It was a warm September afternoon in Chicago, one of the last in a vanishing summer. The gloom of winter was settling in even before the coming of fall, and all around I could see desperate students attempting to make the most of the fading rays of the sun—lying about on the grass reading, playing Frisbee, touch football and…could it be? A friend of mine had told me they played, but I didn’t know they played here.
The Midway Plaisance at the University of Chicago is a long strip of sunken ground once built for the World Fair, and now the ideal spot for inter-mural games and building snowmen. On either side rise, Hogwarts-like, the neo-gothic buildings of the university. In the centre is the ice rink upon which, in the six snowy months of the year, neighbourhood kids skate and students play hockey.
But today, there was no hockey and there was no skating. There was no ice. The ground was bare. A boy stood at one end, left hand on left hip, right hand casually tossing a red ball up and down rhythmically. A large green dustbin stood awkwardly in the middle of the rink. At the other end stood its companion.
The boy suddenly stiffened. He rose slowly on to his toes, body leaning forward giving him a streamlined look. And then, without warning, he ran. His momentum grew with every step. His bucket hair bounced around happily as he leapt towards the bin. His back straightened. His left foot rose before his right and he seemed to freeze in midair. His arm rolled in a perfect arc and the ball whizzed out and crashed into the bin with a plastic thud.
I couldn’t believe it. There was cricket. Here.
The rules on the rink were simple — if you hit the ball out of the rink, you’re out, except on the straight boundary. “This”, one of the guys said, “is to make sure the ball doesn’t roll on to the roads on either side and”, he added with a wry smile, “to encourage us to play straight.”
I was nervous and very self-conscious. This wasn’t my backyard, and they didn’t know I could play. I could feel their eyes on me and I was already dreading their judgment. But then I looked down at the bat and suddenly it no longer mattered. Suddenly, I was glad I wasn’t in my backyard facing the same, familiar bowling, only being able to dream that I was actually playing in a competitive cricket match.
I was here now, holding a bat, and playing with people who loved the game as I did. The dream, the real dream, of being able to share my passion, was finally coming true. They never bowled slow to me, not the first ball and none since. And that changed everything. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged on a cricket field.
That winter, we played our first tournament together. It was the Barkaat Premier League, a true product of the IPL era organised by a passionate and exclusive group of desis, played on an indoor soccer field with a low ceiling, a tape ball and twelve overs of mindless slogging.
Every Friday and Saturday evening for two months we’d pack into the university’s sports van and head out to some obscure suburb of Chicago to play cricket. This entailed emotional and forgivably out-of-tune renditions of Kishore Da and Rafi, a mandatory argument on India and Pakistan, and a compulsory stop at Burger King just minutes before the match.
We arrived for the first match in spectacular fashion. Having missed the toss, we stumbled out of the van stuffing the last whoppers down, not knowing what to expect but extremely determined, with Remember the Name still echoing in our heads, to win. Six Indians, two Pakistanis, one South African, one Kiwi and me. We were a surprising lot, and I’d like to think the other team were as taken aback to see a South African and a Kiwi as they were to see me.
The team sent me in at two down when a better batsman, of whom there were many, should have gone in. Perhaps they too wanted to make a point, a point I had been struggling to make all my life. As I walked past the goalpost and to the top of the D that acted as the crease, I could sense the amusement in their gaze, and as I saw them exchange raised eyebrows, I knew they were anticipating that I’d get out.
The first delivery was a slow, looping half volley outside off. I should have expected it but it threw me off. I was angry and hurt. I wanted to shout but instead, I left it and walked down the pitch to tell him he could bowl normally to me. He simply smiled. Next ball, he doddled in and bowled even slower. I wanted to smash it, but ended up mistiming what must have been an extremely ugly straight drive. They didn’t even bother to hide their smiles. The pace was bothering me. I was offended and to be honest, I wasn’t used to anyone bowling that slowly to me.
I heard my team call from the boundary, “Just hit him, then they’ll know.” But I had never been able to just block it out like that. I was sensitive to small changes, and I hated when the game was modified for me. I had spent too many years playing galli cricket and school cricket with boys to not notice the small “adjustments”.
The next ball came on a little better. It was short and wide and sprung up from the fake grass right into my arc. I smashed it. I’ve probably never hit such a ferocious cut in my life. Our rules on the rink prepared us for this after all because the boundary, or rather the wall on the off side, was just about twenty yards away and all I could get was a run. As I reached the non-striker’s end, I smiled at the bowler. But he didn’t return it this time. I had made my point.
It took that one cut shot to tell myself, more so than the guys around me, that I could bat. We missed out on qualifying for the semis by one point, but we’ve gone back every year since, spending our winters on indoor soccer fields and golf driving ranges, our springs and summers on converted ice-rinks, always finding a way, a space to play our cricket.
People often talk about how cricket is so much more than just a sport. It’s true. But that so-much-more is so different for everyone who loves it. For us, for The Cricket Club, it is neither a religion nor a mere pastime. Cricket is a place, a little island in our lives; an island that we often get lost on and more often don’t want to leave. It’s that nook that is our childhood and our home. It is that familiar hideout, that special memory. But it is also the joy of the present; of happiness, exhilaration and infinite thrills. It’s that common ground in a foreign country. It’s that language we all speak.
It’s that passion we all share. It’s what brings us together in a way nothing else can. Week after week, year after year. The club’s founders have graduated, baseball players have learnt to hold cricket bats and a girl has become its President.
Members have come and gone, graduated and moved on. And there are times when not enough people show up to play a game, and we make do with a mock net session and one-tip out. But if any freshmen were to walk out to the Midway on a late Friday afternoon, for a quiet stroll or a quick game of touch football, the oddly comforting sight of two green dustbins on an ice rink will still greet them. The Cricket Club will still be there.