A few weeks ago, rather adventitiously, I managed to catch a show of Pixar’s latest classic – Inside Out. Inside Out was one of those rare animated movies that truly touched my heart. It wasn’t just a bunch of cartoons that made me chuckle intermittently, but a truly inspiring film which took me back to my childhood. One pertinent aspect of the film that really impressed me was the amount of research that went into recreating the human mind and it’s concept of “core memories”. A core memory, for the uninitiated, is a memory that sticks with you forever. These select memories are what we recollect in times of duress or pain. I, personally, have a few of these – the first time I won an award in school, the moment I realised I had gotten into one of the most prestigious engineering institutes in the country, the first time I kissed a girl, the first time I won a match for my side in gully cricket…
Ah, gully cricket. The 2000s, unlike the coeval times, were a wonderful time to be an Indian cricket fan. India was a tour-de-force in cricket, and Ganguly had engendered a sense of togetherness and ambition amongst the playing eleven. Millions of young kids would throng the streets with their SS, BDM or SG bats and vicariously imagine themselves to be the next Sachin Tendulkar or Zaheer Khan. The fifteen/sixteen-year olds usually were the bosses – the Australians – and the eight-year olds were consigned to being pushed around, as Star Sports recently showed in their adverts; the Bangladesh of gully cricket. The tree was a stump, the cars were untouchables, and the entire world was your audience.
The rules of gully cricket were codified as sacred. Well, at least they were to the ones who were passionate about it and not playing it like the officious uncles who often demanded a “Beta, ek trial ball khelne do” – it was serious business. The obvious rules of dismissals were never to be flouted – Bowled, Run Out, Hit wicket, Caught out. But there were specific rules too. If the ball touches a car or a windowpane, or anything that can break, off you go. This rule was largely implemented to appease the viragos who were often captious of our little sport. Also, if the ball bounces once after you hit the shot and is caught by a fielder (the argot for this is “One tip one hand”), that’s the end of your innings. This rule was generally advantageous for the budding cricketers’ technique as it encouraged grounded shots instead of lofted ones. Some rules were friendly gestures, such as “common fielding”, which implies that the player/s of the batting team can be asked to field for the fielding team if they are short of players - the favoured position being the most menial one – that of the wicketkeeper. Obviously if he missed a catch or a stumping he’d be censured by the fielding team and heavily treated later on by the batting side. One particular rule that was rather contradictory in the case of gully cricket was that of “six out”. Logic says that the one who hits the farthest should get maximum runs, but instead he was immediately adjudged out – as it was Mission Impossible to extricate the ball from those areas. These areas usually included the next building, the terrace of a building or the embodiment of Satan’s lair – a sewage opening. There’s nothing worse than trying to grip a ball that’s been tampered with by human excreta.
Children often needed little reason to play gully cricket, but an Indian cricket victory on that particular day always helped. Kolkata 2001, Multan 2004, Cape Town 2006, World T20 victory in 2007 – these were incentives enough for our malleable minds to be convinced of switching our career goals from that of being a pilot or an astronaut to being the next No.5 player for India’s middle order. Two people in the gully cricket sphere were constants – the guy who owned the bat and the kid who got the tennis balls. Often, as kids returned from school, they’d be called up by their team-mates (there was no Whatsapp then, thankfully) and armed with their white t-shirts, shorts and tattered sport shoes, they’d walk down the steps of the Lord’s pavilion to a raucous applause down the stairs of their building - ready to smash another ton, ready to take another five-wicket haul. It was a welcome distraction from the ennui of school and the humdrum things that happened each day; it was a moment where the spotlight was entirely on those few players - and their subsequent moods hinged on their performance in the match.
Playing gully cricket wasn’t a form of avocation as it has become nowadays for most of us – it was almost your profession. Your team of five players depended on you. You were expected to score the winning runs if you were the last man sent in to bat. Smash 14 runs off three balls to convert a sure defeat into a riotous steal and you’d be consecrated to a divine status. Fail to defend 10 runs of the final over and your selection for next day’s match would be precariously poised. The burden of expectations was much more than what Sachin Tendulkar faced daily. It wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t a laughing matter. It wasn’t just leisure after a hard day of toil at school. It demanded patience, dedication and concentration – and you gave it your all, more than what you’d give in a Math class at school. As you stepped out to bat, the gully you played in wasn’t an asphalt-laden route constructed to let cars pass through anymore. It was your ground. Your home ground. Your friends weren’t friends anymore – not for those two hours at least. They were the Shoaib Akhtar to your Rahul Dravid. They were the Ricky Ponting to your Harbhajan Singh. They were your nemeses, your bunnies, your Achilles Heel, your rivals. You owed it to yourself, and almost superstitiously, to the Indian Cricket Team, to play well, to unleash some gorgeous cover drives or dance down the wicket and smoke it for four. You owed it to yourself to beat the batsman in flight and get him stumped, or have him by his unmentionables by unfurling bouncer after bouncer. You owed it to yourself to recollect all of your invective jargon and sledge the opposition into submission. There was no Spirit of cricket, no sportsmanship. For this wasn’t just a sport. It was much more than that. It was a matter of pride, a matter of fulfilment. It was gully cricket.
Photography By: Zubair Alam