My husband and I were driving through the beautiful hills of Kumaon, through woods of oak and cedar, from Mukteshwar to Almora. The road was quiet, and we’d passed barely half a dozen vehicles in the hour or so we’d been driving. The road, narrow and none too good, had just dipped down into a village when my husband suddenly had to swerve to the side, almost into the fields. A strange contraption sat in the middle of the road. A couple of very battered wooden planks, both about 1 foot long and about a hand’s span wide, stood propped up precariously by a single brick. A dozen metres or so down the road was a similar structure. A handful of village boys watched irritably as we edged past. And it wasn’t them looking guilty, it was us. After all, we’d committed what could well be termed a grave offence - we’d blundered, totally uninvited, into a cricket match.
If there’s one thing the English left behind that has become a national obsession, it’s got to be cricket. It’s been less than two centuries since the first recorded cricket match was played on Indian soil (in 1728, by English sailors on shore leave). By the early 19th century, Indians had begun playing cricket in big cities like Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. In 1892, the first formal international cricket match was played by an Indian team, a Parsi team that played against a European team, in Bombay. India became a test-playing nation in 1932, and there’s been no looking back since. The Indian team won the World Cup in 1983 and reached the finals of the World Cup (but lost to Australia) in 2003. The team is good - they have some of the world’s top-rated batsmen (in particular Sachin Tendulkar); their bowlers are good, but as a team, they tend to be erratic, and one can never be sure of the outcome of a match they play.
But no matter. Despite that, they’re loved. Despite the fact that India’s national game is hockey and despite the fact that the Indian government (and shoals of die-hard "Be Indian" fanatics) have been crying themselves hoarse trying to promote "traditional" games like kabaddi, kho-kho, and who knows what else, cricket reigns supreme. There are cricket clubs at every level: school, college, neighbourhood, company, town, city, district, state, and national. And for every person who pads up, grabs a bat or ball, and heads out into the field to play, there are dozens of others who may not actually play but are equally devoted to the game. One of the most vocal people I know, with a decided opinion about every international match that India plays, is an elegant, silver-haired lady who definitely does not look the type who’d be galloping around a cricket ground.
In Srinagar, way up north in Kashmir, hordes of boys and young men haul out bats (interestingly enough, India’s best bats are made of Kashmir willow) and converge on cricket grounds at the first sign of spring, often even before the snow has melted.
In Kolkata, I remember playing cricket in my uncle’s yard, where we threatened to bash up any cousin who hit too hard, sending the ball into the grove of banana trees at the far end, or worse still, into the smelly canal beyond the wall.
My sister recalls seeing a photograph of a cricket match in progress in Old Delhi, where the flat-topped houses are so close together, there are no open spaces to play cricket. The players had been singularly resourceful: the batsmen, the wicketkeeper, and the bowler were on one roof, and the fielders were scattered across the surrounding roofs.
And as if local cricket matches were not enough, there’s the all-encompassing madness that seems to engulf India when the Indian cricket team plays. The players, the Men in Blue as they’re known affectionately because of the team colours, are idols. They’re feted, they’re loved, and they’re wooed. (Aside: One of the youngest members of the team, just 20 years old and quite a hunk, recently attracted the attentions of an orphan who travelled halfway across India, all because she wanted to propose to him! The fact that the young man was on a series tour abroad and that his father, a devout old Muslim cleric, ticked her off for being "childish" did not daunt her. Last I heard, she was in her hero’s hometown, lodged firmly at a local orphanage, awaiting his return). And this young man isn’t the only one who invites hero-worship; nearly all his team-mates are adored. They appear in TV commercials endorsing everything from cell phones, colas, and clothing to biscuits, motorbikes, engine oil, and the Indian government’s countrywide anti-polio campaign. Their faces smile out of hoardings and posters along every highway; their autographs are eagerly sought; and should one of them be travelling in the same train as you, be prepared for hordes of ecstatic girls crowding the railway station (this happened to a friend; I’m not making it up).
If you’re travelling in India, you will certainly run into something, somebody, somewhere that is connected to cricket. You may find yourself sitting in a spiffy South Delhi café with a TV overhead showing a match. You may get into a seedy auto-rickshaw, only to discover that the driver is listening avidly to the commentary of a match even as he careens through the traffic. You may find the plush lobby of your hotel mobbed by fans just because a much-loved cricketer happens to be using the gym. And, let’s be realistic, you might find yourself in the midst of what may appear to be mass mourning when the Indian team, once again, snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.
Should it be discovered that you’re a cricket fan yourself, you may well find yourself surrounded by people eager to discuss the intricacies of the game with you (someone once said that there’s a captain of the Indian cricket team in every household in India). Should it turn out that you are from a cricket-playing nation but aren’t really keen on it yourself, you may be regarded as a bit of an oddity. And should it be that you are totally unaware of what cricket is all about - if you’ve never heard of it, let alone seen a match - you may be sure of an initiation. Take it.