Ram looked up and held up his hand. The bowler stopped midway on his run-up and looked at him with an irritated look. Ram mumbled a terse, unapologetic "Sorry macha", dropped his bat, rubbed his sweaty palms on the sandy "pitch", and grabbed his bat again, with a sand-enriched firmer grip. "Batsman joot" he called out to the umpire.
The ball came crashing into his toes and while he tried to put his bat down in time, the only thing that saved him from being called out was that they had no LBW rule. They had enough arguments over run-outs so both teams had decided not to get into the even more contentious LBW territory. "This bowler is good, and I am lucky to survive that", Ram muttered to himself. Although the said bowler wouldn't pass ICC's 15-degree bent arm rule or whatever leeway they currently allow since his action consisted of running in, taking a small leap more for effect than for purpose, landed on both feet and then chucking the ball while bending forward. But he was taller than Ram, taller than most boys and had a nasty reputation of using his fists to talk. And so, no one around suggested that he was chucking and not "bowling". And Ram pushed such thoughts aside as he concentrated on somehow keeping the next ball from crashing into his stumps.
It was critical not to get out. It was a 'bet match', and each side had ten rupees at stake. It was a ten-member a side team, so Ram's contribution was a whole solid rupee. A significant step-up from the 50 paise per head matches they had played so far. But then, to be fair, the cost of the rubber ball had been increased recently from 5 rupees to 7 rupees, and few in that group apart from Ram could actually divide 7 by 10 properly. And even if they could, how do we collect 70 paise from each, thought Ram.
Ram wasn't much of a player, not even in terms of the limited skills required on that particular playground. Sometimes, he thought the only reason they included him in the team was because he owned one of the two bats that the team used. A bat which was his reward for having come first in class. And when the bat, after 4 years of selfless service, decided to get a bit angry and developed a tendency to ‘fly off the handle’, they just crucified it with a nail on either side and magically resurrected it. After all, it was a "lucky bat", the same one that Saravanan had used to score fifty runs in that famous match last year when they had won the 5-rupee a side bet match and used the winnings to buy ‘kuchi ice’ for the whole team. He still remembered the delicious taste of that mango-flavoured cone of solidified water.
Coming back to Ram's cricket skills, or the lack of them, he bowled some "off-spin" (at least in his mind, it was off-spin) and was more often than not taken off after a ‘baby over’ because of the irritating tendency of the opposition batsmen to come down the pitch and hoist the ball over his head without allowing the ball to actually turn and do its magic. And while he dropped a lot of catches, no one could doubt his enthusiasm while fielding. In the other critical aspect of cricket, he could put a stout defensive bat and steal an occasional single, but hitting boundaries was not his forte and he had never hit a six. Not even in the game they had played with the shorter boundary since some other team was playing at the other end of the "ground".
The "ground" was a rectangular plot of open land, surrounded by houses whose walls formed a natural boundary. It was sandy and uneven, but the boys had managed to find a bald flat spot which became the pitch. And Ram, being the shortest in the group, was designated to measure the pitch, which he did by taking some normal strides, and then smaller and smaller strides, somehow managing to fit 22 "yards" in the space.
“I should have taken longer strides, at least he would be hurling the ball from much farther away”, Ram thought to himself as one more ball whizzed past his ear. “good balling, good balling, 1 ball, 2 runs”, the wicketkeeper’s words whizzed past his other ear. “Balling illa bowling, idhu kuda theriyadhu, cricket velayada vandhutaan”, Ram’s inner grammar geek was awakened. “92 marks in quarterly exam in English, while this idiot probably failed”. Ram had this annoying tendency to remember arcane stuff, and was particularly accurate when it came to the marks he scored.
His team had been doing well, first restricting the opposite team to 50 runs off 12 overs, and then racing to 30 off 5 overs. And then, the inevitable collapse happenned. And before he knew it, Ram was facing the pressure. Last wicket, the chump at the other end being worse than Ram when it came to batting, tough as it might be to believe.
“1 ball, 2 runs. 1 BALL, 2 RUNS. Somehow connect, run a single and at least tie the game”, he kept muttering to himself. He was a man of modest expectations, after all.
The bowler came thundering in. And ripped another fast one. Ram closed his eyes and swung. And connected. If it were the movies, the ball would have sailed over the boundary rope (or more correctly, the wall of the acid-tongued lady’s house in this case), and the heroine would be running across the field to kiss the hero. But this was no movie, and there wasn’t any heroine around (won’t be too, for another 15 years and counting...), and so the ball rolled meekly across, not far from one of the better fielders of the opposition.
Ram hollered “TWO”, set off at full speed, all the while imagining that the stray dog of his street was behind him, finished one, turned around and halfway down the pitch realized that the fielder was already lining up his throw. Two of the biggest steps he had ever taken in his life, and one full length dive with bat stretched across, later, and he was... IN! The wicketkeeper still appealed, and after 2 minutes of heated arguments in lieu of the absent TV umpire, in which several ladies of the families of all parties were referenced in a not-so-respectful manner, it was agreed that Ram was indeed not out.
The ten rupees was happily collected by Ram's captain, and off they went to the ice-kaaran. I don’t know if you guys know what I am talking about, but they used to sell these ice ‘sticks’ in bright red, orange and pink colours, packaged in a polythene thingy. It was simply called “ice” in our hometown.
And as he sat there, with blood trickling down one of his elbows, bat tucked under his arm, sounds of “super run da machi” and pats on his back, and that “ice” slowly turning his tongue into a shocking shade of orange, Ram was the happiest sucker around.
PS: The World Cup always brings with it the nostalgia of my very unsuccessful attempts at swinging the willow. And I have never figured why I so much love watching this game that I can't play well.