At first it seems like chaos. But as you allow your eyes to adjust, focus and refocus, like when looking at stars on a clear, moonless summer night, you start telling them apart. There are at least 30 different cricket matches on, each containing its own constellation of players, across the dusty maidan called Shivaji Park in the heart of Mumbai.
It was a hot afternoon in October and I had ventured with a journalist friend to the famous ground in Dadar. It was a bit unnerving to wander into this unstructured yet strictly codified world, though it was a scene straight out of my youth, when I had played on corporation grounds and colony fields, rooftops and raggedy streets.
It was hard to know where one match ended and the other began but the essence of the games soon came into view. It was like dusting off an old photo album, reliving memories. Denuded stumps - no bails, of course; stones and chappals marking the creases; Cosco tennis balls of varying wear; bats with twine coming off their handles. They were all there.
Apart from the Mumbai skyline looming in the background, all the characteristics of my childhood matches were on display. The guy with the stutter-step run-up; the manboy who bosses the bowling; the bowler with an odd action; the kid who just wants to field; the kid who gets to do nothing but field; the kid who is too small and never gets to do anything; the kid who is too big and gets to do everything; the cross-bat slogger; the dogged blocker; funky actions; fingerspin magicians; they were all there.
An umpire's job is made harder when there is no definitive crease but just two chappals, set six feet apart, to indicate the line
As we made it past some matches near the outer edges of the park, players in whites, wearing floppy hats, came into view. In the vast desert of that maidan, there were three or four oases of manicured green where "proper" cricket matches, with high elbows and polite applause, were on. We had finally found some method in the madness. And it came as no surprise that some of the greatest Indian cricketers have emerged from this setting, where the spirit of gully cricket and "proper" cricket happily coexist.
I was around 11 when cricket took hold of almost all my waking hours. Every opportunity to get together with my friends in the neighbourhood centred on impromptu games. I grew up in Polur, a small town about 170km south-west of Chennai, and my evenings, weekends, holidays and vacations were spent playing cricket in the streets, in the little area by the town's flour mill, on old fort grounds and on terraces.
The rules changed depending on the space and number of players available. From being declared out when the ball was hit outside the playing area to being "granted" runs (1G or 2G) on one side of the wicket due to space restrictions, to using a chair for stumps, to allowing one-pitch-one-hand catches - it was all fair game.
Street cricket in India has its own lingo. And it is specific to different regions. Anyone who has played cricket in Chennai will immediately recognise the terms gaaji, dokku or adetail. Gaaji is an innings, so at the toss the captain will invariably prefer to get some gaaji or batting time. Dokku is a defensive shot, with a negative connotation. Since the innings lasts only a few overs (typically five or ten), dokku batting doesn't get you anywhere, especially when setting a total. A batsman proficient in dokku batting is sure to get a lot of gaaji. But the captain might pre-empt this and declare him adetail-ed by relegating him to the tail and sending in a different batsman to push the score along.
If there are not enough players, it is normal to see "common fielding", where members of the batting side also field. If a captain miscounts the number of overs left for a particular bowler, he could call for "chain over", where the same bowler sends down two overs in a row. Or, if a bowler is having a terrible day, he might be cut off with a "baby over". If the length of the pitch is limited - which is often the case - "full pace" bowling is not allowed.
Balls could be hard tennis balls, cork balls, taped tennis balls, rubber balls, or those made with cycle tyre tubes. Stumps could be twigs, chairs, schoolbags, bricks, or three lines drawn on a wall. However, bats are generally bought in stores and tend to have a long life.
An indie Tamil movie released in 2007, Chennai 600028, is set around street cricket in a suburb whose pincode is referenced in the film's title. When my wife and I went to a corporation ground in RA Puram in early October last year, the kids were more than keen to point out that some of the movie's scenes were shot here. The ground is about three kilometres from my sister's house, where I spent many of my school vacations. And I remember playing here in the 1980s (though, unlike today, none of us wore IPL shirts and EPL jerseys). The intensity is still the same, the equipment just as dodgy, but the skill level seems to have been raised a few notches.
After sitting by the compound wall and watching the cricket for a few overs, I volunteered to umpire one of the games to get closer to the action. An umpire in gully cricket generally has three jobs: call wides, watch for front-foot no-balls, and adjudicate on run-outs. The players usually keep track of the score and the number of balls bowled in an over.
