Bowling Through India – chapter one

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FIVE IN A BILLION
 
Most men, when away from chores and loved ones, choose to fish or golf. A jaunt that typically culminates in late night drinking sessions and regret, the only proof they were away at all, a hangover the size of Texas and a similarly hefty credit card bill.
While these trips are a great way to clear the cobwebs, sometimes what a bloke really needs is a shock to the system. A comfort zone upheaval. A new battery instead of a recharge. A change instead of a holiday.

Such a plan was currently being discussed by the Black Craps, a team of backyard cricketers, as they munched on stale buns and told lies on a flight from Auckland to Singapore, and ultimately Kolkata. Actually, that’s not entirely true: three of the Black Craps – those who could only afford economy – were consuming the buns. The other two, already having created a rift in the team, opted for Business Class, quaffing champagne and perving at air hosties. Even so, you’d think the trio in Economy would be quietly respectful of their wealthier, better dressed, ‘served before cattle-class’ counterparts. That would have been the right thing to do. That would have been dignified, regal, and admirable. Sadly, however, that wasn’t the case at all.
We were blokes. And we were jealous.
We took the piss out of them for the whole trip.
 
Speaking of the trip, this was the goal: to play backyard cricket with Indians in their own backyard. Every effort would be made to play by their rules, unless we happened to be losing. In our gear bag were five white knitted vests, twenty Auckland Aces cricket caps (for gifts) and an official score book. We carried no bats or balls, trusting a cricket crazy nation like India to supply us with the most rudimentary equipment (mostly to accommodate our skill level.) And this was the team:
 
JUSTIN BROWN – ECONOMY
The other Black Craps will be upset I’m first on the list, but I’m the writer and there’s little they can do about it. Much to my team’s disgust, I was carrying an injury into the series. Three weeks before departure, I dropped a laptop on my bare left foot at 4.45am. It fell from waist height directly onto my big toe nail, acting a little like a blunt guillotine. Choice words were chosen.
 I’m also a breakfast radio host, but don’t hold that against me. And I’ve written a few books. More interestingly, for this trip in any case, I’m a retired opening batsman for the Horowhenua 3rd XI and an intercontinental sleepwalker.
 
JOHN BOUGEN – BUSINESS CLASS
Businessman, farmer, photographer and author of, among other books, Absolutely Outrageous Adventure, Made in Morocco, Tea in the Medina, and My Dream. He’s also a world-record holder, having travelled to the most countries in the least amount of time – 191 nations in 167 days.
John sat in Business Class, but in all fairness, he deserved to: he’s made his money and enjoys the finer things in life. He once said, ‘When you get on a plane, never turn right.’ It was John who I stupidly mentioned this idea over drinks one winter’s evening. One thing about John: he never turns down a challenge – or a good time, which is probably why he’s spent the past few years working on a farm in the South Island’s high country.
 
BRENDON O’HAGAN – ECONOMY
Brendon is the poor bugger who took 14,000 photos while the rest of us smacked sixes over cow pats and almost got arrested in Mumbai. He has been a professional photographer (not bail bondsman) for fifteen years, although this was to be the first time away from his young family. This became quite obvious as he crammed in as many movies as possible on the first leg of the flight.

Brendon has taken photos of some of the world’s leading sportsmen, although this didn’t impress the Black Craps one iota. As long as we could scrounge a free photo album off him at the conclusion of the trip, he could stay.

Note: Brendon may have a good eye, but he doesn’t exactly have a cast iron stomach: he had the shits before reaching Singapore.
 
REECE IRVING – ECONOMY
The saying ‘Take half the clothes and twice the money’ was written for Reece (except for the money part; he took none.) I have never known anyone to pack so little, yet change three times daily (in clothes we had never seen!).

The first time Brendon and I met Reece was at passport control in Auckland. We sniggered at his hobo-looking blanket, firmly strapped to his one and only (carry on, at that) bag. But he was more experienced than us; later, we would be the ones freezing our nads off in Tenzing Norgay’s home town.
Reece is an ex-tour guide for the Trans-Siberian Railway, having completed it a mere 26 times. (‘I get bored easily, that’s why I stopped.’) He also speaks perfect Hindi, as a result of living in Varanasi when he was twenty. (He once drank his own urine for six months as part of a yoga course, too, but more on that later.)

