Beyond IPL's Glamour is an Unrecognised Phenomenon — Tennis Ball Cricket
Whether the government supports it or not, tennis-ball cricketers will remain enthusiastic about their sport.
Cricket is undoubtedly our “real” national sport, but not everyone can manage the facilities or resources required to play the game – the hard red ball, the pads, protective gear, and full-size playgrounds. That’s why it may well be true that the real spirit of India lies in tennis-ball cricket.
This is readily apparent from the daily sights in every part of the country. A young Rajasthani pace-bowler is sprinting barefooted on burning sand to hurl histhunderbolts.
A callow Mumbai teen tries to stroke a drive along the ground in a game of gully cricket, afraid to slog the ball for fear that it might shatter the glass windows of the building next door. Enthusiastic Keralites are playing in the rain, allowing the tennis ball to soak up the moisture till it is too soggy to bounce. The faces of cricket-loving monks in Ladakh are shining with sweat, as they toil hard in a “friendly” all-day match in the snow-covered Himalayas.
Delhi youth are rotating strike under the entrance to a metro station,their voices echoing far and wide as the trains trundle past across the nation’s capital.
India's Craze for Cricket Overcomes All Odds
Cricket is king, but Indians have transformed a resource-intensive sport into something they can afford. Adjusting to the inadequate means available to them, they find workable and cost-effective alternatives to cricket kits they don’t have: a stack of bricks, three near-parallel straight lines scratched with coal on a wall to serve as stumps, or even a plastic chair doubling as the wickets.
The playground is wherever they can conjure one, from a backyard to a beach to a relatively-uncrowded street, the courtyard of a school or a church, the driveway of a residential building, the open space near a public facility. All you need is a bat and a tennis ball: any place can substitute as a cricket field.
In a batsman-dominated sport, effective bowling techniques are invented to redress the balance. A tennis ball taped on one side allows the bowlers to swing it prodigiously. Pads, gloves and abdominal guards are not required, since no one has suffered concussion from being hit by a tennis-ball. When the stumps are a wall, wicket-keepers are surplus to requirements. In a narrow gully, you can do with many fewer fielders than the standard eleven.
Thus armed with a bat and a tennis-ball, the players—usually children and youth—set about the sport with great abandon, their enthusiasm usually exceeding their ability.
Parallel Universe of Tennis-Ball Cricket
This rudimentary form of cricket is, therefore, one of India's most ubiquitously played sports and attracts a huge turnout, particularly in the countryside. And it doesn’t stay confined to the gullies and the backyards. Tennis-ball cricket tournaments have begun to be organised, and many have turned into hugely popular events. Their revenues are generated from modest team entry fees and occasional donations (mostly given by politicians who later cut the red ribbon and take all the credit).
In fact, several tennis-ball cricketers have gained cult-like popularity and amassed major local followings because of their remarkable performances. Many batsmen hit six sixes in an over on a weekly basis. Some are known for their innovative batting styles and distinctive bowling actions.
A few have acquired unusual nicknames, reverentially repeated by excitable “commentators” to make the game far more entertaining for the crowds that are now gathering to watch the better matches.
Rushing onto the ground in a delirium of joy, pitch invaders hand over money to a batsman immediately after he hits a six; the amounts go up if he manages two consecutively.
In Punjab’s village tennis-ball tourneys, the winning team can claim rewards as high as a cash prize of fifty-one thousand rupees, while the runner-up team receives twenty-one thousand rupees.
IPL Dream Come True for a Tennis-Ball Cricket Star
Ramesh Kumar, the son of a cobbler and a bangle-seller, is a tennis-ball sensation from the small Punjab town of Jalalabad who acquired the nickname “Narine Jalalabadi” because he bowls off-spin and hits towering sixes like the West Indian star Sunil Narine.
Ramesh’s tennis-ball successes—he once blasted a 10-ball 50 in a local tournament—made him a cult hero on YouTube. His exploits, travelling across the country making Rs 500-1000 a day starring in tennis-ball cricket events, culminated this week in the offer of a 20-lakh-rupee IPL contract by the Kolkata Knight Riders, his namesake’s old team.
Ramesh says that tennis-ball cricket will now allow him to educate his younger brothers and persuade his parents to give up their arduous professions. He has no idea to what extent his skills will prove transferrable to the leather ball, but he has an inspiring precedent: T Natarajan of Tamil Nadu, another tennis-ball stalwart who made it to the IPL and, in one miraculous season, debuted for India in all three formats of the game.
Many sub-continental stars grew up playing tennis-ball cricket. India's master blaster Sachin Tendukar, Pakistan's Waseem Akram, and younger legends-in-the-making such as Rishabh Pant, all mastered the basics playing tennis-ball cricket. The bad news is there is a significant amount of tennis-ball talent good enough to play the sport at higher levels and even represent India, who are “slipping through the net”.
Indian Government Must Support Tennis-Ball Cricket
China has been building a huge sports infrastructure which also includes supporting and expanding its indigenous sports, whereas India is yet to learn that lesson from its neighbour. Worse, for all Prime Minister Narendra Modi's calls for self-reliant India, neither he nor anyone else in his government have shown any desire to promote local sporting ventures, least of all tennis-ball cricket.
The UP elections might augur a change: former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has announced that his party would recognise tennis-ball cricket in the state if it comes to power.
Ideally, the central government must recognise the game, standardise its rules and capitalise on the opportunities it can unlock. To empower tennis-ball cricketers, the government can devise athlete-centred policies such as play- to-earn, sponsoring the players at grassroots level and helping them monetise their profiles on social media platforms.
When India started the IPL, it became the biggest domestic cricket league in the world, with foreigners dreaming of coming to India to play in the league.
Along similar lines, India could host an international tennis-ball cricket league supported by the BCCI and conducted entirely in small rural towns. It couldbecome a grassroots success (even with no grass to playon!), unearth new cricket stars, attract investment by private capital and give Indian media something more to draw in the eyeballs of devoted cricket fans.
India Must Learn That Sports are Not Just for Money
The hidden talents of tennis-ball cricketers will transcend their present boundaries when their performances are captured by ultra-motion cameras and their records featured on cricket websites.
But, whether the government has the imagination to promote this or not, tennis-ball cricketers will remain enthusiastic about their sport even if they can’t make money from it.
Because the tennis-ball game is, above all, about passion—about bringing smiles to innocent faces, about allowing enthusiastic youngsters with no money for pads and gloves the chance to express themselves and excel by displaying the fire that’s in their hearts.
So, cricket fans everywhere—let’s not take our eyes off the ball: the tennis ball.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’(Aleph). Sadan Khan is an undergraduate living in rural UP, an occasional poet and a regular tennis-ball cricketer. He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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