A group of young boys play a game of cricket in the streets of Nagpur
© Getty Images
14

Essay

Taking it to the streets

Across India's maidans, rooftops and back alleys, gully cricket pushes back against football and urbanisation

Subash Jayaraman |

At first it seems like chaos. But as you allow your eyes to adjust, focus and refocus, like when looking at stars on a clear, moonless summer night, you start telling them apart. There are at least 30 different cricket matches on, each containing its own constellation of players, across the dusty maidan called Shivaji Park in the heart of Mumbai.

It was a hot afternoon in October and I had ventured with a journalist friend to the famous ground in Dadar. It was a bit unnerving to wander into this unstructured yet strictly codified world, though it was a scene straight out of my youth, when I had played on corporation grounds and colony fields, rooftops and raggedy streets.

It was hard to know where one match ended and the other began but the essence of the games soon came into view. It was like dusting off an old photo album, reliving memories. Denuded stumps - no bails, of course; stones and chappals marking the creases; Cosco tennis balls of varying wear; bats with twine coming off their handles. They were all there.

Apart from the Mumbai skyline looming in the background, all the characteristics of my childhood matches were on display. The guy with the stutter-step run-up; the manboy who bosses the bowling; the bowler with an odd action; the kid who just wants to field; the kid who gets to do nothing but field; the kid who is too small and never gets to do anything; the kid who is too big and gets to do everything; the cross-bat slogger; the dogged blocker; funky actions; fingerspin magicians; they were all there.

An umpire's job is made harder when there is no definitive crease but just two chappals, set six feet apart, to indicate the line

As we made it past some matches near the outer edges of the park, players in whites, wearing floppy hats, came into view. In the vast desert of that maidan, there were three or four oases of manicured green where "proper" cricket matches, with high elbows and polite applause, were on. We had finally found some method in the madness. And it came as no surprise that some of the greatest Indian cricketers have emerged from this setting, where the spirit of gully cricket and "proper" cricket happily coexist.

I was around 11 when cricket took hold of almost all my waking hours. Every opportunity to get together with my friends in the neighbourhood centred on impromptu games. I grew up in Polur, a small town about 170km south-west of Chennai, and my evenings, weekends, holidays and vacations were spent playing cricket in the streets, in the little area by the town's flour mill, on old fort grounds and on terraces.

The rules changed depending on the space and number of players available. From being declared out when the ball was hit outside the playing area to being "granted" runs (1G or 2G) on one side of the wicket due to space restrictions, to using a chair for stumps, to allowing one-pitch-one-hand catches - it was all fair game.

Street cricket in India has its own lingo. And it is specific to different regions. Anyone who has played cricket in Chennai will immediately recognise the terms gaaji, dokku or adetail. Gaaji is an innings, so at the toss the captain will invariably prefer to get some gaaji or batting time. Dokku is a defensive shot, with a negative connotation. Since the innings lasts only a few overs (typically five or ten), dokku batting doesn't get you anywhere, especially when setting a total. A batsman proficient in dokku batting is sure to get a lot of gaaji. But the captain might pre-empt this and declare him adetail-ed by relegating him to the tail and sending in a different batsman to push the score along.

If the pitch is small, no

If the pitch is small, no "full-pace" bowling, please © Subash Jayaraman

If there are not enough players, it is normal to see "common fielding", where members of the batting side also field. If a captain miscounts the number of overs left for a particular bowler, he could call for "chain over", where the same bowler sends down two overs in a row. Or, if a bowler is having a terrible day, he might be cut off with a "baby over". If the length of the pitch is limited - which is often the case - "full pace" bowling is not allowed.

Balls could be hard tennis balls, cork balls, taped tennis balls, rubber balls, or those made with cycle tyre tubes. Stumps could be twigs, chairs, schoolbags, bricks, or three lines drawn on a wall. However, bats are generally bought in stores and tend to have a long life.

An indie Tamil movie released in 2007, Chennai 600028, is set around street cricket in a suburb whose pincode is referenced in the film's title. When my wife and I went to a corporation ground in RA Puram in early October last year, the kids were more than keen to point out that some of the movie's scenes were shot here. The ground is about three kilometres from my sister's house, where I spent many of my school vacations. And I remember playing here in the 1980s (though, unlike today, none of us wore IPL shirts and EPL jerseys). The intensity is still the same, the equipment just as dodgy, but the skill level seems to have been raised a few notches.