Early resentment was also directed at Reece (especially from Brendon and me), for, although he was sitting in Economy – like us – his whole trip was being paid for by John because, said John, ‘He’s my cousin’s cousin and he speaks Hindi.’
Likely story.
 
STEW GUNN – BUSINESS CLASS
The other bludger. A farmer from New Zealand’s South Island, Stew was a last minute ‘ring-in’ for author/philanthropist/farmer Chrissie Fernyhough, who was trampled by a heifer six weeks before departure. Chrissie ended up with a badly broken leg, and Stew ended up with a trip to India.
Alas, this wasn’t to be the only free lunch Stew would score, as we were soon to discover. Here was a man who had no problem not paying. In fact, he had it down to a fine art.

‘When I asked John whether he wanted a contribution towards the trip,’ he beamed, sinking another double G and T, ‘he said, “No, but if I ever see you not fucking smiling, you’re going home!’’
Stew is also John Wright’s cousin, which would ultimately come in very handy, given the ex-Indian coach is treated like the proverbial holy cow all over India.
 
So, John and Stew sat up the front while Reece, Brendon and I got to know each other down the back of the bus. I was glad Brendon was sitting next to Reece, as he was fresh from pulling an all-nighter, having just finished his last exam of the year.
‘I barely had time for bacon and eggs and a shower before the taxi arrived at 6am,’ Reece said, knocking back a pint of water.
‘So you won’t join me for a Bloody Mary then?’ I asked.

Reece shook his head. Brendon didn’t stir. He wasn’t listening. He had already watched Transformers and was onto The Bourne Identity.
‘Since you spent so much time in India, could you enlighten me about about Bollywood movies,’ I said, flicking through the in-flight TV guide. With only eighty one movies to choose from, I was desperate to make the right decision, my only other option being to start Shantaram, a 900-page epic about an escaped-convict-turned-Mumbai-slum-doctor.

‘Here’s how your typical Bollywood movie goes,’ Reece said. ‘Good guy/bad guy, both after the same woman. Bad guy gets the girl first. Good guy rescues woman. Seven songs, there’s always seven songs. Then there’s the wet sari scene, then the ‘dancing around the tree’ scene. No kissing, there’s never any kissing, and it always ends with a wedding.’
‘Right,’ I said. ‘Think I’ll read my book.’
 
SINGAPORE
 
Boring. Clean. No cricket. Reece snored.
 
KOLKATA
 
When we arrived, fresh from the pristine streets of Singapore, there was a distinct chill in the night air. Nobody told us India would be cold. Reece, whom we had ridiculed in the Auckland summer, smugly wrapped his Northern Himalayan blanket around his shoulders and smiled.
‘Blanket Boy,’ we all muttered.
‘Warm Blanket Boy,’ he replied.

On the ride from the airport to the hotel we were wide-eyed and weary. We stared, we shook our heads, we jabbered away like toddlers the night before Christmas. Locals honked and honked as if repetition earned rupees. Indeed, just as using a horn at home signified something drastically wrong, using no horn at all in Kolkata appeared to have the same effect.

At the first set of traffic lights we had our first beggar, a teary eyed woman putting her hand to her mouth. A baby, not looking entirely unhappy, glared at the strange vehicle with its equally strange white folk.
‘Last time I was here,’ said Reece, looking longingly at the cluttered, chaos-filled streets. ‘the beggars were on strike.’
‘What?’ we all asked, trying our best not to reach for our pockets, knowing that giving money only lines the pockets of pimps.
‘True,’ he laughed. ‘The beggars said they wouldn’t beg unless they got one rupee per beg. Obviously nobody told them if you’re a beggar and you go on strike, you’re not going to make a lot of money.’
‘A strike?’ said Brendon. ‘Next thing you’ll tell us they need a permit.’
‘They do,’ said Reece. ‘Begging is big business in India, especially if you can get a good spot outside an expensive hotel.’
The bus moved on and the woman cried. We were a long way from home.
 
