Rajiv gave me a wide-eyed look which meant to say that what I had said just now sounded ridiculous. Being a boy of eleven, he didn’t have the courtesy to finish off with the look alone and proceeded to pronounce the meaning of his look emphatically.
“You want to play cricket with us??” he exclaimed, giving full vent to his tone of shock.
“Why not! I thought I would give you boys a few pointers”, I replied.
The look on his face turned from one of shock to one of hopelessness. He hung his head down and muttered ‘ok’ as I grabbed the bat and made my way out of the house.
Cousins who are almost half your age rarely see you as their equal. And the fact that you are a bespectacled, pot-bellied guy of twenty four with hairline which can be termed as invisible rather than receding doesn’t project you as the next milk swigging M.S.Dhoni. So I was not surprised by this less than welcome attitude of Rajiv. Still, I wanted to see how the rules of Street cricket had changed since my times. And I was itching to have some good old ‘gaaji’ at the expense of the little twerps.
We reached a street which had houses on both sides and three stumps right at the centre. There were about twelve boys milling around, teasing one another and cracking up. It felt so refreshing to be in their midst and forget the constrained life I was forced to lead. I experienced a rush of happiness as I went to join them. Instinctively I laid a generous slap on the back of a kid who didn’t seem to have any body parts except a head and a stomach. The head turned in my direction and the laughter ceased immediately. Twelve pairs of eyes looked at me as if I were a terrorist. Though they were merely curious, I could actually visualize grinding of teeth, cracking of knuckles and hissing as they looked at me.
“Hey guys! I am Rajiv’s cousin. Can I join you fellows?” I asked, putting forth my most affable persona.
The twelve pairs of eyes shifted their focus to the actual culprit now-Rajiv. He looked sideways at me in a pleading manner. “Please don’t do this” said the look. I stood firm on my decision.
They had no choice but to start splitting into two teams. The big question was- who would get the prized possession? In other words, me.
After much fight amongst themselves it was decided that I be in the team of the healthy looking young boy whom I had smote on the back. He let out a loud bawl when they had settled this which, I presume, must have been because of immense joy. The other team was captained by this intense looking fellow called Raghu. While most of the other kids were laughing, teasing and talking this fellow was silent and focused. He didn’t behave like an eleven year old at all which took me by surprise. But as the match proceeded my surprise was short-lived.
Our Yokozuna junior won the toss and we decided to bat. I decided let the kids have a go first so that I can be there as a backup in case of a sudden collapse or if we are in need of quick runs. But Yoko thought otherwise. He signaled to me.
“You go opening”, he told brusquely.
I felt very flattered by his faith in me. It was not before I took my stance to face the first ball that I got to know the real reason behind this when I heard Yoko talking to Rajiv.
“Are you mad dude? Why did you send him opening?” Rajiv asked
“Relax da! This way we can keep the important wickets intact”, Yoko replied.
If I had been their age I would have felt either very angry or very embarrassed as I listened to this atrocity. But the ‘adult me’ didn’t feel anything. I just wanted some fun time out and brushed the incident away reasoning that kids will remain kids.
The rules were pretty simple. There was only one side you could score runs- straight. You were out if you hit the ball directly into any of the houses and were granted one run if you hit the ball along the ground into any of the houses.
Raghu opened the bowling for them. He had the same fiery, intense look in his eyes. I decided to play a quiet maiden over and settle my nerves. He ran up and bowled. I plonked my foot forward to defend only to see the ball whizzing past me like a furry blur. Man, this guy was quick! I looked up at him. He gave a little smirk. I had to alter my course of action. I would henceforth adopt the stump-guarding mode of batsmanship, I decided. For the next ball I covered all three stumps and presented the full face of the bat to the straight half volley. It smacked me on my leg and pain shot through me. I never imagined that a tennis ball could cause such pain. As I bent down to rub my leg I heard Raghu shout.
“Full cover!! That is full cover. He cannot cover his stumps fully”, he exclaimed at the umpire who was from our team only. The guy nodded and asked me not to cover my stumps. This was new. I had never come across such nonsense in my playing days. Of course, the kid in me wanted to argue but the ‘adult me’ once again bottled down the rebellious ‘kid me’ and acceded to the demands of Raghu. The next ball was a fierce Yorker and of course, the most obvious thing happened.
