A thin layer of dust hangs in the air above the pitch as the two sides prepare for battle. The batsman practices his follow through, cutting the air with the bat in a sharp arc. The umpire stands ready, as his pronouncements will be law. A bowler stares down the wicket, his eyes narrowed to cat slits as he faces his opponent.
Also, he is barefoot.
At the R. A. Puram corporation ground in Chennai, the footwear is either chappals or nothing. A communally purchased set of stumps with one peg missing juts haphazardly from the earth, and the bat handles are wrapped in twine. A round stone marks the second wicket and a broken sandal for “wide.”
Conditions at the Gopalapuram ground are similar, with the added distinction of the boundary being lined with bits of refuse, which must be searched carefully for the ball whenever someone scores a big hit.
Even at 4pm the sun beats down relentlessly, and there is no water in sight. Every now and then a fielder runs across a stone wrong, and holds their foot up in a flamingo pose to rub the pain away.
As an outsider, these details seem almost overwhelming. For the players, though, they barely register. They are here for one thing and one thing only, and they come to the ground after school with an almost religious fervor. They are here to play CRICKET.
The players range in age and ability, but over the next few days I see some similarities between them. There is the bowler with a crazy, wiggling, chucking action. There is the boy who is too small for his age, and bullied accordingly. There is the superstar, who is unusually good, and revered for it. There is no envy from the others for this, only pride that he belongs to them.
Across the board the boys we met were quick and clever. I asked one fielder for his name. “Dhoni,” he replied with a glint in his eye. Another, on hearing from Subash that we were married, dubiously came over to confirm with me separately. “I’m just verifying,” he explained.
Many of the players wore football jerseys, and the grounds were often shared with one or two soccer matches being played at the same time. At R. A. Puram one game of football — less like a game, really, and more like a swarm of bees following honey — swirls around the edges of the cricket pitch, at times stopping play completely.
I want to play, but after seeing how seriously they take the game realise this would be wrong. The novelty of having some random American woman play with them isn’t worth the price of inevitably losing — it is too high a cost. To force them to humour me and my baby baseball swing would be insulting somehow. For me this is a hobby, for them it is a way of life.
A few hours into play the game suddenly stops. The tattered wicket is plucked up from the earth and the group moves off to the sides to start again in the dusty sidelines. Something has happened I am not able to decode, it is a language I do not speak in more ways than one. A group of older boys takes their place on the concrete pitch and begin a new game. Subash asks one of the players in exodus why they have given up their spot. My assumptions of being bullied into it are quickly squashed, my ignorance exposed. It turns out that the older boys helped make the concrete pitch–raising money and adding labor. In recognition of and deference to their efforts, they can play any time they want.
In the kingdom of gully cricket, this seems to me to be the highest praise that could be given, the greatest show of appreciation. A group that will not stop for thirst, heat, pain, or suffering, will stop for love. The love of the game, and the shared gift of being able to play.
I have since moved on, away from Chennai and its impenetrable wall of heat, its dusty pitches. But I know they are still out there. I know that at 4pm today, and every day, the boys will come, their sandals flip-flopping-thocking across the red clay, their weathered bats dragging thin lines in the sand. Their smiles white and true, the ball streaking through the air to be blasted into tomorrow.