Upon arrival at the Taj Bengal Hotel, the Black Craps grabbed a seat in the foyer while John did all the Dad stuff. I felt disoriented, on another planet. A hazy, incense-like fog hovered around us, even though we were indoors. We had intended to have the obligatory beer, but no one had the energy. Or the budget, given the prices. So before we knew it, we had retired to our rooms: John and Stew in one; Brendon, Reece and I in the other. Twelve hours on a plane and 400 pages of Shantaram, I was buggered. Couple that with the fact that Reece was the only one who slept in Singapore, and you have a recipe for carnage.
‘If you snore tonight, Reece,’ Brendon said. ‘I’ll muzzle you with my pillow.’
‘You wouldn’t!’ laughed Reece.
‘He would,’ I said. ‘We didn’t sleep one minute last night. It was like a bloody freight train. Seriously, if you sleep with your mouth open I’m gonna pour water down your throat.’
‘You wouldn’t!’ said Reece, now worried.
‘Just try it,’ finished Brendon, nodding off before any of us.
Okay, so here’s where I come clean. When I’m stressed, tired, or experiencing a new environment, I have a tendency to sleep walk – and sleeptalk. It can be embarrassing, but in the last few years at least my episodes have been in the privacy of the marital bed. Normally, if such an occurrence takes place, my wife Amy will say, ‘You were standing on the bed at 3am, trying to stop dinner plates bursting through the wall.’
‘Oh, okay,’ I say. ‘So no one was hurt?’
‘No, but you got angry when I tried to wake you up.’

And that’s the crazy thing about sleepwalking and talking. I am awake, but not. I remember, for example attempting to stop the dinner plates, but not a lot after that. Sadly, though, if someone tries to wake you during a particularly pivotal moment – or even worse takes the piss out of me – I can get very grumpy indeed.

Here’s all I remember about my first episode in India: standing by the hotel lifts on the fifth floor in nothing but boxer shorts, I awoke, thinking, ‘Oh no, I’m sleepwalking.’ What I’ll do, I foolishly thought, was quietly make my way back to the room, inconspicuously fiddle with the air conditioning, and hop back into bed. No one will know any different.

No one would suspect a thing. After all, everyone was asleep and it wasn’t as   if I’d made any noise.
‘Are you okay?’ Brendon asked when I entered the room. I could hear Reece sniggering in the dark.
This is where I got a little defensive. They knew something.
‘Yeah,’ I said, fiddling with the air-conditioning. ‘Why?’
‘Oh, it might have something to do with the fact that you jumped out of bed, yelled, ‘‘Stop! Stop! Stop,’’ opened the door and ran down the hallway!’
‘I thought it was my snoring,’ said Reece in fits of laughter. ‘I thought I had finally tipped you over the edge and you were about to kill me.’
Brendon, too, was laughing. I climbed into bed, dignity dented.
 ‘Let’s not mention this incident at breakfast. OK?’ I muttered.
‘Are you kidding?’ said Reece. ‘This is the only thing we’re gonna talk about at breakfast!’
Top mates.
 
True to their word, the Incident was all that was talked about next morning. My room-mates related in great detail, savouring every word, pausing only for laughs. As Reece scoffed uttapam (an Indian pizza) and stuffed parantha (flatbread), he wondered out loud what would have happened had the door locked behind me. As Brendon ate bacon, eggs and toast, he wondered out loud why he was feeling sick already. As Reece helped himself to more uttapam and puri bhaji– can you see a theme developing here? – he explained how he thought my losing the plot had something to do with his snoring.
‘I thought he was about to get up and kill me!’ he said.
Yes, the Incident was expertly told and I was expertly embarrassed.
‘Can we just go and play some cricket?’ I said.
‘At least you can’t sleep walk in the day,’ said Stew.
‘Don’t bet on it,’ said John.
 
