A Secret History of Bihar Cricket (1959-1965)
This is a work of pure fiction and any resemblance to any person, place or thing, dead or alive, is but a matter of pure coincidence.
Cricket means many things to many people. However, as regional histories of this very ancient game is concerned, we find that the ancient land of Bihar has been home to this game from not very much long ago even if all types and variants of this splendid game thrive to this day from the remotest jungle village to the most urban of Bihari Locales. The story, this particular one, I mean, of Bihar Cricket starts in a very lower- middle-class, neighbourhood of Bhagalpur, called Bengali-Tola. It would be obvious to the learned readers that such a name for a Tola may not derive at all until and unless there were there a majority of Bengalis residing at the time this tola, in the period indicated above, was actually called that name - 1959-1975. I shall come to cricket, by and by, however, it appeals to me that a mere description of where, how, and why, was the game of cricket, in its numerous variations, was played in this part of Bihar, of its time, would be a very dry account to be writing, nay, dry as the driest wind that blows. Therefore, in the manner of this era of post-modern narratives I would like to make this account of Bihar Cricket, in the period mentioned above, to be as multidisciplinary, as possible. Let's start with Sociology of Cricket, for instance. Most cricketers reading this story should be familiar with what is meant by cricket, however, I feel sure that it is just as likely that they would not be aware that what we call as Sociology in India, passes under the name Social Anthropology, elsewhere.
This also does remind me that I had once seen a film called Trobriand Cricket (access it through the www.youtube.com) in which the ethnographic film makers have tried to document how this modern game of cricket was adopted and adapted by the Trobriand Islanders. If I remember correctly, the Trobriand islands were occupied by several military bases during the IInd War, and the administration had put a ban on the islander community's affinity for warring between themselves. Therefore, as the film showed, the Trobriand islanders had taken a propensity towards expressing their aggression for each other through cricket.
So Chunnu, Munnu, Jhunnu, Sisu, Ravi, Mantu or Manta, Bhanua, Kishore or Phantoosh or Phantu, Rajib Ranjan Singh or Rajibba, Monu Da, Kalyan Sen's sons who were very much older to us, Aandu-Shatoo, Buro, Hondol (Shopon Da), Bubai and myself, we would all play cricket joined no doubt by many other friends whose names I shall recall in due course.
Bricks, about six of them, placed horizontally, one over the other, on their horizontal axis, some times just the one column of them, and in case of a very fast bowler, joining our group, another column, comprising the same number of bricks and arranged in the same order, as described before was placed behind the first column. This served as a perfectly serviceable wicket.
Behind the wickets lay a thick scrub and bush cluster which served as a natural wicket-keeper the ball varying from tennis balls from which the downy-outer had been stripped to get good bounce, to what were actually called cork-ed-balls. These latter balls were very awesome mainly because when they hit the batsmen or the fielders between their legs, they would be transported in sheer physical agony as far away as the Trobriand Islands.
The game of cricket was usually played in the winter by this group of children dressed in half-pants and half-shirts, bare-feet, who were all let out from their respective homes, after the day of school etc., by their respective parents, to play cricket. The parents themselves who would be listening to cricket commentaries on the radio with usually Sunil Gavaskar hitting another ton against a devastating West Indian or Australian pace attack, or an E.A.S. Prasanna or B.S. Chandrasekhar, bringing the best of an English side down to their knees taking wicket after wicket, with their trademark googly, or Farrukh Engineer taking another very stylish catch behind the stumps, or Bishan Singh Bedi, proving himself just the star that everyone already knew he was. Of course we must not forget the very many other very famous names of this golden era of Indian Cricket - Eknath Solkar, Roger Binny, Sayeed Kirmani, Gundappa Vishwanath and Venkatraghavan.
It is egged-on by their glowing performances, which are history now, that the children of Bengali Tola Mohalla took turns in performing a Wesley Hall, Sir Gary Sobers, Jeff Thompson, Dennis Lilee, Geoff Boycott, Lance Gibbs, Mike Brearly, Tony Greg and so on and all the other greats as most of us chose to be Sir Sunil Gavaskar. Batting was in. Bowling and fielding was out. There is a certain street, called Satish Sakar Lane, which was the central street of this mohalla, which was occupied territory during our game of cricket so that even the occasional innocent passerby had to become willing or unwilling audience throughout the entire game. Cricket is very much a spectator sport, thus, this strategy for pulling a crowd to watch our game was no doubt very much a case of end justifying the means.
However, a proper anthropology of mohalla cricket would never, even in a postmodern narrative mode, be complete, without exploring the nexus of sports goods shops, types of bats, and the areas of Bhagalpur where these resources were located. Further, where else was cricket, and of what types, was played in Bhagalpur City, between 1959 and 1975? These are, to our mind, no doubt questions of some importance, for a regional history of Cricket, such as this. Located in the main market or bazaar of Bhagalpur City the Punjab Sports Shop located near the Ajanta Talkies was the best known among three or four shops that sold sports goods exclusively. Accompanying an elderly Uncle to such a shop was the greatest of delights as apart from feasting the eyes on a variety of Cricket Goods, Blood - Red Balls, Spanking White Batting Gloves and the smell of leather, all very uplifting. And the smattering of the Punjabi Language was the greatest delight of all.
