[Note: I made this post nearly 2 years back in another blog. The site has since been revamped and the post is nowhere to be seen. I have a soft corner for that post as it brings me back to my past and makes me say Hi to it whenever I go through that post. I am reproducing that Sep'2007 post here in Pavilion View.]
Sep 28, 2007
“Paara” cricket in Bengal’s suburbs
Bengal has been game for cricket for over two centuries. The first ever cricket match in Bengal apparently took place as early as 1792. Interestingly that match was played between Calcutta Cricket Club and a combined team from Dumdum and Barrackpur, two suburban cantonment towns near Kolkata.
As Ramachandra Guha observes in the opening chapter of his excellent book “A Corner of a Foreign Field”, cricket was the topmost game in Britain in those days. The British armymen posted in Indian cities and suburbs brought the game to India. While cricket in Kolkata was played mainly in inter-club format. The numerous small setups of British officers in the interiors of Bengal did not enjoy the luxurious infrastructure of clubs though. Nevertheless they found avenues of recreating home in a foreign land. Their habit of playing cricket in winter afternoons was as much an effort at competitive sport as an event of social gathering and entertainment. Often matches were arranged with nearby establishments and it was no different with suburban cantonments in and around Kolkata. In the process the British armymen had a big hand in popularising cricket in suburban West Bengal.
I grew up at Ichapur, a small town in North 24 parganas district and 6 kilometres from the above mentioned Barrackpur. As depicted in the 2001 cricket classic ‘Lagaan’, I can easily imagine forefathers of my friends in Ichapur / Barrackpur picking up this strange game from vantage points outside the parade grounds. [Why were my ancestors not watching? Because they hailed from Midnapur, where cricket must have reached much later.] Guha refers to army officer A G Bagot’s observation about the early aversion of Indians to the nuances of cricket in his account “Sport and Travel in India and Central America”. I too am inclined to believe that this multi-generation love affair with a foreign maid named Miss Cricket must have started off with our great great great granddads assuming the Britishers to be odd people capable of finding joy in “running about in the sun all day after a leather ball”.
Two hundred years have passed since. Barring the odd cricket coaching centre, the game still awaits infrastructure, development and organisation in the suburbs. Yet cricket is a widely played game in West Bengal. “Paara” cricket (‘paara’ means neighbourhood in Bangla), the breeding ground of suburban cricketers, comes in all sorts of customised avatars though.
The neighbourhood sporting club
The grassroot unit of competitive sport is the neighbourhood club. Typically it will be a one or two room infrastructure in the locality where young bachelors will assemble in the evenings to play a few games of carrom or cards. The club is often an spontaneous assembly of adolescents and grown ups rather than an officially registered body. The clubs generally seek to garner social prestige mainly through organising some or all of the many Pujas of Bengal.
The club folk generally play their sport in the patch of vacant land nearest to the club room. Soon it becomes their home ground.
Learning the sport
The suburban cricketers often take their first lessons of cricket from appreciative seniors in the neighbourhood club, who in turn were taught similarly. Often their bowling and batting techniques remain largely the same as their first attempt at delivering a ball or playing a shot. Seldom are any corrections or improvements brought about in a learner’s game unless it is drastically problematic or the player himself insists on it. Only a handful of youngsters are lucky enough to be exposed to ‘coaching’.
The concept of learning cricket is gradually changing because a significantly higher percentage of today’s parents are cricket-educated and attach more importance of proper learning of the game by their wards. Hence the clubs these days are more inclined to appoint sports coaches.
Competitive cricket starts when a kid becomes good enough to represent his club when they play a neighbourhood club. This match may be played either in the home ground or away. In addition to the bilateral matches, there are the tournaments that give away coveted trophies, ones that serve to adorn the trophy cases of the clubs and allow the club members to swell with genuine pride.
Tournaments and their rules
Entry into professional life has made me a little detached from those areas over the last decade, but till the late nineties there used to be no authority beyond the neighbourhood club hosting a tournament that had a say on playing conditions and rules for the tourney. The hosts’ ruling was final. That does not necessarily mean they twisted the rules beyond recognition. The post 80’s exposure to televised cricket ensured that most players and organisers had a sound knowledge of the game’s basic laws. I am sure things are even better now.
