The first cricket game I recall playing took place in a space seven feet wide and fifteen feet long with a stairwell on one side, so balls frequently bounced off the railings all the way down to the ground floor, at which time my neighbour's younger brother, who stuck his neck through the aluminum barrier to watch the falling ball, announced 'akha neechey'. The unfairness of this predicament struck us early. The open stairwell was neither player's fault. Parents were irrelevant to this, so they could not be blamed. Who retrieved the ball from two flights down was a decision left to a tossed coin. Our games were dominated by batsmen and bowlers, for our heroes were of that kind. Jonty Rhodes was still six years away.
Even now, when I visit that space, the smell of the field reminds me of our uncomplicated games. We created stumps out of chalk, plucked rules out of the air. Our understanding of the game then was entirely personal, and since nothing confused us as much as leg-before appeals, we wisely did away with that mode of dismissal. Who could stop us except the passing of time? Nothing lies behind his door anymore, for a series of mishaps persuaded his family that ghosts were at work.
Before we drifted apart, our field grew larger and more competetive. Downstairs, in the middle of an enormous parking lot, we were tested by aggressive Pakistani batting and violent Pakistani bowling. The civility of our personal encounters became history with the first bouncer either of us faced. I was hit on the head while, if memory can be trusted, he swung one with a sweet tock! over the terrace of a nearby building. The ball was wrapped with electric tape - a device that at once made the ball swing, bounce, and scurry off the crusty tar surface. How he played it that well I'll never know.
The games then were rigidly communal, with international games the trigger for local violence. But it came to nothing more than pushing and swearing. Grandstanding, I think - we were taking up the positions we were historically meant to. The pride of our nation depended on us, and whoever blinked first gave up Siachen, Kashmir, you name it. But we met the enemy over the supermarket counter, at the doctor's clinic, heck, they even taught us. What choice did we have but to blink and give them a glacier?
Speaking of land, the field grew ever larger. Leather balls, damp helmets, the vibration of an unstroked bat. We encountered all these things. So what, you're thinking. So this: try it in 45 degree weather, humidity over 90%, on a concrete pitch in the middle of a large pebble and sand-strewn ground. And then dive to save a boundary. One day, in the middle of a school-level tournament, we came up against a team more unfortunate than our own. A collection of suicides, they were. I imagine them now, grown men laughing over a beating they cried about that day, that windy day when sand rose in golden swirls and stung our eyes, that day when someone - cough - took three wickets for nothing with spin and went home that night and revealed his career plan to horrified parents. He's a journalist now, on a field so vast that he can't make out its edges. And fetching balls from boundaries always made him uneasy.