Three wickets, a caught and bowled, at least one six, and still at the crease in the end!

My contribution as team captain of the kids who wanted to play badminton but first had to play cricket to secure a precious stretch of empty and unbroken road near my childhood home in Palm Avenue, Kolkata.

This was the winter of sometime in the early or mid-1980s, when even TV was yet to take over children’s imaginations. The lanes and by lanes, albeit poorly built, were yet to be choked with cars. The seasons were still well defined. Schools would have month-long winter holidays. I was a badminton lover, and still am. If I play the game regularly, I start playing shots in my dreams.

My team was young, a mix of genders, had queer kids like me (though not articulate about it as yet), and some of us weren’t too fond of cricket. We did play gully cricket, but didn’t relish it. Our opponents were a group of on-an-average older guys who regularly played noisy cricket, broke window panes, and got away with it. They were surprised that anyone could resist their ‘natural claim’ to the ‘playground’ in question.

Before this, we, the rebels, had had to vacate the space many times so that the older lot could have the field. But this time some of us put our foot down. Not only had we gotten there first, we’d been good kids, finished our homework, bathed and groomed for the day. There was no way we were going to give up two to three hours of well-deserved baddy for a bunch of baddies.

When neither side was willing to back out, somebody had a brainwave for breaking the stalemate. There would be a five-a-side limited overs match with a rubber ball. The winners would have the road all to themselves for the next few hours.

Our opponents wanted to play with a deuce (leather) ball. Funnily enough, it was supposed to hurt lesser than a rubber ball. Many in my team weren’t convinced. The opponents relented, but they joked that in any case the match was going to be over in 15 minutes. They spoke too soon!

I don’t remember how I came to be the captain, because there were better players than me in the team. I seemed to bowl better than I batted. I had little pace or spin in my bowling, but I sure was sincere about line and length (a policy that’s stood me well in life at large). I could bat just about enough to save my life. Anyway, I played my role as the captain and egged on all my team members. I discussed who should bowl or bat and when with Bulan, the best cricket player in our side, and a childhood friend I still bump into.

By now word had spread that a never-before cricket match in the annals of Palm Avenue was about to be played. There were spectators in many of the balconies lining the lane. There was anticipation in the air, though mostly of a one-sided affair. But there were people rooting for the underdogs and I daresay we had the sympathy of many. I think it was Utpal Da, my next-door neighbour and someone considered neutral enough, who was roped in as the umpire.

I’ve no memory of the toss, but we bowled first and shocked the wits out of our opponents. We shocked ourselves as well. The opponents were over-confident and lost wickets regularly. They were never able to pile up a big score. The action replay of the caught-and-bowled wicket that I took is quite vivid in my mind. I can still imagine the sting of the ball landing with a resounding thump in my hands. I took out the bespectacled Babul, one of the other side’s best.

Though our batting wasn’t exceptional, we kept the scoreboard moving, particularly Bulan. As are the charms of gully cricket, our weakest batters also scored quite a few accidental fours. The opponents bowled fast, but after a while, we weren’t intimidated. We lost nearly all our wickets but won with an over to spare. Oh, what a feeling it was!

Our opponents seemed to be sore losers and didn’t want to let go of the space. We didn’t waste time though – the badminton net was up in no time, and the court lines chalked out already just needed touching up. Before long, the ugly thwacks of the cricket bat were replaced by the sexier whips of badminton rackets and whoops of the joyous players.

So, what’s the point of this story, half-remembered and half-imagined (which can often be the same thing)? Nothing much, other than a feel-good story for the New Year. A consolation for those who always find themselves at the receiving end of social inequities and aggressive behaviours. A back-handed reminder to the ‘smart city’ planners about the lack of playgrounds for children. Also, surely a call to all baddy lovers out there that I want to play some serious badminton.

Parting thought: I was called sissy on this very road by a friend’s mother in another play-related incident. That’s a story for another time. But sweet justice it was when not many years later I was sassy enough to come out as gay in the same neighborhood.

About the main photo: Scenes from the lane near the author’s childhood home in Palm Avenue, Kolkata where cricket had to give way to badminton. Photo credits: Pawan Dhall