The batsman, a kid of 13, took his stance and his eyes were focussed at the ball. The delivery was short and outside of the off-stump. A well-timed square-cut and the ball hit the wall like a speeding bullet.
The bowler, a 13-year-old himself, bit his lower lip and took his stance again. He changed his grip on the plastic ball and released it. This time it hit the pitched road of the alley and swung.
The batsman tried to block it, but he was completely beaten, and the ball hit the wicket - bowled! The bowler pumped his hands, and fielders rushed towards him to congratulate.
Welcome to alley cricket.
This is just a glimpse of a normal day in the alley cricket culture of India. In this part of the world it’s known as the ‘gali cricket’.
This is the kind of cricket that introduces youngsters to the technical nuances of the game. Through this alley cricket they not only enjoy this game but also improvise their batting and bowling skills.
The incident you read above may be fictionalised, but it is not too far removed from reality. The parts that may be called imaginary are the characters, but if you ever walk down the alleys, street, and homes of the Indian sub-continent, you will see kids, teenagers, and even adults playing such matches.
As a person, born and brought up in India, I have seen such matches since my childhood. We never needed a playground to satisfy our playing urges. A rooftop or the balcony would do equally well.
Strikes may be a bad thing for the adults, but for kids in India, it gave them the opportunity to use those less crowded or, in certain states, almost empty streets as their very own cricket ground. These so called non-serious tournaments and matches are the first step for a child to understand the importance of taking catches, remaining committed while fielding, and stealing singles to keep the score board ticking over.
When I heard Wasim Akram, the legendary Pakistani fast bowler, tell a well-known sports channel about the importance of alley cricket and street cricket, I immediately traced my steps to my childhood days.
At a time when cricket coaching centres are limited in numbers, these local cricket matches doubled up as the first cricket coaching centres that a child would attend. The little player not only learnt about competitiveness but also about the importance of staying calm under pressure.
They help all of us to understand, even if too little, the pain of loss and the jubilation of victory.
In an ICC World Twenty20 match in 2007 between England and India, when Yuvraj Singh creamed a beleaguered Stuart Broad for 36 runs, I was reminded of an incident of my school days. In a friendly cricket match during lunch break, a fellow student, hit me for six maximums.
Despite the difference in their importance and exposure, that past incident helped me to understand Broad's pain.
These street cricket games are also a great place to see spontaneity and improvisation.
I have seen kids hitting shots as exciting as MS Dhoni’s ‘helicopter shot’ or Tillakaratne Dilshan’s ‘Dil-scoop’. There may not be enough focus on their innovation, but these kids take their game seriously enough.
It’s true that not everyone playing in street cricket would make it to the national team, but these cricket matches would teach them to dive at every ball, to get the perfect catch, and to stop that certain boundary.
In a street cricket match, missing a dolly would have meant taunts from the opposition and a quick removal of the fielder from that fielding position. Conversely, splendid fielding earned respect.
It is through street or balcony cricket that someone starts to experiment with different bowling grips. During his television interview, even Akram mentioned how they would tape a ball to create shiny sides, so the ball can swing. Ingenius!
That outside-of-the-box thinking makes someone a champion, but as he has mentioned the thought takes shape during those street and alley matches.
When I first saw the grip of the ‘carom-ball’, I was reminded of some of the grips that a few of us would use while playing among ourselves. We may not have given it any name, but through trial and error we learnt about its effectiveness.
Some good bowlers among us can hit the ‘block-hole’ again and again and again. Batting with both hands was a mundane matter for some of us. I have seen many street players use both the hands at various moments.
So, when I watch AB de Villiers or Kevin Pieterson switch hands for a perfect reverse sweep, I simply smile remembering those childhood days.
In addition to the techniques, every street player would also improvise the playing format. Negative scoring, short over matches, batting without a non-striker, selecting the batting order by asking a team mate to match a name to a called out number - these were parts of our lives growing up.
I really wonder where cricket would have been without these street matches and these alley tournaments?
While the street cricket reflects the popularity of the game, it also benefits the sport by bringing out some talented cricket enthusiasts. As I am typing this article, I am sure, that many more innovations and stylised changes are happening on the street at this very moment.
As long as these games go on, the more serious versions of the game too will continue to see braver players, ready to improvise.
© Cricket World 2014