The madness called cricket
By Omar Kureishi

IHAVE written that my upbringing had protected me from the general misery of India. This does not mean I was unaware of, or insensitive to it. There was no way one could escape from its ugliness, its oppressiveness and its hopelessness. The poverty in India was on a scale so massive that even the Himalayas seemed microscopic by comparison. It seemed impossible to conceive of the human condition sinking lower, it had plumbed the depths.

I portray urban poverty, the villages, the real India on whose behalf no one of consequence wept tears of blood, not even anguish, defied description, the poverty went beyond desperation. From time immemorial invaders had swept through India to plunder and pillage and loot, some had stayed behind as conquerors, founding kingdoms. Always it had been the fabled wealth of the country that had attracted them. How then could such an immensely rich country have such an immensely poor people?

Could it be that every kingdom, every empire founded, down to the British, considered the greatest mass of the population to be non-existent except as half-living human forms whose needs were best left to divine charity? Our history books were strangely silent about the economic and social condition of this overwhelming majority of the people.

I never learnt at school why there was this grinding and measureless poverty. Was it ordained, kismet or karma, and, therefore, necessary, or was it just inhumanity, and, therefore, unnecessary? We, of course, firmly believed that the British were responsible and once they left we would pluck the moon from the skies and place it on India's freedom like a tiara. That once the British left we would wake "into a heaven of freedom" promised by the poet Rabindranath Tagore. And this heaven presumably meant that the poor would no longer be poor, the pumpkin would be turned into a gilded stage-coach. It was this kind of self-delusion that sustained us and allowed us the luxury to live our lives untroubled by our conscience.

The British had not only colonized the country, they had colonized our minds. From Koregaon Park, this misery of India was not intrusive and was hardly visible. It was from the bowels of the city that one heard the rumblings. And the poverty in Poona was nothing like the poverty in Bombay, proving that the richer the city, the poorer its people.

I am trying to pinpoint the exact moment when my love-affair with cricket started, when it became an all consuming passion. Cricket came with the territory, as it were. My family were into the game and, at least, one brother Nasir could easily have played Test cricket had he chosen not to be an engineer. But this was not motivation or inspiration enough. Family legend has it that when I was born, in a house on Pindi Point in Murree, my brothers were playing cricket in the garden. When they were told that they had a new brother, they rushed to catch a glimpse and one of them pressed a cricket ball in my tiny hands. There is no reliable confirmation of this and I never pursued it to find out if it was true, and, therefore, provided some Freudian basis for my love of the game.

But cricket was the only game that was encouraged in our family. A certain snobbery may have been involved. It was a gentleman's game and not played by riffraff. It did not have the mass appeal it has now. The British played, so too the maharajas and nawabs, the Ranjitsinghi mythology. Indeed, when the Indian cricket team toured England in 1932 and 1936, the British saw to it that the captain would be the ruler of a princely state and, hence, the maharajas of Porbandar and Vizianagram were captains respectively and, as icing on the cake, the managers were Britishers. The players did not count. They were like the people of India, the hewers of wood and fetchers of water.

The turning point, I would guess, came when my brothers decided that we would have our own cricket team and, thus, the Col Kureishi's Xl came into being. Enver (Abo) was the captain, Safdar (Sattoo) was secretary, and Asif (Achoo) held no office but was the fast bowler. Humayun (Toto) was official scorer and twelfth man, Rafiushan (Shanoo) the caretaker of the kit-bag, and I was his assistant.

There was an open space behind our house and it was levelled, the shrubbery cleared, a wicket prepared and matting put on it and this is where the team had nets. I watched in fascination and it became my highest ambition to ultimately play for this team and I urged the years to hurry by so that I could grow out of my short-pants and into cricket flannels.

My father had given his blessings but put his foot down when it came to funding. It was Zahir (Zabak) who hit on the idea of getting a patron. A Mr Jan Mohammad, who was a contractor, was approached. My mother referred sneeringly to him as the kasai, a reference to his antecedents, for he was something of an upstart, a jumped up Johnny. Mr Jan Mohammad eagerly agreed, his only condition being that his name would appear on the team's letter-head.

