He eyed the clock suspiciously. It was 3:50 half an hour ago. How could it possibly be five to four now? He’d eaten his meal, swallowed the vitamins and even had that foul green-looking thing on his plate. ‘It’s good for your eyes’, said Uncle. And Rafa always listened to his Uncle.
He stared petulantly at the clock, tapping his feet and cracking his knuckles. ‘Come on!’ he yelled. As soon as the second met the minute at 12, with the hour looking on from 4, Rafa was out the door. He felt joyous, free and ready to take on the world. He slammed the door, opened the garden gate with one hand, holding his cricket bat and ball in the other and was off. The ground was ten minutes from where he lived… no, nine and a half since Tuesday. With a shy, proud smile on his face, he kept running.
The ground was long, not uniform in breadth, and had a cement slab for a pitch. There were three proper entrances on various sides of the ground, one of which was a hole in the wall. At the far end was a small gate, but that wasn’t close to where Rafa stayed. He used the entrance at the opposite end of the field, the one which was closer to the ‘pitch’. There was a wall on the leg side, which was covered with tennis ball pockmarks. The other end had a small fence, beyond which was the street. A very make-do-with-what-you-have arrangement, but would we want to have it any other way?
He reached the playground, but it was empty. He wasn’t surprised, no one turned up before four thirty anyway. Roger wouldn’t be there for another forty five minutes, Rafa knew that. He smiled again, with the sun glaring down on him. He could play for an extra half hour. He reached his favourite spot on the ground, near the peepal tree by the far end. He propped his bat up, resting its handle carefully on a little crick in the trunk that he liked to imagine had been made just for him. Indeed, no one was allowed to keep his bat there.
After diligently doing the stretches Uncle Toni had taught him (Rafa had hurt his knee in school, but that wouldn’t stop him from playing, nothing would), he took his bat and ball to the wall which doubled as the leg side boundary, and started practice.
It was at least twenty minutes before he heard a voice in the distance. He stopped and saw Andy’s mother dropping him off by the gate. Shaking his head, he got back to what he was doing. ‘Stupid Andy. Does his mother have to come everywhere?’
At the other end, Andy, a tall boy for his age, kissed his mother goodbye. ‘You be good now Andy’. Yes ma. ‘I want you to win today. Do you want to win?’ I don’t know Ma, it’s just a ga..’Andy. You’re going to win. Goodbye’. And she was off.
He looked on as she turned the car around and left. She didn’t need to drop him off to play; he could have ridden his bicycle. But she would have none of it. By the time Andy reached the pitch, there were four or five other lads laughing and chatting. Rafa was there, he was always there. He could also hear Novak, laughing and joking as always. As Andy drew closer, he saw David and Tomas playing catch, talking about the field trip the class had taken two days ago.
Andy had wanted to go, so very badly, but Ma had said no, because he would miss cricket coaching. He hated it, but wouldn’t say a word. Meanwhile, Novak had been entertaining Rafa and Juan Martin with his mimicry. When Rafa hit a wayward shot and lost his footing, Novak copied the shot and the fall to perfection.
Juan Martin, the tallest boy in the group, guffawed loudly and nearly fell over laughing. Rafa mock-pinned Novak to the ground while David came running and tried to do a 3-count. They soon settled down, still grinning for no particular reason.
David, who loved to bowl, then picked up the ball and walked towards the crease. Tomas, who’d been standing in the corner immediately saw this and ran to the batting area. Yes! The first win of the day! It was a different thrill to be the first one to play the first practice ball. No matter if the ball was thrown wide, no matter if he was clean bowled. This was a window-seat kind of victory, and don’t we all cherish those.
David was a perfect individual to have in a team. He could bowl well, bat well, field well, always ran and never complained. Tomas, on the other hand, was a little moody. It was always a gamble to take him on the team, but on a good day, he could even bowl Roger out.
It only took another ten minutes before there were queues at both ends of the pitch- always a sign to stop fooling around, make two teams, and get down to business. After much deliberation, it was decided that Novak and Andy were to choose their respective teams. First pick was Andy’s, and he chose Rafa. Obviously. Novak went ahead and took a blind pick: if Rafa was in Andy’s team, it was only fair that he got Roger. They couldn’t both be on the same team! No Fair!
After Stanislas and Jo-Wilfried both confirmed that Roger had told them he’d be coming, the matter was settled. After that, the rest were quickly divided, and on paper the teams looked balanced and everyone was raring to go.
Novak’s team had Roger, David, Jo, Richard, Gilles, Tommy H, Mikhail and of course, Novak.