Again, there was another sports shop, located more centrally in the main Bazaar. However, in my estimate the Picture Palace shop was both bigger, better supplied with sports goods and the salesmen or shop owners by far more affable than the shop in the main bazaar. Incidentally, the Punjab Sports also was the main supplier of sports goods to the Bhagalpur University and as children of teachers of the same university we were likely to get some out of turn discounts, a practice still widely prevalent in India and in which matter India may be said to be an exceptional country. Bhagalpuris, however, never said they were going shopping, whether for sports goods, they always called such outings as `Marketing'.
As far as I may remember we played the very first games of our lives with non-descript pieces of wood, and then graduated onto shattered and splintered, that is to say, totally decrepit bats as hand-me downs, from senior players of the Mohalla. Only and Only when our cricket was up to a standard did the elders present us, very typically on birthdays and such like, with Kashmir Willow Bats. yet these were still for juniors and they were covered with a parchment which would peel off after a little while and this made getting good strokes impossible as the ball deflected quite unpredictably from that face of the bat which had peeling parchment. When due complaints were made and we were slightly older, yet another generation of Kashmir Willow bats appeared, this time without parchment, and these were just too good. Yet, even now, no pads, guards, gloves or any other sort of accessories were provided, so we remained constantly under the threat of being transported to Trobriand Islands in a variety of ways. That however was no deterrent. That is how cricket was played here by the mohalla boys, and occasionally girls, for all of fifteen years.
Cricket however may not be played in the monsoon, unless it is with a rubber-ball, and on a turf with very uneven bounce, some splashing water, a lot of slipping and falling bowlers and fielders, but the greatest handicap in mohalla cricket which was indeed played even in the heaviest of the monsoons is that the ball would land in the mohalla drain, just by the field where this game was played and was instantly swept away by torrents of drain-water roaring and gushing in the smaller drain and then hurtled towards and into the very large drain at its exit. The ball could often be rescued on its unfortunate journey by intrepid fielders and yet sometimes owing to the velocity of the drain-water the ball was sometimes indeed lost, suspending the days play. This was an impediment and a very irritating one as then the ball had to be replaced with all sorts of replica balls made of small pieces of paper, bricks, and some times a large and hard fruit growing on a nearby tree. However, as these made only makeshift and very unsatisfactory replacements losing a ball to the drain was indeed a very high-price to pay for players of our age for playing during the monsoons.
Playing in the winter, however, was standard, when cricket, truly speaking had to compete with several other games - Pitto, Gulel or Gurdel, kabaddi, kite-flying, gulli-danda, marbles, tops - and some real-time body-building. All these games were played within the Mohalla precincts. However, for body-building one had to either buy the equipment, or have them made, such as wooden dumb-bells or Mugdar, or take recourse to the many vyayamshalas then existing in Bhagalpur which as far as I recall charged no fees or anything of the kind for teen-aged or adolescents trying to improve their body architecture.
However, in Bihar, the winter's sun is very ideally suited for the game of cricket. And thus the winter's share of cricket was played in the nearby Giddar (or Fox) Field which was pretty close to our regular field. It was indeed called the Giddar or Fox-Field as at night some foxes invaded this field and their hoots and typical calls were affirmed by our elders as owing their origin to local foxes. It was a good field to be playing in as it was very very big and there was no way here the ball could be lost to the drain. And this was really an advantage for the batsmen as every time the ball was hit to the drain it cost them their wicket.
Speaking of large fields, there was yet another one behind the Navayug Vidyalaya. It was almost forested with a variety of grey pigeons and other birds and we visited this sometimes only not to play cricket as the environment here was very dilapidated. Armed with a Winchester .22 rifle the visits here were with an aim to try and shoot-down some of these panduks. The bushes here were well-supplied with bitchi-patta a plant which causes intense burning-type of irritation to the skin as its very fine thorny needles which no doubt have some sort of venom were a great deterrent. By the looks of it numerous snakes would also have abounded here although, to tell the truth, we never saw even one of them. There was a sort of nullah running across this field and in the monsoon it would convert to a pokhar. On the far side of it the bandages and other refuse of the district hospital lay in a tumulus.
Thus playing cricket also lead us to unexpected quarters to our mohalla, to very unexpected things therein, and some very unexpected results. However, for a young mind unaccustomed to rifles the smell of gunpowder minimally emitted from even a .22 Winchester is indeed very heady, especially when it brings down a Panduk. if you don't believe me have a try. Gun Licenses are entirely legal when approved by the government of India and the if you decide to shoot at nothing at all, why you could be Mahatma Gandhi!