I went along with my brothers to the sports shop to purchase the kit. It was thrilling stuff. I had been to toy shops, but this was a whole new world for me. I don't think I have ever enjoyed myself more than I did that afternoon as bats, cricket balls, pads, gloves, a half-matting and cricket net was bought. There was ferocious haggling, cups of tea and bottles of Vimto, this was festive shopping, an early Eid or Christmas. The owner of the shop was a Sikh and he, in his inimitable way, added to the banter and counter-haggling.

A cricket bat, like a car, has to be broken-in. The bat has to be seasoned and this meant swathing it with cotton wool soaked in linseed oil, a ceremony of its own. I was given this task. A cricket bat was even more personal than a toothbrush. No one in his right mind would use a toothbrush as a magic wand and a cricket bat was a magic wand that could make dreams come true.

The kit having been acquired, now we needed players. These would come from among my brothers' friends and what a motley crew they were and they came from varying backgrounds. In the perception of Poona's cricket public, Col Kureishi's XI was a Muslim team, but we had Hindus, Parsis, Christians and even a Jew who donned the colours of the team.

As I remember them, there was Shastri, Bhawker, Rusi Kabraji, Joe Braganza, Theo de Mello, Sampson and Soloman who, along with my brothers, were the founding fathers, though they were more akin to the merry band of Robin Hood. The team would become famous in Poona for all the right and all the wrong reasons. When you are a child, you think like a child (St Paul), and to me the business of cricket was fun, to have a ball, the Mad Hatter's tea-party. But the Col Kureishi's XI had deadly serious pretensions. The net practice was mandatory and disciplined. Bhawker was not allowed to practise in his dhoti and Joe Braganza, who sported a felt hat which he wore at a rakish angle and which made him look like a film gangster, was made to wear a cricket cap. Enver (Abo) conducted the net like Captain Bligh (Mutiny on The Bounty).

The net practice had its moments of crisis when a ball landed in the compound of a Parsi neighbour. He refused to return the ball. My brother Humayun (Toto) and Rusi Kabraji were sent to retrieve it, Rusi because he could appeal to the neighbour on a Parsi bhai bhai level. The neighbour's objection was technical. "You are not supposed to hit the ball like mad men. Play it along the carpet." And he demonstrated the cover-drive. Rusi asked him if he would like to be our coach. He seemed flattered, but said that he was more of a tennis player, "though I have played cricket in my young days". He said that he would be keeping an eye on us. He returned the cricket ball and repeated, "along the carpet", and re-played the cover-drive. "Churiya," Rusi said, of course, out of his hearing.

There would be earnest team meetings and they would all make for the Irani restaurant in Ghorpuri, to discuss strategy over cups of tea. Zabak had arranged a credit-line and discussed the possibility of roping in the Irani as a vice-patron so that the outstanding could be written-off. "Apan koi idiot (he used the colloquial and vulgar equivalent) nahin hai," the Irani responded in a statement of the obvious. And, as a precaution, he stopped the credit and relations with him became frosty, but the tea-strategy sessions continued. While all this was going on, I was at home, ploughing through my homework and cursing my teachers. Life could be cruel.

Club cricket was pretty well organized and getting fixtures was not easy, besides we were an unknown quantity. Heavyweights like Poona Club, the P.Y. Hindu Gymkhana, the Deccan Gymkhana dismissed us as a rag-tag team. But Poona being a garrison town, the army units had their own teams and their own grounds. There was the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, the Royal Army Medical Corps, the Brigade Staff and they were happy to play against us.

There was the MS&M Railways, the Reformatory School and the Mental Hospital (their staff, not their inmates) who, too, agreed. Let us win our spurs and then we would take on the established clubs, we argued and we would be proved right. And so the team was launched. I didn't know then how involved I would get with cricket, but no young boy could have had such a field of dreams from which he could enter the wonderland of cricket. Not the game alone, that was a means to an end, but what went with it, the bonding, the camaraderie, the loyalty as a matching response to the rivalry, the pride we felt when we won, the heartache we endured when we lost. I was a young boy looking over the rainbow at clear blue skies.