Housing colonies can no longer afford to have large empty spaces within their compounds since residents need space to park their vehicles
Run-out decisions can be tricky, especially with just a brick or a stone substituting for stumps. Many games allow for "current" run-outs, where a fielder receives the throw with one foot on the brick or stone that is the wicket. The umpire has to discern if the fielder is touching the wicket and the runner is short of the crease when the ball is caught. His job is made harder when there is no definitive crease but just two chappals, set six feet apart, to indicate the line.
The match went to a Super Over, a rule the players had adopted after it was used in internationals. The chasing team was still in the game largely because of Badri, a batsman in his early 20s, who had stopped by the ground on his way home from college. Tall and moustachioed, Badri didn't fit in with the rest of the boys, pre-pubescent teenagers, but he couldn't stop himself from playing a couple of games "just for fun". Badri had a role to play in the Super Over too. With four needed off the last ball, he was run out going for a non-existent third.
Badri, breathing heavily, his T-shirt soaked in sweat, spoke to us about gully cricket and recommended I go to Gopalapuram to check out the games there. The players soon vacated the area and moved to a corner of the field to start another game. I was told that this was because "senior" players, who were instrumental in raising money and building the concrete rectangle that served as the pitch, had arrived for their game. As a mark of respect, they were immediately handed their space.
The next day, at 4pm, we were at the Gopalapuram Corporation Ground. It is a vast open space in the heart of Chennai. In 2010, the Chennai Corporation pumped in significant sums to set up a running track, a cricket pitch, a basketball court and other facilities like a rudimentary gym and volleyball court. A few signs pointed to the construction nearing completion, but there was still a long way to go. Which was perfect for gully cricket.
Emboldened by my experience in RA Puram, I walked up to a group and asked if I could join. The outdoor basketball court had been converted into the playing area, and three stumps, a luxury, were planted just off the concrete. A scrawny barefoot boy wearing knee-length shorts caught my eye. He wore a brown checked shirt and black anklets. Mughilan, 16, with thatched hair that was collecting dust, carried himself as if he owned the field. It wasn't too long before I saw what he was capable of.
One of the most contentious aspects of a game of gully cricket is picking teams. It can put negotiations at the UN to shame. Both sides want the big guns, and neither is willing to give an inch. As the arguments carried on, Mughilan tossed me the ball and asked me to have a bowl. Not sure how good he was, I bowled from off about four paces, and since he was left-handed, kept it wide of off. Mughilan stepped across and swung it over the square-leg boundary. He then turned to me as if to say, "You don't belong here, old man." The next delivery was on leg stump, and he turned around in his stance and switch-hit me over point. We then swapped roles but there was still no letting up. With a high-arm action, and funky jump before delivery, Mughilan spun a bald tennis ball on concrete at pace. It didn't take long for me to realise why he was a bona fide gully cricket legend.
Though the core of gully cricket has remained the same since the 1980s, there were clear signs of change. We saw many kids in branded jerseys with names of cricketers and football stars printed on their backs. Almost all of them had smartphones. When they saw us take pictures, some would walk up with an inquisitive look and a friendly smile. "So what phone is that?" "How many megapixels in the camera?" "Where did you buy it?" "How much did you pay for it?"
Every third delivery, Ahmed launched the ball so far beyond the building walls and into the bushes, it was hard to locate it
Having grown up with six older brothers obsessed with cricket, my memories of childhood are dominated by backyard games that went on for hours every weekend. It was the early 1980s and everyone wanted to be either Kapil Dev or Sunil Gavaskar. Since I was the youngest and smallest of the lot, which meant my brothers could easily smash my bowling, I gravitated towards Gavaskar. All I wanted to do was copy his airtight front-foot defence. My childhood highlight was scoring 11 runs off seven overs without getting out. In gully cricket terms, this was textbook gaaji.
When I moved out of India in 1998, kids who played gully cricket were imitating Sachin Tendulkar. Now many are trying MS Dhoni's helicopter shot. When my wife asked one of the boys in RA Puram his name, he cheekily said, "Dhoni", his mouth curled up in a devilish smile.
On our trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, we watched a game being played opposite the Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula. In a rundown part of town, next to a Muslim cemetery, in a temple's ground, a dozen kids were spending their evening playing cricket. They had set up a pile of bricks to serve as stumps and the ground had a short boundary on the leg side. The dusty pitch had developed ridges and the red tennis ball was bouncing and turning unpredictably. There was only one fielder on the off side - at deep cover, no less. The rest were saving runs on the leg side.
