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A foreign field

Avtar Singh | | Updated on: May 04, 2018
Action replay? The joy of playing a sport for its own sake — shorn of any pre-existing loyalties — is one of the benefits of being abroad.

Action replay? The joy of playing a sport for its own sake — shorn of any pre-existing loyalties — is one of the benefits of being abroad.

Playing cricket in China is both reassuringly familiar, and utterly new

I spent this past Sunday in tight white sportswear, acquiring a sore shoulder, a whole raft of grass stains, and what I suspect is a non-specific allergy to pollen. The sun was out, the poplars were in new leaf around the boundary, uncouth chatter surrounded me. There were drinks during and after.

I was, of course, playing cricket. In Beijing.

****

So much is clearly different from the last few times I played. The location, obviously. But also, the equipment. The game isn’t played with bats anymore, not as I knew them in my youth. These are big heavy hatchets. And they sound funny.

I have my own gloves. And my own guard! What an impossibly distant luxury that was, when I was serving my apprenticeship in various school teams.

I also have my own funny-sounding hatchet, made by a manufacturer we dreamt of giving our custom to when we were boys. I won’t tell you the name, but it’s hyphenated, and the first name is a crap colour that’s neither white nor black and the second is almost a US coin and they’re only the most famous bits of willow in the whole wide world.

I crooned over it for days.

True, I still haven’t quite found its middle — I know, it’ll sound different there — but it’s a long-ish season out here. I’m hoping I’ll get a few more hits. So there’ll be a big red patch where it matters that I can show to anyone who really knows (or cares).

You don’t need to be a cricket “tragic” to get it, you understand. But it would certainly help.

****

Not all the guys I’m playing with are “tragics”. Some merely like the camaraderie of a not-too-physically demanding sport. Nobody, or hardly anyone, is taking it too seriously. This too is different.

It may have something to do with the fact that I’m one of a very few subcontinentals in the team. Otherwise there are Brits, Australians, Kiwis, the odd South African and Zimbabwean; even, interestingly, a couple of cricket-crazy Americans. To play cricket without the burden of a pre-existing loyalty, whether to house, school, or country — because the last is how clubs abroad tend to form — is liberating and new, at least for me.

It’s also very early in the season, but I like that it is quite family-oriented. One of the gents I’m playing with had his very young son along a few weeks ago. The boy was chasing around, swinging at tennis balls, turning his arm over. He ran and ran. His dad laughingly told me that the family was cricket-obsessed. He hopes to keep his son involved, even in China. Another club-member always has his teenage son in attendance. The young man hasn’t gotten a game yet, but it is only a matter of time. Yet another dad has a matching club shirt for his three-year-old.

What could be better than to chase a red ball in the sun in the company of like-minded peers, while your family watches and is hopefully inspired to follow in your footsteps?

To watch daddy get carted about the park and still come out and play the next time is to learn a life lesson. It is fashionable now to state that cricket’s “values” — such as they are, if they ever existed — are atavistic at best, suited to a time gone by. I’d be glad to see the back of the “gentleman’s game” tag and all it represents in class, race and time. But the game I played this past weekend was also about honest effort and its limitations, and being accepting of weakness in others and yourself.

I’m just glad my son can come out, if he wants, to see his old man potter about playing yesterday’s game — in whites! — in a spirit that’s ostensibly disappeared. If he decides to pick up a bat, that’ll be just fine with me.

****

I don’t know when my waking dreams mutated away from cricket. I suspect it had to do with the decades between games. One day I discovered I was playing golf courses in my head and not demon fast bowlers.

I’ve always missed the spirit and the banter of team sports, though. So I’ve turned out for basketball and indoor soccer reasonably regularly these last many years. But the excitement I feel at the beginning of a cricket season is different.

It is a link to an older self; indeed, a life I’d almost forgotten. The last time I was looking forward to a full season, I was 16. The scorer’s head bent over his book; the panicked rummaging for pads as a quick couple of wickets fall; the telling yourself you’re ready — it is all known , as evocative of that distant moment as the burble of commentary on a shared radio between classes, reading Gavaskar’s Idols and R Mohan in Sportstar , the echo of willow being knocked in.

But bats these days apparently don’t even need oiling.

So what? A ready-to-go bat is unequivocally a good thing. As are beers between overs.

That’s the best part of encountering what’s familiar from an earlier life when you’re elsewhere. Like holding someone else’s child till it starts howling.

You take from it what is positive and what you miss, but it doesn’t own you any more.

All I want is to play.

BIO-AVTARjpg

Avtar Singh

 

Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing; Email: blink@thehindu.co.in

Published on May 04, 2018
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