The Cricket Match
By Richard Rupnarain
Guyana Journal, August 2007
When we were young, and by young I mean anywhere between eight and twelve years old, we looked forward to Sundays, for three reasons. The first was Sunday school, the second was lunch and the third, for the boys only, was cricket, in that particular sequence but not necessarily in that order of importance. In this case, the last was definitely not the least.
Bright and early on Sunday (and as far as I could remember it was always bright on Sundays, hardly ever rainy or overcast) we would be up and racing for the shower to be the first to get ready for Sunday school. We knew, as sure as the sun was rising and setting each day, that all our friends will be in Sunday school, and for the boys it was more than religious instruction, it was a chance to catch up and finalize last-minute plans for the cricket match later that day. This is not to say we did not enjoy Sunday school. Far from it! We took great delight in the lessons because we had nice, familiar and energetic teachers. The young men also taught us in elementary school and so we were at ease with their styles and expectations. Being teachers by profession they were always well prepared and they delivered their lessons with impeccable structure and infectious enthusiasm. But we took greater delight in the lessons because at the end of it we were each given illustrated color brochures of the Bible lessons. These lessons were taught systematically and chronologically and the accompanying brochures were numbered so that if you collected them all you were able to put together the complete Bible in paraphrase.
That particular first Sunday in July 1966 was even more special. It was family picture day. My dad thought we could kill two birds with one stone by having our family portrait taken out when we were dressed for Sunday school. (He and my mother attended the church service that began immediately after Sunday school.) So we all got dressed in our very best, which was usually reserved for Sunday anyway, the five boys in black short pants and plaid shirts, the four girls in white dresses and matching handbags, my father in his grey suit and trademark Hitler moustache, and my mother in a shiny taffeta dress and matching handbag. We posed for our photographs then we disbanded and were off to Sunday school.
The Sunday school lesson that day was about helping others and the example of the Good Samaritan ensured that it would be deeply ingrained into our moral psyches for life. That Samaritan was a poor, outcast man who put to shame the religious people like the priest and the Levite. He was to us a hero because most of us were children of poor working class people. He reminded us that we too could make a difference regardless of our economic or social status. But my mind did not stay on the Good Samaritan for very long. For one reason, my mind never stays on anything for long. My mind loves to wander off to distant places and things without asking my permission and by the time it returns I am often unable to catch up to the pack. As such my life is like a dotted line. It has a lot of gaps in between. So in order to keep myself on somewhat of an even keel I have perfected the art of bluffing and when that fails I find that a look of nonchalant indifference, which is due to my being completely lost to the present, actually impresses people. They think I am cool, unbreakable under pressure, whereas I am simply lost, in a time warp, unaware of what was going on around me, like a man waking up from a dream. How long this charade will last is anyone's guess but I hope I am able to play the game a bit longer, a few more years, until I retire. Then I will play golf and with the way I score it wouldn't matter which hole I am on or with whom I am playing.
Anyway, during the lesson my mind escaped to the cricket match that was to be contested after lunch. If my thoughts were systematic it would have gone to the next event, which was a sumptuous lunch of chicken curry and dhal puri. My mother made this combination every Sunday, as religiously as she went to church and, strangely, instead of becoming bored with it we actually salivated for it. We reared the chickens ourselves and so we knew they were healthy free from fat and chemicals and juicy. But my mind wasn't on the food either. All I could think of was the cricket match. Would I be picked for the team? If so, where would I be asked to field and at what number will I be assigned to bat? More importantly, will I make a duck or score a few important runs? I made ducks before and I can tell you that it is a shameful experience.
I closed my eyes and rehearsed my innings. I saw myself given a chance to bat when we were in dire trouble. I heard my captain and team members calling out encouraging words to me from the dry ditch that was their dugout. I felt the anxiety and I prayed I wouldnt have to face the fast bowler, Johnnie Fraser. He was tall and rugged looking, like the Marlboro Man, and fast and menacing, like Wesley Hall. He loved to walk up to a new batsman and spew his trash talk. He would say things like, you are no batsman. You should play hop scotch with the girls, or, you should be home minding baby, or, go home and feed your mothers fowl. And if he bowled you for a duck he would combine them all, much to the delight of his team members. I visualized keeping my bat close to my legs, just like Learie Constantine said in his book, and crouching low in my determination to keep my wicket. All I wanted to do was to get an edge or a full toss so I could get off the mark. In this game one run was significantly more than a duck.