We had a van and driver called Khaled. Seeing five tourists must have made his day, but his luck was about to change. Instead of visiting carpet and silk shops, as he politely insisted we should, we informed him we required something far simpler: a tennis ball for backyard cricket. Khaled acquired one for us. Her name was Vicky, and she was what the Indian’s call a cricket-tennis ball, which is surely an oxymoron.

Khaled’s next job was to find a place to play. As we snaked our way through Kolkata – past a silk shop here, a carpet shop there – Reece reminded us why cows are sacred: milk, dung (for building), urine (antiseptic), yoghurt and ghee (clarified butter), while John inquired about the infamous social cricket matches.
‘The huge parks,’ he said to Khaled. ‘Where a million people play at once.’
‘Oh, yes, sir!’ said Khaled. ‘You mean the ‘maidan.’ There is one near the next carpet shop!’
‘Nice try,’ said John, unwrapping Vicky.

The Maidan, as John had imagined, was beyond huge. The largest urban park in Kolkata, and home to hundreds of social Sunday cricket matches, it is often referred to as ‘the lungs of Kolkata,’ and you could see why. In a city that’s home to 13 million people, choked with exhaust fumes, here was an oasis where you could forget your worries and be Tendulkar for the afternoon. That’s not to say you could play as of right, as we five ‘fresh off the boat’ Kiwis imagined. Despite untrimmed outfields, craters the size of golf bunkers, and players wearing what they liked, these matches were eagerly awaited once-a-week events and you couldn’t just join in willy-nilly.
And then there were the Maidan’s rules, inscribed on a plaque by the main entrance:
 
No vehicles, bikes or handcarts.
No cooking is allowed.
No cattle, horses, goats, stray dogs.
No anti-social activities are strictly prohibited.
Littering, spitting and other acts of nuisance are prohibited.
In general, except cricket no other games are permitted.
 
Stew and I wandered past shepards serving Bharer Chai – tea in clay pots –  feeling like the new kids at school. Everywhere we looked there was cricket, but which game to gatecrash? All we could hear were lost goats, horns and Hindi Howzats. In the distance the regal, if incongruous,  Victoria Memorial Hall poked her head through a concrete coloured haze. In the foreground was something far more 21st century: plastic bags and paper.

Eventually we found some players we thought we could give a real run for their money: ten-year-old boys playing under a huge Peepul tree. Obviously these guys were too late to get a good place to play, or they weren’t old enough to warrant one, proof being that the tree in question was not, as a traditional ground demands, on the boundary but was rooted right where mid-wicket should have been. Which saved putting a fielder there I suppose.
‘Get to work, Reece,’ said John. ‘Let’s start a match.’

What followed is something we experienced all over India: arguments, despair, shouting, chaos and tears. Reece, scoreboard in hand, was swamped with wannabe international cricketers clambering to get their name at the top of the batting order. Brendon and John would be accosted by impatient wannabe Bollywood stars, who wanted to catch a glimpse of their mug in digital form. Stew and I, meanwhile, would patiently wait for locals to join the Black Craps. And no one ever wanted to. After all, they didn’t want to bowl against us – they wanted to whip our butts.

Reece was doing his best to get some sort of match started. Indian adolescents accosted him as if he were giving out hundred dollar bills instead of writing down India’s batting order. The boys clambered over each other, yelling and swearing in Hindi. As Reece tried to spell their names correctly, each demanded priority.
‘I want to open the batting!’
‘Don’t choose him, pick me!’
‘I want to be captain!’

Reece was slowly being backed into a corner. Given the chance, I’m sure the boys would have written their own names down, but relinquishing control to adolescent frenzied cricket fanatics with no timetable wouldn’t have helped anyone.
‘Okay, okay!’ he pleaded. ‘One at a time! Now, is it Jitesh, or Jitash?’
‘Jitesh! But I want to be Sehwag!’
‘I want to be Sehwag. You can be Ganguly!’
‘Ganguly is out of form.’
‘That’s why you should be him!’

