Until then, I was unaware that there was a sport sharing its name with an insect, and that its ubiquitous presence required a world cup all its own. And yet there it was in my dictionary all the while, the second definition for the word “cricket” that came to life for me when I was living in Mumbai four years later.
I was in India for volunteer work and had arrived just in time to properly experience another World Cup Cricket tournament. To clear up the mystery of this sport, I did my homework and examined the matches on television, pestering friends with questions about the innards of this game that was thoroughly absent from American athletic arenas and sports channels. “It’s a gentleman’s game,” everyone told me, “nothing like your baseball.” But there was a bat and ball, I insisted, sharing my sharp observations. Yes, they agreed, but that was where the similarity ended. And the more I watched the elegantly costumed players handling the ball without a glove, the more I watched the raucous fans in the stadiums and on the streets, the more I realized that my friends might be right.
Before the actual World Cup tournament began in South Africa, some teams were preparing with exhibition games. India’s team played the West Indies in Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium. Prepared only with a bottle of water, which incidentally, was confiscated at the gate, I attended my first, live eight-hour cricket match. The match played out on a sun-bleached afternoon, no different from any other Mumbai afternoon, and was part of a five-day “test series” where only a handful of batsmen a day get time to perform. But I was lucky enough to see, and at this point finally appreciate, the entrance of the “world’s greatest batsman” onto the batting ground: Sachin Tendulkar. Tendulkar is considered one of Mumbai’s beloved sons, raised on the wide and dusty cricket grounds of the city’s very own Shivaji Park. When this immortalized player turned 30 years old, Mid Day, one of the city’s most widely-read afternoon newspapers dedicated its entire 25 or so pages to articles, columns, anecdotes, and photographs of Tendulkar. Bollywood film stars may be revered as gods and goddesses in the eyes of India’s one billion spectators, but when World Cup Cricket fever arrives, even the glamorous stars are sucked into the outpouring of blue-themed advertisements, music videos, and movies where they play sidekick at best, sweetly sidling up to the 11 new gods that Indians currently acknowledge.
For the first four hours or so of the match, I amused myself with visits to the concession stand for Popsicles and juice boxes (to replace my stolen water bottle); my interest, dimmed by the heat, still could not be boosted by the surrounding excitement and chanting masses who would occasionally taunt the bowler of the “Windies” team with shocking insults. When even Popsicles offered no solace, I forced myself to sit and scrutinize the scoreboard every few minutes to verify if what I thought was happening on the field had actually happened. This meant distracting my friend from the match to fill me in on the latest play-by-play.
When the second Indian batsman finally got out, a loud roar began across the stadium. At first I thought everyone was just really irked by another fallen wicket, and I tried to look as upset as those around me. But my friend grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me: “Tendulkar’s batting!” I found myself clapping vigorously, jumping up and down, forgetting about my concession stand refuge and the scoreboard I had been reading like a textbook. So this was what it felt like to be in the presence of someone who was making history, someone who could inspire a sense of oneness among all who watched him—even those who had very little clue of what was going on.
But my one live match experience proved to be just the beginning. When the Indian team left for the World Cup Cricket in South Africa, Mumbai had already decked itself out with Indian team jerseys, caps, and blue-colored Pepsi bottles. Every restaurant, whether a street vendor’s stall or a four-star dining room, obtained a television set or at least a radio. People scheduled their lives around the matches, especially if India was playing. When team India positioned itself across the battleground, shops were either empty or closed.
Ultimately, everyone was anxiously awaiting one and only one match: India versus Pakistan. I found that it could not even be called a match—it was war. On the Sunday morning before the battle began, I was with a group of friends, navigating the migratory rush to see the match, when we made a requisite stop to pick up several blue jerseys and caps to wear. Two hours before the event, the department store was almost out of jerseys, and my friends had to settle for an extra-large fitting of team spirit.
With these good luck charms in hand, we attempted to speed off toward the British-style pub where we planned to catch the game and found ours to be one among hundreds of other cars full of squirming, wildly impatient cricket fans also racing toward a television set.
Forty swerving and whiplashed minutes later, I had settled myself into a very comfortable leather armchair in the pub and noticed that no one else was sitting down. The air had begun to haze over with nervous puffs of cigars and cigarettes. Apparently, I was the only one who remembered about lunch and happily chatted with the waiter about the menu and the scrumptious-looking buffet that had been especially set up for the match. My friends shuffled their feet, fiddled with cigarette packs, and asked each other repeatedly and without any conclusion if anyone was hungry. Nothing else, save this upcoming civil war-in-disguise, could occupy their minds.
Once the match had commenced, I didn’t have to ask questions to know what was going on. When India was playing badly or lost a batsman, I was in the midst of agonized exclamations, curses, and banging fists. But in the next instant there would be a delirious pandemonium of chanting and strangers hugging when Pakistan was down. Superstitions were flung about like hailstones: one individual lighting one cigarette after another when he noticed that his first lit cigarette inspired a scoring of six out of India’s team. Another abstained from his breath mints after India lost a wicket while he was in the middle of crunching up the refreshment. Once Pakistan was bowling and India was batting, my ears were ringing from the noise accumulating in the small pub.
Standing outside for a little break, I saw that Marine Drive, the city’s usually buzzing main road that reaches like an arm all the way around the bordering Arabian Sea, had suddenly become car-less and echoed the deadly quiet—something I thought could never happen as long there were Indians in India. The silence was occasionally punctuated with bright explosions of firecrackers over the water and simultaneous muffled shouts from apartment windows or alleyways nearby, indicating that India had scored again. I returned to the smoky pub in time for another round of cheers that turned out to be premature and quickly became ferocious yells.
Back in the women’s hostel where I stayed, I entered in time to catch the female version of the crazed chanting and screams of the cricket fans I had just left behind at the pub. It was impressive to see such sincere devotion to the sport that few women ever actually played. For instance, on Sunday mornings the city is overrun with street cricket at every intersection, park, open field, and even roadways—and all of the players are boys. I eventually did discover the existence of a women’s cricket league in India, but realized also that its fan following paralleled that of the WNBA.
I settled myself into one of the wooden chairs around the dining table, intrigued by the fans this time more than the game itself. Instead of superstitions running rampant, the girls delivered passionate remarks on how cute this or that player was and how unattractive his wife was and how depressing it was that Sehwag was engaged. But the tables were pounded just as loudly if India lost a wicket and voices screeched just as intensely and at a higher pitch when India scored. In the end, India did win, and I felt relieved after hearing it mentioned on the news that rioting near the player’s family home and burning effigies after a team loss was a frequent occurrence. Over our hostel that night, firecrackers turned somersaults, accompanying dancing crowds and the honking of cars that brought Marine Drive back to life and cemented for me the second definition of the word cricket.
Suchi Rudra writes from Texas.