And then, our good friend Rajeeb Kumar Singh, alias Rajibba, owned a certain tree which he called the Vilayati-Leechi-Tree, which means the England-Leechi-Tree, even if, in fact, the extremely cold climes of England could never ever be conducive to the breeding of such Leechi-Trees there. They were green, horrendously spiky and tasted absolutely horrible. It conveyed nothing whatsoever good about Vilayat or its Litchis.
However, Rajib's one-upmanship in connection with our mohalla and vilayati connections lasted only so long as Kiran Babu's younger brother visited us in this very mohalla soon after his return from England. Naturally, cricket players are also human beings and therefore tend to learn from every opportunity which presents itself outside of the cricketing moment, such as when Kiron Babu's brother's rickshaw rolled down the decline of the slope of our mohalla which lead to Kiron Babu's house.
All of us huddled together as a group or perhaps squatting or sprawling upon our very spacious cricket field and eyed a very well dressed gentleman smoking a very long cigarette, perhaps a Benson & Hedges, alight from a very Bhagalpuri rickshaw. Its hood was drawn-up to save Kiron Babu's brother from the excessive sun and beneath his legs were a few very fine foreign looking bags.
All of us scrambled to enter Kiran Babu's house on his brother's heels to catch the very first words spoken and to remember it for eternity. Of course these were words (spoken in Bangla) in respect of an elder brother whose feet were fondly touched by the younger. Kiron Babu, who worked at the Bihar Rajya Transport Corporation office at Bhagalpur, and widely respected in our Mohalla, promptly replied with an "Aesho, Aesho", as the younger brother touched his feet, while Kiran Babu's entire family, with Kaki Ma in the lead, peered from behind the curtains of the adjoining inner-door and giggles of amusement could be heard emanating from inside the house. In the evening, there was a slide-show about England. And our cricket team was present there.
In a very dark drawing room with some twenty or so people occupying chairs beds and the floor reserved for the cricket team the black slide-projector brought from England by Kiron Babu's brother whined and whirred as he clicked one slide after another showing us building and such national treasures of England and accompanied this with his monologue commentary. The slide projector was a great thrill and a greater curiosity in this Mohalla which seldom had electricity. the brother lit a large cigarette and the curls of its smoke imposed themselves upon a picture of the Buckingham Palace, the Big Ben, the House of Lords, The London Bridge and the Tower of London...However for the cricket team which doubled-up as a team for instant inventions of the scientific kind as well, for weeks after that, it was not the images of a distant country which held any appeal but the seduction of trying to replicate the slide-projector with such resources at our disposal. The first part of any successful scientific experiment is to gather the materials necessary for it and with the very very innovative and original scientific experiments such as this, dear cricketers, it is often the case that you do not know where to start from and in such cases you have to wait for that moment of luck when the right component suggests itself to yourself purely through chance. And in our cricket team/scientific invention(s) team's case, the very holy and revered spot of Bengali-Tola Mohalla's Durgasthan, provided the necessary inspirational suggestion for a necessary component for our fledgling project to re-invent a London-Made Slide Projector. It was a skeuomorph of a real projector, made of glass and tin. Historian of Philosophy of Science say that analogical thinking plays a great and a very important role in the discovery of newer paradigms. Thus this skeuomorph of the London made slide projector purchased by us for just a few rupees went a long way in furthering our experiment. Let's just suppose, for the moment, that the chance find of what you have thought would constitute but a component of the total system you have held in your mind as the model end-product of your experiment, turns out to be the one and only component needed to finish your experiment to assemble your new system!? And then, how does the axiom `the sum of the parts of a system are greater than the whole' hold? No. matter. Never mind.
Jolly good, Innit?
Thus our cricket team, at one glance, learnt a lesson, which I hope we haven't forgotten to this day, which is that very often it is the case in India, that what the ivory towers can't, the street-wisdom of India can! of course, heh, heh, and pushing past fifty years of age, now, i well realise that the reverse is also true. heh. Heh.
And, then, very surprisingly, life went-on. and so did cricket and the rest of it. Well as they say win some lose some; another day another match, Hah!
And then very suddenly, a pace bowler called Manta or Mantu, joined our con gerie. Manta name was legend. He was a very fast bowler indeed. He was other things too, but that is another story. Manta was mostly a robber. On the day that his school-mates at the Zilla-School were meant to be paying their two penny fees to the School Authorities, Manta would stand front at the Cashier's counter and rob each fee-payer of about 25 paise or as the age, status, and class demanded. You have to serve somebody! A lesson Bengali-Tola boys learnt as early as the 1960s, thanks to Manta.
So that was a very good deed done.
And, then came his pitch-breaking bowling. Literally, he had our entire Mohalla-teams' batsmen at sixes and sevens as he was a real Bowlshevik; which is to say that, like the artistes of the Bolshoi Ballet, Manta was capable of great gymnastics, and therefore a very fine athlete. His out-swings of the cricket ball were legendary.