Ahmed, not more than five feet tall, was charging down the pitch, as if to counter the irregular bounce, and launching balls towards the buildings beyond the boundary. When he didn't step out, he swept and reverse-swept. And he never missed. He raced to 29 off eight balls. I walked up behind the wicketkeeper and gently enquired about the batsman while taking photos. Of course, I had to tell the wicketkeeper that it wasn't an Android phone and that I had bought it in the US. He then told me about Ahmed. "Haan, yeh bahut ustaad batsman hai aur lagta hai aap ko dikhana chahta hai [Yes, he is a very good batsman and looks like he wants to show you that]." Every third delivery, Ahmed launched the ball so far beyond the building walls and into the bushes, it was hard to locate it. He often ran to assist the fielders as he "knew exactly where he had hit them".
The sheer amount of talent on display and the number of kids playing makes one believe cricket will remain the king of sports in India for some time to come. However, there were some warning signs too. On our trips through ten different Indian cities, gully cricket (on streets and grounds) was immediately visible only in Mumbai and Chennai. Some suggest that rapid urbanisation in many cities has led to a loss of open spaces and public grounds. Housing colonies can no longer afford to have large empty spaces within their compounds, since residents need space to park their vehicles. In Gujarat many open areas have been converted to "party plots" and are used for weddings and other social gatherings.
The popularity of Messi and Ronaldo jerseys - especially in the urban centres - cannot be ignored. Even on Chennai's corporation grounds, bowlers had to sometimes abort their run-ups when 20-odd footballers ran across the pitch. Growing up in the '80s, many of us had little but cricket to entertain us. Kids now have an option of a plethora of TV channels broadcasting every sport from every corner of the world. There are also video games and a multitude of options on the internet to keep them occupied.
Even on Chennai's corporation grounds, bowlers had to sometimes abort their run-ups when 20-odd footballers ran across the pitch
To see the passion around gully cricket one has to travel outside the major metropolitan centres. Looking out of the windows on train and bus rides, we saw games being played in fields in small towns - similar to what I experienced on weekends as a teenager. Former India opener Madhav Apte says cricket is no longer a big-city sport and partly attributes the change to television. "Who would have imagined that somebody from Jharkhand would captain India? This is basically the contribution of television."
Among the winding streets of Udaipur in Rajasthan, we found a restaurant perched on a building's roof - one of three or four in the area claiming to be the "highest view in Udaipur". From our vantage point we looked down on flat roofs of houses, each blurring into the other in the dimming light. At a distance, over the sound of passing horns, we heard a peal of laughter, and that unmistakable flap of chappals running back and forth. We followed the sounds and there, on a nearby rooftop no larger than 200 square metres, three kids were playing cricket.
A small girl knelt near a wall and, with what must have been chalk, drew a set of stumps. Two boys took turns batting and bowling. One of the boys went for a mighty swing and the ball sailed off the edge of the roof, disappearing into the noisy streets below. "Abeyaaaaar!" he cried, leaning over the edge.
A man on the street found the ball and tried to throw it back, but the distance was too great. One boy vanished into the house and soon appeared on the street to search for the ball. He couldn't find it for a few minutes but just as we were about to give up, he held the ball aloft with a victorious cry and ran back into the building. And the game continued.
We weren't aware of the exact rules of the contest - a secret between three kids high above the city - but we watched anyway. When the light faded and we struggled to discern their bodies, we couldn't turn away. Because they were still there. It must have been hard for them to see the ball, or even each other, but we could hear them playing - the flap-flap-flap of sandals on concrete, the cries of victory and defeat, that "thock" of bat on ball.
There are many people with opinions about the future of cricket - the formats, the laws, who will play, and how much. There are talking heads, and personalities, and moguls. There are tournaments and leagues in a random blend of alphabets. Lost in these endless arguments are those kids on the streets and rooftops, the dust whirling beneath their feet, the piles of bricks as wickets, the chappals marking the crease, two runs if you hit the tin wall to the right, four runs if you find the bush on the left.
The game has changed immeasurably but many things have stayed the same. Yesterday it was my brothers in the backyard. Today in Chennai, Mumbai and a thousand towns along the train tracks, there are young kids hitting weathered balls beyond their makeshift boundaries, watching them sail into tomorrow.