams. I wanted those musical names to roll off my tongue with the ease and confidence that seemed to be the boys' birthright. "Bishen Singh Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath, Krishnamachari Srikanth." I wanted to watch a ball lofted to the sky and know exactly whether it would land on a long-on or silly mid-wicket without having to consult a tattered chart in which my brother -- in a spurt of generosity -- had drawn the different positions on a cricket field. I wanted to utter phrases like, "New Zealand 530 for 6 with Vettori hitting 70 runs in 130.4 overs," without having my mind glaze over after the first number.

I wanted to be part of their club. I wanted to jump on the stands at a 5-day cricket match and thump shoulders jubilantly when India scored. I wanted to haul make-shift drums on crowded buses and bang them in time to the clapping crowd. I wanted to remember and trade obscure cricket scores from Test matches past. I wanted to have the spontaneous camaraderie that sprung up between men of all ages .

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