After sitting by the compound wall and watching the cricket for a few overs, I volunteered to umpire one of the games to get closer to the action. An umpire in gully cricket generally has three jobs: call wides, watch for front-foot no-balls, and adjudicate on run-outs. The players usually keep track of the score and the number of balls bowled in an over.

Housing colonies can no longer afford to have large empty spaces within their compounds since residents need space to park their vehicles

Run-out decisions can be tricky, especially with just a brick or a stone substituting for stumps. Many games allow for "current" run-outs, where a fielder receives the throw with one foot on the brick or stone that is the wicket. The umpire has to discern if the fielder is touching the wicket and the runner is short of the crease when the ball is caught. His job is made harder when there is no definitive crease but just two chappals, set six feet apart, to indicate the line.

The match went to a Super Over, a rule the players had adopted after it was used in internationals. The chasing team was still in the game largely because of Badri, a batsman in his early 20s, who had stopped by the ground on his way home from college. Tall and moustachioed, Badri didn't fit in with the rest of the boys, pre-pubescent teenagers, but he couldn't stop himself from playing a couple of games "just for fun". Badri had a role to play in the Super Over too. With four needed off the last ball, he was run out going for a non-existent third.

Badri, breathing heavily, his T-shirt soaked in sweat, spoke to us about gully cricket and recommended I go to Gopalapuram to check out the games there. The players soon vacated the area and moved to a corner of the field to start another game. I was told that this was because "senior" players, who were instrumental in raising money and building the concrete rectangle that served as the pitch, had arrived for their game. As a mark of respect, they were immediately handed their space.

The next day, at 4pm, we were at the Gopalapuram Corporation Ground. It is a vast open space in the heart of Chennai. In 2010, the Chennai Corporation pumped in significant sums to set up a running track, a cricket pitch, a basketball court and other facilities like a rudimentary gym and volleyball court. A few signs pointed to the construction nearing completion, but there was still a long way to go. Which was perfect for gully cricket.

Bat-ball ballads: Mumbai's maidans host cricket matches with all sorts of rules; but the forward defensive (below) isn't forgotten either

Bat-ball ballads: Mumbai's maidans host cricket matches with all sorts of rules; but the forward defensive (below) isn't forgotten either © Subash Jayaraman

Emboldened by my experience in RA Puram, I walked up to a group and asked if I could join. The outdoor basketball court had been converted into the playing area, and three stumps, a luxury, were planted just off the concrete. A scrawny barefoot boy wearing knee-length shorts caught my eye. He wore a brown checked shirt and black anklets. Mughilan, 16, with thatched hair that was collecting dust, carried himself as if he owned the field. It wasn't too long before I saw what he was capable of.

One of the most contentious aspects of a game of gully cricket is picking teams. It can put negotiations at the UN to shame. Both sides want the big guns, and neither is willing to give an inch. As the arguments carried on, Mughilan tossed me the ball and asked me to have a bowl. Not sure how good he was, I bowled from off about four paces, and since he was left-handed, kept it wide of off. Mughilan stepped across and swung it over the square-leg boundary. He then turned to me as if to say, "You don't belong here, old man." The next delivery was on leg stump, and he turned around in his stance and switch-hit me over point. We then swapped roles but there was still no letting up. With a high-arm action, and funky jump before delivery, Mughilan spun a bald tennis ball on concrete at pace. It didn't take long for me to realise why he was a bona fide gully cricket legend.

Though the core of gully cricket has remained the same since the 1980s, there were clear signs of change. We saw many kids in branded jerseys with names of cricketers and football stars printed on their backs. Almost all of them had smartphones. When they saw us take pictures, some would walk up with an inquisitive look and a friendly smile. "So what phone is that?" "How many megapixels in the camera?" "Where did you buy it?" "How much did you pay for it?"