We looked at Reece, who resembled a harassed teacher on a field trip
‘Whoever gave the job of scoring to Blanket Boy is a genius,’ I said.
And on it went. Fifteen minutes later and we still hadn’t started. Reece, at his wits’ end, yelled something in Hindi and boys swiftly stepped back.
‘Handy,’ said Brendon. ‘Must remember that one.’
I took a seat next to a young boy who was smoking a bidi. Popular throughout India, the small cigarette is a rolled-up leaf with a bit of tobacco enclosed, and tied up with string. Shocked to see such a baby-faced youngster holding one, I asked him his age.
‘I’m thirteen,’ he said, justifying his fag.
‘Isn’t that too young to smoke?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Thirteen year olds don’t smoke in India,’ I said.
‘Two year olds smoke in India!’ he replied.
 
I don’t know whether smoking is prevalent among Indian children, but it seems unlikely as it was only recently that international tobacco companies began a major push to the billion potential buyers there. Many different state governments, however, are outlawing smoking, the latest of which is Goa. Many say this will affect business in the foreign tourist season. Or maybe not, given what happened when Delhi’s big wigs banned lighting up in public places. The rule didn’t apply to foreigners, as apparently they couldn’t control their urges like Indians could. As a result, gloating tourists were allowed to continue to smoke in restaurants, but Indians were not.

Reece eventually gave up writing down names, deciding instead to wing it.
‘For Christ’s sake, someone just bowl!’ he yelled, wrapping his blanket round him like some Jedi knight.  ‘The boys say there’s only one rule – ‘spin bowling only.’’
Stew and I were very happy about this, given we had no pads, gloves, or boxes, and we were playing not with Vicky but with a real cricket ball.
The second rule, unbeknown to us, was that the first rule only applied to New Zealand. As we were soon to find out, India were allowed to bowl as fast as they bloody well liked.
 
The leaf-covered pitch was like rock. Every time the ball pounded into it, a puff of dirt would hit the air. After India scored a well rounded twenty-five off four overs, Stew and I asked if we could borrow our opponents’ sweaty, junior-sized pads. (I would have worn their box, too, but it was also junior size. It was still in the wrapper, I guess so they could share it.) The kids had written ‘India is Great’ on Reece’s scorebook and, judging by two run outs in our first over (including Stew, who went first ball), I was beginning to believe it.

Enter Utkash. Smaller than his mates – and obviously not highly thought of, given his place in the batting order – Utkash wasn’t the best player on the planet. But he was keen, hungry and a nuggety little batting partner. Soon, after squirting twos and fluking singles, we were in reach of the target. I glared down the pitch at a bowler with ‘Get lucky with an Irish Boy’ plastered on his shirt. I had to pinch myself –  I was in India, on an Indian pitch, facing an Indian bowler – albeit a ten-year-old.

With Irish Lover Boy imitating Brett Lee, I was more concerned about protecting my manhood than advancing the Black Craps’ scorecard. With this in mind, the next time he let one rip, I closed my eyes and swung like a madman. To my astonishment, the ball flew off the meat of the bat and rolled past an old army tank by the main road. ‘Isn’t that a four?’ I asked, coming back for the second run.
‘No runs!’ said Irish Lover Boy. ‘Anything behind the tree – no runs!’

Ah, the peepul tree. Otherwise known in India as ‘The Buddha,’ this monstrosity of nature ensured that most leg-side shots went no further than your nose, but that was the price you paid for shade.

Utkash hit the winning runs and put on his Man of the Match prize, an Auckland Aces cap. His smile was as wide as the nearby Hoogley River.
 
SCORECARD
 
Maidan Park, 9th December, Calcutta
India won the toss and fielded
 
INDIA
 
Sara run out – 4
Patan not out – 9
Jitesh not out – 8
Nitin did not bat
Extras – 4
 
Total – 25
 
Bowling
Gunn – 0/2 –  Koshal 0/6 – Mohit 1/6 – Utkash – 0/12
 
BLACK CRAPS
 
Stew run out – 0
Mohit run out – 0
Utkash not out – 10
Justin not out – 13
Extras – 3
 
Total – 26
 
Bowling
Nitin – 0/16 – Patan 0/7
 
Result – Black Craps take 1-0 lead