However all such tournaments are generally played on the home grounds of the hosting club(s) and the widely varying shapes, landscapes and boundary conditions of these grounds ensure invention of rules that best ensure a good game of cricket. e.g. Presence of a very short boundary on any side of the wicket will often encourage a ‘boundary two’ for all ground shot boundaries and a ‘four’ for over-boundaries to that side. No sixes, that is. The boundary scores may be further reduced to deter batsmen from hitting shots there in case a pond exists on that side! Also, matches played in small grounds would often be ‘9-a-side’ games.
Canvas and leather
Most games in such tournaments are played with ‘cambis’ balls over a 16 (or 20) overs a side format. ‘Cambis’ ball is really the canvas ball or tennis ball. [For other such ‘paara’ cricket terminology have a look at Abhijit Gupta’s Paara Cricket Glossary] People coming out of suburbs often do not get a chance to play with leather balls till they reach college. That can make the purists cringe but I am afraid not much can be helped there.
The concept of a groundsman is unheard of in suburban clubs and playing with leather ball on such grounds is a heavy physical risk for both the batsmen and fielders. Moreover, grounds are shrinking in sizes and numbers every year and residents of buildings serving as boundaries of these cramped playing spaces are hardly willing to patronise three broken windows and one injured toddler every month.
Not just the ball but the duration of these games may well raise eyebrows of those not having the inclination to acknowledge cricket beyond the ‘real’ variety. Players – the ones in suburbs, that is - only have two hours to play. The duration, hence, are always in line with the latest cricketing invention, Twenty20. Barring the absence of ‘cambis’ ball and presence of international cricketer’s gear, Twenty20 is the closest thing to ‘paara’ cricket I have ever seen. As Ajay Jadeja said the other day, “the first time I played a 5 day game was my first Test match”. And Ajay is a city-bred player from a traditional cricketing family.
Perhaps tennis ball cricket needs to be appreciated better; after all, it has produced a leading batsman-keeper at the topmost level who is also proving to be a capable national team captain on his very first assignment as a leader. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is as much a product of suburban cricket as are his main pace weapons RP Singh and S Sreesanth.
Of course the odd leather ball tournament will also happen in the area, but those would generally be in industrial meets typically organised by a manufacturing unit in the district. The host unit will send invitations to clubs to participate in the meet’s “one-day cricket tournament”. [Here, “one day” signifies wrapping up the tournament in a day.] Back behind the closed doors of an invited club the bunch of tennis ball talents in the club will get divided into two groups over a meeting: the ones that are not fazed by the risk of injury posed by hard red ball, and the ones that will start making excuses and opt out of the tourney. The former lot will then effortlessly morph into masters of the ‘deuce’ ball [ref: that Abijit Gupta piece, once again] and go ahead to get a taste of armoured cricket.
Oh yes, women’s cricket was non-existent in the districts even as late as the 1990’s. Jhulan Goswami, the fastest woman bowler in the world and ICC cricket of the year 2007, learnt her cricket and acquired pace in her bowling through playing with boys. As much as revealing her spirit and tenacity, it also says that players like her will emerge rarely unless there is an infrastructure in place. Hopefully this part will change too. Jhulan herself may have a big role to play in it.
Love of cricket
Suburban tournaments are mostly organised by local sporting clubs. Some of the bigger tournaments are hosted by a group of clubs and even manage some sponsorship. Sponsorship is relatively easier to find for tournaments in Kolkata (Bagpiper sponsors a prestigious ‘paara cricket’ championship in Kolkata) but for their suburban brothers financing a tournament can be a painstaking affair. Competing clubs are often charged pocket-pinching entry fees to fund the tournament expenses. Most of these competing clubs are run by youngsters with meagre incomes. Those tournaments will never happen unless so many cricket loving young people are ready to part with big money in form of participation fees.