Every third delivery, Ahmed launched the ball so far beyond the building walls and into the bushes, it was hard to locate it

Having grown up with six older brothers obsessed with cricket, my memories of childhood are dominated by backyard games that went on for hours every weekend. It was the early 1980s and everyone wanted to be either Kapil Dev or Sunil Gavaskar. Since I was the youngest and smallest of the lot, which meant my brothers could easily smash my bowling, I gravitated towards Gavaskar. All I wanted to do was copy his airtight front-foot defence. My childhood highlight was scoring 11 runs off seven overs without getting out. In gully cricket terms, this was textbook gaaji.

When I moved out of India in 1998, kids who played gully cricket were imitating Sachin Tendulkar. Now many are trying MS Dhoni's helicopter shot. When my wife asked one of the boys in RA Puram his name, he cheekily said, "Dhoni", his mouth curled up in a devilish smile.

On our trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, we watched a game being played opposite the Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula. In a rundown part of town, next to a Muslim cemetery, in a temple's ground, a dozen kids were spending their evening playing cricket. They had set up a pile of bricks to serve as stumps and the ground had a short boundary on the leg side. The dusty pitch had developed ridges and the red tennis ball was bouncing and turning unpredictably. There was only one fielder on the off side - at deep cover, no less. The rest were saving runs on the leg side.

After-school delights: evening games in a temple ground in Agra

After-school delights: evening games in a temple ground in Agra © Subash Jayaraman

Ahmed, not more than five feet tall, was charging down the pitch, as if to counter the irregular bounce, and launching balls towards the buildings beyond the boundary. When he didn't step out, he swept and reverse-swept. And he never missed. He raced to 29 off eight balls. I walked up behind the wicketkeeper and gently enquired about the batsman while taking photos. Of course, I had to tell the wicketkeeper that it wasn't an Android phone and that I had bought it in the US. He then told me about Ahmed. "Haan, yeh bahut ustaad batsman hai aur lagta hai aap ko dikhana chahta hai [Yes, he is a very good batsman and looks like he wants to show you that]." Every third delivery, Ahmed launched the ball so far beyond the building walls and into the bushes, it was hard to locate it. He often ran to assist the fielders as he "knew exactly where he had hit them".

The sheer amount of talent on display and the number of kids playing makes one believe cricket will remain the king of sports in India for some time to come. However, there were some warning signs too. On our trips through ten different Indian cities, gully cricket (on streets and grounds) was immediately visible only in Mumbai and Chennai. Some suggest that rapid urbanisation in many cities has led to a loss of open spaces and public grounds. Housing colonies can no longer afford to have large empty spaces within their compounds, since residents need space to park their vehicles. In Gujarat many open areas have been converted to "party plots" and are used for weddings and other social gatherings.

The popularity of Messi and Ronaldo jerseys - especially in the urban centres - cannot be ignored. Even on Chennai's corporation grounds, bowlers had to sometimes abort their run-ups when 20-odd footballers ran across the pitch. Growing up in the '80s, many of us had little but cricket to entertain us. Kids now have an option of a plethora of TV channels broadcasting every sport from every corner of the world. There are also video games and a multitude of options on the internet to keep them occupied.

Even on Chennai's corporation grounds, bowlers had to sometimes abort their run-ups when 20-odd footballers ran across the pitch

To see the passion around gully cricket one has to travel outside the major metropolitan centres. Looking out of the windows on train and bus rides, we saw games being played in fields in small towns - similar to what I experienced on weekends as a teenager. Former India opener Madhav Apte says cricket is no longer a big-city sport and partly attributes the change to television. "Who would have imagined that somebody from Jharkhand would captain India? This is basically the contribution of television."

Among the winding streets of Udaipur in Rajasthan, we found a restaurant perched on a building's roof - one of three or four in the area claiming to be the "highest view in Udaipur". From our vantage point we looked down on flat roofs of houses, each blurring into the other in the dimming light. At a distance, over the sound of passing horns, we heard a peal of laughter, and that unmistakable flap of chappals running back and forth. We followed the sounds and there, on a nearby rooftop no larger than 200 square metres, three kids were playing cricket.

A small girl knelt near a wall and, with what must have been chalk, drew a set of stumps. Two boys took turns batting and bowling. One of the boys went for a mighty swing and the ball sailed off the edge of the roof, disappearing into the noisy streets below. "Abeyaaaaar!" he cried, leaning over the edge.

