The bowler uncorked the ball. In one instant I held dominion over all eyes, even (perhaps I exaggerate) those of the itinerant cows who come by the sandlot in the evening to graze.
I, cricket-batsman, wicket-protector, first-overall-draft-choice, swung.
(Later in the evening, in the afterglow of a new experience which, like the sunset, is susceptible to abstraction, I reflected that upon the exact moment in which bat met ball, the sandlot became a microcosm of my entire state of being in India: cows, stray dogs, strewn garbage, honking horns, passing trains, oppressive heat, the curious and almost entranced eyes of onlookers; and I in the middle of it all, willing myself somehow to feel a natural part of it...)
But getting back to the actual point where the ball left my bat, it was a beautiful parabola in slow motion; the ball arched gracefully high above the field and returned to Earth with no less grace, caught effortlessly, barehanded, by a ten-year-old boy.
In baseball terms it was a pop-fly to the second baseman. The humiliating infield-fly rule would have been invoked; an easy out.
I turned around and shrugged knowingly at my teammates, while behind me the young lad who'd caught my meagre effort joyously jumped around holding the ball like the IPL trophy.
As it happened, my quick out boded ill for the rest of my team. Even with a back-to-back pair of fours by Sunil in the ninth over, at the end of our innings we'd put nineteen runs on the imaginary scoreboard. This was, I quickly learned, so dismal an effort that the team briefly considered conceding and begging a restart.
Roles swapped, my team took the field (does one 'take' the field in cricket?) and positioned me quite shallow to the right of the bowler, a position which, though I don't know its name, is by all evidence a critical one, and a busy one.
Off the bats of the opposing team's boys the ball careened in my direction again and again, skipping off the pitch with eye-popping zigs and zags as it changed direction with each pebble or tuft of grass or divot of dirt or morsel of rubbish that it felt along the way.
(I fared better when the ball came at me without touching the ground; not only was this a clean-and-simple out; not only did my act of catching even the most routine of fly balls endear me to my teammates; but making this play obviated the need for immediate subsequent brainwork.)
In the game of cricket, once the novice fielder, having corralled a hop-skip-and-jumping ground ball into his hands, raises his eyes to field level, he witnesses a scene of incomprehensible disarray: the man with the bat is running toward him; but wait, another man with a bat is running away from him!
Swift little feet--my teammates'--kick up dust as they move their bodies into new locations: beside wickets, behind wickets, in front of wickets, between wickets. Everyone is running, everyone is shouting, everyone is waving arms... everyone wants the ball, or at least wants me to release it!
Madness, I report from the field.
India seemed so orderly when I held the bat. Sure, I was the centre of countless wondering attentions, but the world was still; a man had his moment of clarity.
But when I hold the ball, India is utter chaos, a sandlot of rising dust and eye-blurring perpetual motion.
What does one do in this situation? One fixes his eyes on something, on any one thing, and moves toward it before he is run over by the uncontrollable mayhem. And so I underhanded the ball to the nearest standing-next-to-the-wickets teammate (doubtless he has an official title) who in a continuous motion redirected the ball into said wickets and made (wow!) an out.
I did have a chance to bowl an over: six balls thrown on target, mercifully only two of which were sent screaming over my and everyone's heads for a six. (A home run, as it were; and what happens to a baseball pitcher who surrenders two home runs in one inning? Again I digress).
In the end we lost by something like three runs with two overs and four wickets to spare (or they had them to spare; I'm not sure). That, in sandlot cricket, is a blowout.
Strangely, as this unfamiliar game ended, so did something completely familiar: English. I'd barely noticed it at the time, but for quite a lot of these children it seems the breadth of their vocabulary in my native language is comprised mainly of cricket calls: Good out, wide ball, good catch, no ball, single, double, four, six, over...
Over the course of this game so incomprehensible to me, we had (I say at the risk of my metaphor-cup finally running over) actually been speaking my language all along.
So until we meet again, sandlot, danyavad and suba ratri, thank you and goodnight.
The Sandlot at dusk
(Click all photos to enlarge)