But there was another question on my mind. What if we win? Will our opponents terrorize us like they always do? Our team, consisting of East Indians, was stuck week in and week out between the same rock and the same hard place. The rock was our ability to win the match. The hard place was the consequence we faced if we won. Week after week, year after year, it was the same. If we won our competitors terrorized us. Recently, we were on a losing streak and the question that haunted me was: Were we losing because we were afraid to win? On the surface at least it didn't appear that way. The big boys tried hard. Our good batsmen scored well. But subliminally, who knows? For whatever it was worth we were going back to face our nemesis after lunch and for now I hoped I would be picked for the team.
Well, after Sunday school we raced home, changed into our cricket attire and sat down to lunch. The sun was up in the middle of a cloudless sky, directly overhead, so that shadows were almost non-existent, puddles were dry and baked hard, flowers were drooping, and sweat was bleeding from our pores even inside the house. We could overhear the sound of drums not far away, on the nearby public road, coming from a lone masquerade band, still in the spirit of the recent Independence celebrations, as they worked the crowd that milled around the local cinema. The cinema was playing the Sound of Music at the time and everyone who saw it said it was a really nice movie, with children singing Do Re Me and German square head soldiers hunting them down. We hoped to be able to see before school reopened in September.
The sound of the masquerade drums set the adults at the table talking about what it meant to be an independent nation. My parents expressed apprehension at the notion of the white man leaving us on our own especially just after the riots and civil turbulence in the years immediately preceding Independence and the division it wedged between the two major groups of people the Blacks and East Indians. They expressed concern that Burnham, the new prime minister, will make life difficult for East Indians and prophesied that we might see the start of an exodus of Indians to different parts of the world. They were also discussing the territorial dispute between Venezuela and Guyana and even expressed the wish that Venezuela might take over Essequibo and then all the East Indians could move to that region and start over. As children we were not too sure what all this meant. At times we were happy to know we were a free nation and at other times we were scared at the white man leaving us alone at the mercy of two people who were constantly fighting each other. My father said Burnham resisted independence and was now taking the credit for it while the opposition leader, Jagan, was miffed that everyone was ignoring his role in the struggles to break the colonialist yoke.
Despite all the political wrangling we were all disappointed that the Queen could not come and that she had sent instead the Duke and Duchess of Kent to hand over the independence papers. We had seen the Queen on our exercise books and our coins and her portrait was even in public buildings. We wanted to see her in person but it was not to be. She must have deemed our little country not too important to be here in person. Either that or she was upset that we took down her flag and put up ours.
My uncle was a little more optimistic about the changes taking place in our country. He said things will get better because the Americans and British were giving money to Burnham to help build infrastructure, including a new highway to Mackenzie, and modern sea-defense systems. They were also giving him money to build a new international airport at Atkinson airfield and a university campus at Turkeyen. He said we now have our own central bank and our own currency and that he heard big businesses were coming to set up shop in our country. The Chase Manhattan Bank was already here; we had formed our first army with thirty-six men, and it was called the Guyana Defense Force, and we had joined up with the newly formed Caribbean Free Trade Area.
One of my sisters who had ambitions to become a teacher seemed enthusiastic over the changes that were taking place. She added that we now have our own coat of arms and all the children were trying to draw it. We had our new flag, the Golden Arrowhead, and every home had one of the miniature flags that were given out during the Independence celebrations. We had our own National Anthem, Green Land of Guyana, and every child was being taught how to sing it.