The gentleman's game is now the people's game

The gentleman's game is now the people's game © Getty Images

A man on the street found the ball and tried to throw it back, but the distance was too great. One boy vanished into the house and soon appeared on the street to search for the ball. He couldn't find it for a few minutes but just as we were about to give up, he held the ball aloft with a victorious cry and ran back into the building. And the game continued.

We weren't aware of the exact rules of the contest - a secret between three kids high above the city - but we watched anyway. When the light faded and we struggled to discern their bodies, we couldn't turn away. Because they were still there. It must have been hard for them to see the ball, or even each other, but we could hear them playing - the flap-flap-flap of sandals on concrete, the cries of victory and defeat, that "thock" of bat on ball.

There are many people with opinions about the future of cricket - the formats, the laws, who will play, and how much. There are talking heads, and personalities, and moguls. There are tournaments and leagues in a random blend of alphabets. Lost in these endless arguments are those kids on the streets and rooftops, the dust whirling beneath their feet, the piles of bricks as wickets, the chappals marking the crease, two runs if you hit the tin wall to the right, four runs if you find the bush on the left.

The game has changed immeasurably but many things have stayed the same. Yesterday it was my brothers in the backyard. Today in Chennai, Mumbai and a thousand towns along the train tracks, there are young kids hitting weathered balls beyond their makeshift boundaries, watching them sail into tomorrow.

Subash Jayaraman hosts the Couch Talk podcast on ESPNcricinfo

 

RELATED ARTICLES

 

LOGIN TO POST YOUR COMMENTS

  • POSTED BY mahadevan on | May 17, 2015, 2:06 GMT

    Great article sir...u'd forgot to mention about the toss part...we hardly had a coin to use for the toss...it would be the tiniest stone kept in one's palm, he shows them to the opposition before tightly closing it with his fingers....then he swings that arm in a repeated manner as if bowling, now its up to the captains to decide whether the stone's in or out!! You call it correct...u win the toss!!Its virtually impossible to track the stone even when it leaves the swinging arm...."Atdetail" u'd mentioned, the process of taking out a batsman midway is nothing but a jargon in gully cricket for "hurt retired"...no ones hurt of course :) nostalgic post indeed...thank u

  • POSTED BY Atul on | May 16, 2015, 11:08 GMT

    Growing up we used similar rules like 1D & 2D, They meant 1-Declared/Decided and 2-Declared/Decided. This was used when there were not enough fielders or when ball would go to bushes or on roof etc. Though there was never a 3D!

  • POSTED BY Tariq on | May 15, 2015, 21:07 GMT

    Great article! I am from Pakistan but situation was same at our side. (Lol @ Sisir Chandra's comment: 1D 2D part) Gully cricket was part of our daily lives and this article is simply a flashback :) .

  • POSTED BY Sisir Chandra Panigrahi on | May 15, 2015, 18:51 GMT

    Beautifully Done!!! i could frame the images while reading. Born in mid-80s and coming from a small place from Odisha i could proudly say i have played almost all the format of Gully cricket. Be it on the roof top, the one-drop- one hand, the 1G and 2Gs (we had it as 1D and 2D not sure wot D meant), only ground shots, ground shot underlight 7 a side, in abandon houses during rains, with my brother in the house, with cousins during family gatherings... it was crazy. Summer vacations were kind of the cricket season, you could play till sun permits. 40+ temp, soaked in sweat but that won't dither you from diving to stop a single and rains, i just hated them for the obvious reasons... Growing up it was no different. High school, grad school it was all about cricket with studies squeezed in between. Talk about passion and Cricket is winner hands down... We literally Ate.Lived.Slept Cricket... Don't think have changed much though... Long live the game... Cheers to Cricket...

  • POSTED BY Adhithya on | May 15, 2015, 16:24 GMT

    The best I have read in sometime... No matter what happens we as children had fun... I feel like my nephews and nieces don't even play the game for fun anymore... All want to end up in coaching and do their rounds... hardly any kids are seen playing on the streets... Back in my childhood, I would be so proud of having scored a fifty in a five over game against an unknown bunch of kids that I would recite it to anyone and everyone I saw... It was rules that were made by kids for kids and the fun that we had- be it in winning or in losing was irreplaceable. As I remember there is nothing better than a game of cricket with friends... Oh just to add to your point, we in Bangalore sometimes also used tree trunks across the street as wickets... and there were a few kids for whom we would always have runners to add to the confusion and fun...