The better players get a platform to exhibit their skills in such tournaments and often get noticed. Subsequently fame spreads by word of mouth and they get hired by other clubs to play in other tournaments in exchange of a small sum of money. The term for such ‘professional’ cricket is ‘khep khela’. The luckier and more enterprising amongst the good players get to attempt a breakthrough into mainstream cricket by qualifying to play for first or 2nd division leagues on behalf of some Kolkata cricket clubs.
Farewell to cricket
Most of the ‘star’ players though have to soon look for livelihood by the time they end their schooling or graduation and cricket in their lives fades away like a flashback. From live participation in games played on a green field with a bare patch in middle, cricket loses one of the three dimensions to these young men and gets firmly ensconced in the idiot box, to be followed only in the spare time extracted from a hard day’s work and a million other daily duties.
I saw each one of my childhood playmates get detached from cricket that way. One or two amongst them were very good and could have even shone at higher platforms. They were never serious to pursue cricket as a profession though, partly because we grew up in a society that never suggested such ‘self destruction’ to its kids and partly because a typical Indian youngter is not likely to be taught to back himself by anyone other than his own inner voice.
A memorable match
Jhulan Goswami’s native place Chakdaha in Nadia district is about 50 kilometres of railway journey from my place Ichapur in the opposite direction of Kolkata . Chakdaha first caught the regional headlines for producing a remarkable student that topped both the secondary and higher secondary board exams. In those days A prestigious tennis ball knock-out tournament used to be hosted every winter in Chakdaha (I do not know if the tradition of the winter tourenament still continues). We had participated in it once in the late 90’s.
The ground was a real small one; a 40 yard boundary on the off-side and barely 25 yards on the on-side. The number of spectators assembling to watch the match surprised us. (Obviously they had to stand on the lanes, as the ground could not be curtailed any further). Apparently the tournament already had a bit of history. A spectator spotted some familiarity in the face of one of our players and asked the name of his father. Upon learning the father’s identity he was elated. “So he is the son of Chanchal! We still remember how well he played that year here at this ground”.
It was a 16-overs-9-players-a-side match, with all other rules of normal cricket. We scored only 84 in a 130-par-score arena and duely lost the match. But more than anything else I have ever read about or seen in cricket that one match demonstrated to me the value of taking every chance in the field. As soon as the 2nd innings started one of our bowlers conceded a 24-run over. And yet it turned out to be the most thrilling match I have played till date as our team, catching everything and goofing up just one half-chance of a run-out, lost by a nail-biting solitary wicket mainly through the solo shepherding act of a late middle order batsman.
Not quite a ‘Lagaan’ ending for us there - even after generations of picking up the bat-ball game from the East India Companywallahs in and around Barrackpore. And to think Lagaan’s Bhuvan and his team learnt not just playing the game but also the art of finishing a cricket match inside of a month!! Is that why Gujarat produces more Test cricketers than Bengal?
I will have to end this piece on a sad and alarming note. The next generation kids of my old Ichapur ‘paara’ have no home ground to play. The defence colony ground we played in has been put out of bounds of the general public due to growing security concerns, and most of the other nearby grounds have long yielded to increasing demand for dwellings. I am sure this has happened to many other Ichapurs in India.
The basic / minimum requirement for development of any sport is the existence of open playgrounds in enough numbers. Playgrounds not just need to be protected from the infrastructure boom but also increased in numbers to the extent possible. And such drastic steps need to be taken without delay, else even the few remaining spaces will be gone. Leave alone producing cricketers to win world cups, this country may not even have enough people like me to write or reminisce about the game.
Instead of passing thoughtless remarks on the Indian inability to produce a ICC-event-winning side in two decades, Mr. Malcolm Speed will do well to take a reality check on such aspects and instruct BCCI, the ICC’s self-appointed money-spinning wing that needs instructions to carry out its other greater duties, to join hands with other outdoor sports bodies in India and ensure protection of playgrounds. This is going to be a long drawn task involving implementation of a few government ordinances, and hence needs to be initiated right now. Identification of vacant areas in various districts, acquiring them and converting them into ‘sports sanctuaries’ seems to be our last chance to ensure that enough numbers of young men and women in this country keep playing and appreciating outdoor sports half a century hence.