Just as we were nearing the end of our repast the rest of our cricket team members began to arrive at our home. First to arrive was Manny Ramsingh. Manny was our best batsman and should have been our captain. But he was not because captaincy was not based on leadership abilities or batsmanship. It was reserved for the oldest and mouthiest person and my eldest brother filled that role hands down. He was the oldest among us and the other side perceived him as our leader and that just about made him captain. Besides, he owned the ball and he could get angry at the drop of a pin. Once his anger turned to rage and he tossed a little Portuguese boy into the bush as though the kid was a rag doll. The funny thing is that no one ever questioned his authority or tried to lead a coup against him, not even when we kept losing and when he kept failing with the bat. In any event we had bigger things to worry about and captaincy was not among them. Manny was composed, handsome and dependable, always in the runs, and that made him the biggest threat to the opposition. No matter what they tried against him he prevailed. More often than not he made more runs than the rest of the team combined. We were glad that Manny was on our side and that we did not have to bowl against him.
Next to arrive was the village crew. They were our cousins and, save for the eldest two, the others did not make the cut. They were sent to play marbles, or hide-and-seek or cowboys and Indians. I barely made the team. At nine years old, and not in any way, shape or form accomplished, my selection was strictly based on nepotism. My brother, the captain, would have a lot of explaining to do to my father if he didnt pick me on his side. At times, he dropped me but not for long enough to get in trouble. Naturally, when I did get the chance to play I dug in hard when I batted and ran equally hard and fast when I fielded. Of my two cousins the older one played the sheet anchor role, playing every delivery with a dead bat, and running only when he was certain he could make it safely to the other end. He frustrated the opposition with his risk-free play and, as was the case with Manny, we were glad we did not have to bowl to him. My younger cousin was flamboyant, an attacking player who, while streaky, was dependable, if not with the bat, then with the ball. He bowled medium fast and proved to be a good go-to bowler when the offense was taking a licking. I admired his constancy. In victory or defeat he wore a smile and was never into making excuses.
Then came Jaigobind Ramsawh, also known as Slowpoke. As you might guess he was very slow. He was slow in everything. He was always late for school, not because he left home late but because he walked as though his legs were tied together. He spoke slowly, so slowly that people either finished his sentences for him, much to his infuriation, or they just interrupted him, much to his annoyance. He ate slowly, so slowly that a mouthful of food took several minutes to be processed and could be literally tracked as it snaked its way to his stomach. He swam slowly, so slowly that he is always struggling to stay afloat. He even blinked slowly. Jaigobind was life in slow motion. When on the rare occasion he was given a chance to play, he became the butt of jokes, from both sides. Balls ran past him at random and when he took to bat he swung at pitches long after they were gone past him. We were stuck with him and no amount of ridicule could unglue him from us or dampen his enthusiasm for the game.
Most noticeably missing that Sunday was Totaram Singh. Totarams place in the side was always in jeopardy because he was a spoilt brat who cried and threw a tantrum if he was not selected. Totaram was neither a reliable batsman nor fielder and the only reason he made the team as often as he did was because he was one of the older boys and he provided snacks from his fathers shop, free, without his fathers knowledge of course. Totaram was a risky pick because one of his siblings would often turn up during the game and call him home for dinner or to run some errand. Once his mother came unto the pitch, collared and spanked him for leaving home when he was specifically ordered not to.
Our opponent was an all-Black team from the west end of the junior staff compound. Our cricket teams were divided along racial lines long before the country was divided between East Indians and Blacks. But it wasnt a conscious division. There were no racial overtones. Government and politics had not yet begun to affect us. We were innocent children who attended the same government school and the same Sunday school, and who frequented each others homes, and who just loved to play cricket, fiercely, competitively, for one-week bragging rights. We just happened to be living on opposite sides of the huge ball field. To go home Sunday evening just after the sun had set with the prize of bragging rights provided us with bountiful pieces of conversation, jokes, taunts, and accolades and it made our Sunday evening dhal and roti supper so much sweeter.
Unfortunately our teams had evolved to the place where both sides did not handle defeat very well. For us, losses stirred up blame, threats and aggravation. For our opponents, losses ignited wrath and violence. Sadly for us, that violence was against us, mostly against our captain; and the other captain exacted it with cultic rigidity. The customary punishment for us winning was a few laps around the ground. This was by no means like the punishment meted out by a gym teacher on a lethargic student or a drill sergeant on an undisciplined soldier. In this case the losing captain chased ours with a bat swishing over his head or a palm branch swatting at his back. To date thus far, we were all still healthy young men.