    Again great read and kudos

  • POSTED BY Rishikesh on | May 15, 2015, 16:23 GMT

    I had a unique distinction of taking two wickets in one ball during my childhood days in school (CPS Pusa).The wicket was a wall and i bowled the batsman out and also managed to run out the non striker after collecting the ball on the rebound.My friends appreciated my effort.

  • POSTED BY Abhi Das on | May 15, 2015, 16:02 GMT

    Beautifully written Subash! Signed up just to comment :-) Brought back fond memories of playing gully cricket while growing up in Chennai. LOL'ed especially when you brought up familiar terms like 'Gaaji', 'Attetail', etc. One of my favorites was 'Appeeet'! When a bowler implores his fielders to take a catch ("Up it") even if the ball only had a modest air time of 0.1 second, presumably off the bat.

    There's also the 'Joker', who bats and fields (but can't bowl) both sides when there are an odd number of players... or his unfortunate cousin... the 'wicky-joker' who keeps wickets the entire game (also usually the last person left out when both captains have picked their teams :D)

  • POSTED BY Gopi on | May 15, 2015, 15:59 GMT

    Nostalgic. Got goosebumps all over me reading this. I used to play on the Streets and roof tops and this is excellently put. The stumps will be diagonally laid at either side of the road and runs can be scored only behind the stumps on off side or legside depending on how the pitch is assumed for the day. All the variations of the scoops that are on display in the T20 leagues are the only way to score the runs (I am talking 20 years ago) with the restriction that if the ball goes into any house the batsman is out. I am living abroad and recently I and my son had the opportunity to enjoy similar moments when we were in Chennai and kids still playing "gulli cricket" but with added obstacles of cars parked on the roads. I also joined him in a few games and cannot put in words the happiness I experienced. Great article.

  • POSTED BY Krish on | May 15, 2015, 15:07 GMT

    Subash, Sabaash! Awesome article. The 'Atdetail', "Baby Over" and "Gaaji" was just unbelievably nostalgic moments.. As a guy who played decent level cricket, one cannot forget the gully cricket ones.. Thank you for taking us back in time!!... The "current" run out is the best way to get out.. not to forget the "single man gaaji"..1

  • POSTED BY Nik on | May 15, 2015, 15:03 GMT

    Wish I could show you guys american born nephews playing JUST like one of the pictures in the article few months back! Best part, They Loved it a LOT more than their basketball games in American street and driveways!!

  • POSTED BY Nicholas on | May 15, 2015, 14:04 GMT

    As to your observation about the best batsman being a passing student on his way home from College.... A friend of mine [now a Judge, so I suspect he was telling the truth!] tells a story of a match between University of East Anglia and Cambridge. UEA were a man short, and asked if any of the spectators, buried in their revision books, fancied a game.

    One of them volunteered .... and it was only as he approached his effortless hundred, wearing dirty green pads... that my friend realised the passing student was Majid Khan !!

  • POSTED BY SRIVATSAN on | May 15, 2015, 14:03 GMT

    Almost brought a tear to my eye. Been there done that. Cricket in different corners of 3 huge grounds in Keshav Memorial school Hyderabad, cricket in the morning during summer holidays, 5:30 am to the local park with the big boys, cricket for 2 hours after morning breakfast, cricket again from 4pm in the colony, cricket inside the house, WI vs India after 1983 series. All this before the age of 10.

    My son is 10 and growing up in concrete Chennai. He has watched 3 Chenani test matches but has never come home upset or happy after a hard day's grind at the ground.

    The world was a simpler, safer place 30 years ago.

  • POSTED BY Soumodeep on | May 15, 2015, 11:37 GMT

    Oh man this article so resembles every one of us. Amazing article. Playing cricket in rooftops are talked rarely about and it was great to read about it.

  • POSTED BY Satyam Ravi Dwivedi on | May 15, 2015, 11:26 GMT

    You moved me to tears man! Each of us in India has been a cricketer before becoming an engineer, a doctor, a scientist, a teacher or anything else. Kids and their enthusiasm for cricket will keep the game alive. Great read!