“Yesssss! Bowled!!!” Raghu screamed. He looked at me as if to say ‘Ha! Were these the pointers you wanted to teach us?’ He gave a supercilious wave of his hand as I walked back to the side where my teammates were standing. Once again, the ‘adult me’ took charge and calmed me down. Instead of thinking ‘Wait till I get my hands on the ball and smash that little devil’s stumps into smithereens!!’ I ended up thinking ‘Wow! The little fellow does bowl well’.
The rest of our innings went pretty well. Rajiv and the kid who was umpiring while I batted stitched together a nice little partnership and Yoko came in during the final overs and muscled some hefty half-dozens. We ended up making 84 in 10 overs.
As we prepared to bowl, I decided to take up the wicketkeeper’s position, assuming that I would have less running to do. The mistake of my assumption, of course, was my gross overestimation of my keeping abilities. After letting some eight balls slip through right between my legs, missing three catches and two stumpings I was called off by Yoko.
“Please say that you are injured. We will take a substitute- my kid brother”, said Yoko, pointing to a smaller, rounder version of himself who was standing beside him sucking a lollipop. Did he really think this fellow could field or keep better than me? The ‘kid me’ wanted to put forth the question but the ‘adult me’ intervened once again.
“Sure. Go ahead”, I said.
Yoko went across to Raghu and they seemed to have a lengthy argument. He came back shaking his head. I looked over at Raghu and saw that familiar smirk on his face as our eyes met.
“He is not accepting. Ok. You take up that position near the boundary”, he said resignedly, pointing at the chalk marked line some 30 yards behind the bowling crease. I jogged up there and stood.
The match proceeded along without major hiccups from my side as I didn’t have much to do. I could call it either coincidence or luck, but the balls either sailed over my head for sixes or rolled up to me in a gentle fielder-friendly way.
The luck lasted for nine overs.
Rajiv held the ball and scrutinized the field. They needed twelve runs of six balls. He started the over.
He bowled three superb balls without giving away a single run. Off the fourth ball he took a wicket. It all seemed nice and easy.
Then Raghu walked in.
He took stance and smacked the next ball straight over Rajiv’s head.
“Catch it Uncle”, someone shouted.
I was deeply offended by this. But in hindsight I shouldn’t have reacted to this ‘Uncling’ as the ball came soaring towards my head. It was at a perfectly catchable height, in between the eyes and the throat. I should have put my hands in position and held on to this sitter. Instead I ducked.
“Sixxxxxx!!” shouted Raghu’s teammates. I could sense that smirk on Raghu’s face even at such a distance.
Yoko gave me an enraged look. Rajiv almost had tears in his eyes. I waved apologetically at them and positioned myself for the final ball.
Rajiv ran in and bowled a useless half volley. Raghu heaved at it. The ball soared once again.
“Catch it Anna”, someone shouted.
I felt a sudden surge of joy. I focused on the ball. But this time it was traveling over my head. I stretched my arms over my head and leaned back. I felt something soft and furry land on my palms and immediately closed my hands around it.
I could hear a mixture of shouts. Amidst the ‘Yesssss We won’ I could also hear ‘That is a six. He went over the line’. I looked back.
My heel was almost a centimeter outside the boundary line.
I turned towards the raging crowd running towards me. Rajiv had a pleading look in his eyes. Yoko was all red and flushed up. Raghu was intense as usual and outran the other two. As he approached me, I looked once again at Rajiv’s pleading face.
I pulled my leg inside in as discreet a way as possible.
The crowd milled around me. Raghu looked at my position and let out a resigned sigh.
I looked at him. The ‘kid me’ toppled the ‘adult me’.
“Ha! We Won!!!” I shouted, giving my version of a smirk right back at him.
As we made our way back, Rajiv went on talking excitedly about the final over. He literally made a superhero act out of my catch off the final ball.
As I raised my hand to high five his waiting one, an inadvertent smile escaped my lips.
Kids will, indeed, remain kids.