India comes at you from all sides. It demands to be noticed. In other countries, you can get away with not paying attention, letting your guard down, and your mind wander. In India, you must adapt. It is the personification of that old saying about the tree that bends with the wind surviving the storm – if you are rigid, it will break you.
In my limited experience, the best thing you can do as an outsider is sit back and let it wash over you. Go along with the river of sounds, sights, smells, and traffic, and bend with the wind.
I have taken the same approach to cricket here. In India, little is done halfway, and cricket is no different. It’s everywhere! It calls to you from billboards and television ads. Tiny plastic bat-and-ball sets hang in small storefronts. Even the apartment complex where we are currently staying has a concrete cricket pitch alongside the playground equipment. Other countries might also play cricket but THIS is a cricket-playing nation.
While traveling by auto rickshaw in Mumbai – surely an amusement park ride come to life, and my favourite way to travel so far – we saw children with kit bags walking home from practice, and a young boy practising his swing against an imaginary bowler. Subash pointed out the advertisements of cricket players selling a litany of wares and they slipped over me, forgotten almost as soon as I heard them.
In my quest for a cricket bat of my own, we headed to Marine Lines near Wankhede Stadium, where a sea of tennis-ball bats was laid out before me. There appeared to be an endless supply, and I held them in my hands like I knew what I was doing, as more and more appeared, rabbits from a magician’s hat.
In the end I chose the lightest one, which had green and silver labels down the back. My favourite part is the arch in the back, which makes me think of shark fins and animal biology. Tigers and other large carnivores have a thin crest of bone on the top of their skulls where powerful jaw muscles attach, and this thought echoed in my head whenever I held the bat.
After Mumbai, we spent three days in Pune tucked in at the Deccan Gymkhana. The Gymkhana is a sports haven, with the sound of tennis balls plunking back and forth from dawn to dusk.
A few metres away from the main building is a field with a number of cricket pitches scattered around. Subash spotted the telltale whites of cricket players one day and we wandered over to watch them practice. Children of all ages were divided in groups, the older boys running drills while the youngest ones played a practice match.
The younger group ran the gamut from the ultra-serious to those who just wanted to play with their friends. While a few boys tumbled around the sidelines, a small wicketkeeper held a captain’s stance. He was clearly frustrated at their lack of dedication, and directed his teammates with the exasperation of an old man. A few overs later, he was up to bat. He swaggered and moved with a movie-star confidence I couldn’t help but admire. When he was caught out only a few balls later, he was astonished, and stared at the bat as if it had betrayed him.
Our time in India is just beginning – in total we will spend about two months here, spread between different states and IPL teams. As I have done so far, I will do my best to be a witness, devoid of assumptions or preconceived notions about what India and Indian cricket means. Like riding in an auto at rush hour, or choosing a cricket bat when you don’t know what to look for, like leaning out the doorway of a train to catch the air, or swinging towards a speeding red ball, sometimes you just have to make a move and let go. But don’t close your eyes – you’ll want to see what’s coming.