Hanging onto Karthik from the backseat of his motorcycle, I feel the rhythm of the landscape beneath me. The clay paths are bumpy and unforgiving, threatening to push me over the side. My right arm is fastened onto his tough shoulders while my left hand holds a wooden cricket bat in my lap.
We weave through traffic, moving from the urban sprawl of downtown Coimbatore and out into a small plantation township. Palm trees rise majestically into the sky. The air carries those scents that define the tropics: hot humidity mixing the sweetness of bananas and other harvest with putrid human sweat. Wild dogs and cattle saunter along the streets. We pause as a herd of goats crosses the road. A lanky shepherd patiently leads his cattle across the road towards a pasture and the goats bleat cacophonously.
We proceed past the township, and I watch as a part of India I have never seen before unfolds itself. Expansive farmland and greenery give a sense of general calm. The air is hot but pure. Karthik speeds through these village roads, but I feel like I could ride forever, making eye contact with pedestrians and allowing my hair to flicker in the breeze.
When we arrive at the ground, we are greeted enthusiastically by our nine teammates, all Karthik’s neighborhood friends. They pass around a pack of cigarettes, twirling them around with their fingers deftly.
“So this is your American friend, Karthik?” asks Arun, a potbellied twenty-something, as I shake hands and introduce myself.
“He plays cricket in San Francisco,” Karthik replies. I nod my head. They converse in Tamil. Karthik’s mother worked as a housemaid at my grandmother’s house, and my grandmother paid his school fees and helped him prepare for the all-important standard exams. Karthik was always at our house
“Does he really know how to play?” Satish, another teammate, whispers in into Karthik’s ear.
“He knows Tamil, and he plays well,” Karthik responds out loud, with his beaming smile.
“I didn’t know they play cricket in America,” says Arun, as he lights his cigarette. I nod again, and the boys don’t question any further.
Today’s match is a “bet-match.” The losing team has to cough up enough money for a round of drinks at the TASMAC liquor store.
Cricket originated in 16th century England and today is played through the English commonwealth and followed by hundreds of millions of rabid fans. In the United States, cricket lives through expat families from India, Pakistan, the Caribbean spending their Saturday and Sunday mornings and afternoons picnicking, as boys and men in white clothing take over public fields to play matches.
My parents introduced cricket to me at a tender seven years. Cricket, in its canonical form, is played with a stone-hard ball that is dangerous to even the strongest athletes. My dad understood that a cricketer must get over fear of the ball before adolescence; someone who thinks of danger during play, even momentarily, is never safe playing hard-ball cricket. I also learned quickly, through hours of Dad’s coaching, to appreciate the armour-like protective padding as an extension of the body. I slept nightly with my bat and learned to use it both as a tool of personal protection and an attacking weapon.
I grew up, like thousands of boys across the country, playing a sport that remained in the shadows of American sport, better connected culturally with countries like India, Australia, UK, and South Africa than our own. A product of our parents’ longing for connection with their homeland, we learned to play the purest form of the sport, with all the right equipment and facilities, which they themselves rarely had access to in their youth.
I survey the ground around me now. There is no grass, only a dry clay surface, peppered with thorny, green-brown shrubbery. There are potholes and rocks of all sizes everywhere except the “pitch” in the middle, which has been cleared for fair bounce. The boundaries are demarcated by barbed wire meant to keep animals from escaping their range, and bottles of soda, water, and other plastics litter the boundaries; a far cry from our well-mowed and fertilized Bay Area training fields.
Our match gets off to an intense start. The cigarettes are put away, and our team wins the coin toss. We bat first.
I am third in line to bat, and I sit on a log waiting for my turn. I listen to my teammates banter about girlfriends and gambling habits, but I am quiet, nervous about speaking in my Brahmin, foreign-class dialect with local boys. I watch as the players in front of me bat in ways that would make my coaches fume, moving their feet away from the ball, clearing space, and hitting high up into the air. Soon, a series of mistakes from the batsmen on strike gives me my opportunity.
Karthik comes up to me and we dap each other up. “Good luck da,” he says, looking me in the eye. “Show ’em how you play in America.” I smile and nod my head. I ready myself and swerve around once, noticing the field placements.
The wicketkeeper behind me, who collects missed balls for the opposition team, gives me a toothy grin. “American thambi is here. Let’s knock his head over, boys.”
I flash him a half smile and take my stance. The bowler runs up, gaining startling speed in his lungi, and releases the ball from high over his head before I have time to process his action. The rubber ball blends in with the dirt, and I see it rising towards my face moments before impact, and I duck my head to avoid contact. I stumble off balance, and hear snickers from behind me.
“What a ball! He has no clue! No clue!” chants the wicketkeeper.
I take a deep breath, and ready myself for the second ball. This time, the bowler pitches it a little closer to me, and I think I have a good read. Just as I am about to hit the ball with full force, it collides with the ground and jags leftward, barely missing my stomach and soars into the wicket-keepers hands yet again. Poor start. My skills in league cricket don’t seem to transfer easily to the more rugged village game.
I shake off the frustration of two missed balls, and stand one foot closer towards the bowler, hoping to counter the unpredictable bounce. I zone in on the bowler. As he runs up, I move early, locking myself into a position where my arms and legs can adjust quickly. Immediately upon release, I know he has missed his length. My left foot leaps forward by instinct, and its impact with the ground cues my arms to propel forward in fluid motion, bringing the bat to the pitch of the ball. The ball thwacks upon impact and I feel the vibration of the contact of rubber with willow reverberate through my body. There is no such feeling in the world — the sensation of having middled the cricket ball. I know I don’t have to run when the ball jets past two fielders into the boundary. Four runs.
After this shot, I am able to play my natural game. I concentrate on placing the ball into areas of the field furthest away from fielders, and help my team tick the scoreboard along. Soon thereafter, I receive a jaffa, a virtually unplayable delivery, which turns off the surface so sharply, I hardly process that I have been caught out until I see the opposition celebrating. I walk back to the log with my head held high. I have played a modest but useful part in building our team’s score.
“Great shots, thambi!” exclaims Arun. “Sometimes too much technique for these conditions, though.”
Karthik is next up, and comes up to me to grab the bat. “Finish this off for us,” I tell him.
The sun is beginning to set over Tamil Nadu as the game rages into dusk. The world glows like a lantern, the sky saps color from the palms. A drumbeat of the chirps of crickets, the croaks of frogs, and the chatter of birds summons forth the moon, a pale waxing-crescent. I imagine chasing after the sunset all the way to the coast, swimming into the cool evening waters and floating face-up, staring at stars as light fades away.
As I sit silently, watching the match, I think of my teammates, raised in the villages around Coimbatore, laboring through the days and looking forward to a weekend of smoking, drinking, and cricket with the boys — rugged boys grown on this very land, coping with enormous cultural changes sweeping the subcontinent. My opponents, who rode for miles down the highway on scooters and motorcycles in their knock-off brand t-shirts and lungi cloth skirts, boys to whom cricket was the religion of late evenings and nights.
I think of my father, who grew up on the Eastern Coast in Chennai, 200 miles away, playing cricket with friends nightly under the fading sun, to whom love of sport preceded and outlasted a life of migration and integration into a distant nation.
With me too, cricket lives and breathes.