Andy had Rafa, Tomas, Juan Martin, Stanislas, Tommy R, John and Nicolas on his team, and he thought this team was good enough to bring a smile on Ma’s face when he went back home later. When he would tell her he was captain, she would be even happier. These things pleased her… and him too.
Novak was assessing his team, and was very happy with what he had. Jo was the brute of the group, a sturdy, stocky, beast of a boy. It was hard to believe he was only twelve. When he picked fights (and he picked a lot of them) he could take down 15-year-olds without batting an eyelid. Always a good guy to have on your side if there was an appeal for a run out.
In stark contrast to him was Gilles, a thin, lanky daredevil, who always had a fresh wound on his person. He loved to dive for a catch, dive for that near impossible third run, dive to run someone out. And they loved him for that. Juan Martin’s height made him a feared bowler, and the fact that he was really good didn’t do the opposition any favours.
‘If only he’d come to play more often’ was the general complaint of the gang. But what with his tendency to fall and get hurt, and his extra-curricular activities in school, he just couldn’t make it to the ground every day. Tommy H, or Haasy as they affectionately called him, was one of the older boys. He was a nice, quiet fellow who was always ready to come out and play. It was his last year in school though; this time next year he’d be slogging it out in college.
Nicolas and John were the last two picks for Novak, after all the ‘good’ ones had been taken. These two were not that bad, but they were never going to make it to the team that would play against the boys from the Other Colony. But that didn’t stop them from pestering their parents to buy wickets, and any boy whose parents gave in to their child’s tantrums would always find a place in the team- only not The Team, the one that would play against the Other Boys From The Other Colony.
Novak himself was a quick and tenacious little squirrel, and could always be depended upon when it came to the big moments- six off the last ball kind of stuff. He’d chosen to bowl first, because he loved to hit the winning run- not too different from a certain Mahi who was busy playing football in a different part of the country.
Near the peepal tree sat Rafa and Tommy R, who were waiting to go down and bat. Captain Andy had cleverly chosen a right-left combination to open the innings for his team ( it was the kind of thing he saw captains do on TV), and felt like quite the leader. They were all waiting for Roger to come, and a sudden uproar from the other team signaled Roger’s arrival. And as they saw him trotting down to the pitch there was a look of amazement and envy on every face, and often both they both look the same.
Roger had become something of a legend. He had played with the best, and had beaten them. Roger, when not even a teen then, had stood up to Pete, Andre and Marat, all of whom were in college now. He had an elegance which few possessed, and he knew it. His tales of victory had permeated the walls of schools on the other side of town, and that was saying something. He lazily walked up to the guys, hair in place, clean white socks, a smile on his face and said, ‘So who’s winning today?’ Which basically meant, ‘Whose side am I on?’ Novak chuckled and took him to their side.
Tommy ‘Robo’ R looked on with disgust. He didn’t like this arrogance, and hated being hit for a six every single time he bowled to Roger. But, like all the others, he kept quiet, smiled politely and made his way to the crease. They would beat him today; he could feel it in his bones. After all they had Andy as their captain. Sure, he was a Mommy’s boy, but that didn’t make him a bad cricketer. In fact, he was very talented, and that lousy, seemingly permanent scowl on his face meant that people didn’t notice his phenomenal speed and powerfully hit pull shots.
Then there was the unpredictable Tomas, who had gotten Novak and Roger out the other day. Stanislas was another critical asset in their team- he was in Roger’s class in school, and had played with him for the longest time. Add Rafa and Juan Martin to the team, and Robo felt very confident indeed. John could bowl over after over, and Nicolas could play shot after shot, but John found it very hard to get wickets, and Nicolas found runs hard to come by. Nonetheless, they would have to make do with what they had.
It was seven o clock, too dark to see the ball anymore. When even the street lights weren’t good enough to continue play, the boys grudgingly uprooted the wickets and trudged back towards the peepal tree. There was no post-match huddle and no ‘see you tomorrow’. There was just plain disappointment in all their faces: homework time.
Some, like Novak and Nicolas, looked worried. They’d both broken their 6.30 deadlines, and Lord knew what awaited them. ‘Do we walk slowly to delay the inevitable? Or walk faster to reduce the severity?’ They did not know what to do! No one paid any heed to Rafa’s plaintive cries for ‘one last over’; instead they all looked on as Roger waved casually to the girls, who were much gigglier than normal. Some guys had all the luck.
There was still tomorrow though. Oh well, all in a day’s play.
There’s a bit of them in all of us, and there’s a bit of us in all of them. That’s a heartening feeling, wouldn’t you say?