Children in Guwahati play cricket

Dear Cricket Monthly,

I've noticed a strange compulsion in myself lately, one I suspect some of your readers will share. It is this: I cannot look away if a ball is about to be bowled in a game of cricket. It doesn't seem to matter if it's a Test match watched from the stands, a 20-over fling between fluorescently clad teams on a storefront TV, or a hopeful father lobbing a plastic ball at his child. I absolutely must see the ball through, and I've been wondering why.

Now this sort of engrossment would not be anything to regret if one thing did not so often lead to another. Once, in Mumbai, I stepped out to get breakfast, saw a bowler at the top of his run-up in a nearby field, and stayed the whole day watching a college match. An evening walk near my house in Bangalore takes me past a dozen games in progress - in playgrounds, on the streets, in front yards - and so the threat of evaporated hours is never too far away. When I stop to watch, it is with a somewhat paternal air, like an expert commentator on his day off. After all, these are the same spaces in which I played as a boy. I note that the batting is now far more daring - these kids seem always to be attempting switch hits and ramp shots, running sharply between what pass for wickets. The fielding is more nimble and catches are seldom dropped. All things that mirror the changes in cricket on a bigger stage.

It's a matter of some embarrassment to admit that I adopt this grizzled-veteran attitude while watching international cricket. In some strange way I feel that my years playing street cricket with friends and classmates qualify me as a fellow cricketer alongside champions of the game. (Judging from the confident suggestions I've heard issued to television sets over the years, it would seem I'm not alone.)

I find myself occasionally muttering at the TV: "Fine heave, Chris. But if you'd been playing in Sundar's yard, that was out."

To the extent that cricket is a game of bat and ball played under a mutually acknowledged, somewhat whimsical set of rules, the cricket we played must count too. It's just that ours was a different form of the game. There's the long form of the game, there are the shorter forms, and then there's the cramped, cobbled-together form played by millions in yards, streets, any available open space. Large segments of the "wagon wheel" are out of bounds. Sometimes, an entire leg side or off side goes missing. Modes of dismissal are numerous and intricate, occasioned by things like hitting the ball into certain hostile neighbours' homes or into the girls' throwball court or being caught one-handed after one bounce. The balls are rubber, tennis, cork, and in desperate times, even a dog's sponge ball.

We had our local legends. There was a fielder of simian agility in my neighbourhood who went by the unwieldy and entirely deserved name of "Benson & Hedges Great Catches". One bowler ran in arms windmilling, and there was no telling from how far behind the bowling crease he might choose to release the ball; there were others who would wet rubber balls in puddles to make them rush through.

We had players who deployed strokes custom-made for the venues we played in. In one of those yards, the only way to hit a six was as follows: you lofted the ball above the fielders stationed in the yard and on the street outside so that it struck the compound across the road on the full. Any shorter, it was a four. Any longer, you were out. Because the house held a grouch who sliced balls into two before throwing them out. Despite the fiendish precision this stroke called for, there were batsmen who nearly perfected a tennis-lob caress that sent the ball out just far enough. (Now that TV coverage finds it apt to announce the distance a six has travelled, as if it's a javelin-throwing contest, I find myself occasionally muttering: "Fine heave, Chris. But if you'd been playing in Sundar's yard, that was out.")

Every game needs an audience

Every game needs an audience © Getty Images

What, you might wonder, does all this have to do with being entranced by deliveries? My theory is this: the individual delivery as an atomic unit of cricket becomes sacrosanct when the game is played in such precarious circumstances. The game might end abruptly for any number of reasons: the adults who call the shots in a yard want to take a nap; the owner of the bat has homework to do; the ball tears, or is confiscated, or, as happened once with me, sails into the open window of a car and is spirited away. Even if matches do reach their conclusion, team compositions are so unstable that victories do not mean much. All that leaves us is the world of a single delivery. Let's take it, as they say, ball by ball.

It so happens that the most effusive delight I have inspired in others was on the cricket field, moments that still make me smile some 25 years later. The time I hit the school-team captain for a straight six and others whooped and jumped up and down. And the day that I, an indifferent fielder at best, lost balance, went flying, and half by accident held on to a catch that was near miraculous. I doubt I will do anything in my life again that will cause people to raise me on their shoulders from sheer joy. And so I suppose, knowing the possibilities a single ball can hold, I stand there waiting for it to at least go out of play until I move on.

Wistfully yours,

Srinath Perur is the author of If It's Monday It Must Be Madurai, a book about travelling in groups