We finished off our meal and at exactly 1 p.m. we grabbed our bats and headed west across the field to face our opponents. With nary a wisp of cloud in the azure heavens and with hardly any breeze blowing the heat was stifling. Looking across the field to where the pitch was, we could see clouds of vapor rising above the dense brownish grass where a few horses and cows were either grazing or resting beside a huge iron cistern. The houses on either side of the field were quiet and not a soul was in sight. The occupants were in all likelihood having their Sunday siestas.
Our opponents had not yet arrived on the scene but we were not surprised for they loved to make a fair show of their entrance. Typically, the captain came out first and met with our captain. The two men would spin a coin and when our captain returned to advise us of the decision who will bat and who will field the opposing captain would retreat to the fence to summon his team.
Just as we arrived the captain turned up as though he was hiding in the bush somewhere close by. He was stoic as if he was not prepared to entertain any pleasantries. It was all business. He was a stocky boy, around thirteen, and he oozed of belligerence, the quality that secured him the captaincy. He led by means of fear and intimidation. After the toss he retreated to the fence, plucked a whistle out of his pant pocket and blew a shrill note. Presently, from a house two blocks away a single line of black teenage boys began to file out, from the most senior to the least, and each with a bat over the shoulder, like infantrymen with muskets. They marched into the field, still in formation, and quietly formed a circle around the cistern. There their captain met with them and there they remained quietly for a minute as if they were praying.
In the meanwhile, our captain was repeating to us last minute instructions. He reminded our bowlers of each batsmans weakness and strengths and where we should be fielding when they were batting. Momentarily the game was on. They won the toss and elected to bat. It was a smart move. With the unrelenting heat the batting side definitely had an advantage. Unfortunately, they did not capitalize on it.
That afternoon our pace bowlers were on target and even the sun was on our side. The batters visions were affected by the bright sunlight and no amount of squinting was able to help them distinguish the line and length of the pitches. One by one their wickets began to crumble and it didnt help their self-esteem when their captain slapped them at the back of the head and called them girlie names as they made their way back to the dry gutter. The captain did not fare better than his men. He was the ultimate cheater. He put his body in front of the wicket and challenged every call for leg-before-wicket. He eventually lost his wicket to a full toss and shortly after his departure the side was bowled out for a paltry thirty-nine runs.
Then it was our turn to bat. Manny and our captain opened the inning. Manny played some elegant shots square cuts, hooks and cover drives, while our captain poked and prodded, and together they built up a slow and agonizing partnership of nineteen runs before our captain lost his wicket while swinging late to a full toss. Manny batted on while his partners kept crumbling and with one run to win I found myself, the last batsman in the lineup, with the daunting task of facing Johnnie Fraser. Like Job of old, the thing I most greatly feared had come upon me. My team encouraged me but I felt nervous and fearful, like one of those Christians whom Nero had thrown into the arena to fight with gladiators and lions. I prayed under my breath. Today I could be the biggest hero or the biggest goat. One edge, one tick of the bat, one run was all I had to get for my side. As expected, Fraser came by and pushed his grimacing face up against mine, less than three inches away, and he snarled, You aint no batsman. You only get picked because the captain is your brother. I gon bowl you down for a duck. Then he ambled back slowly to his bowling mark and signaled to his men to circle me like when men are trying to tackle a greased pig. They chanted and he charged, grimacing and heaving and showing a full set of big teeth as he delivered a ball down the leg side, I pushed my bat instinctively out towards my leg side and then I heard Manny call out, Run! Run! and I began to gallop. I was sure that I did not hit the ball but it sounded that way because it hit a brick and glanced sideways. Nevertheless, no one objected and we celebrated victory, for all of five seconds. Then we began to scatter like cockroaches let loose in a fowl pen.
The losing captain marshaled his men to beat us and before they could reach the sideline to get their bats we were hurtling eastwards through the fields. The captain was chasing our captain and instead of our captain taking the shortest distance between the two points he decided to run around the perimeter of the field as if he was in a long distance race. As the chase was going on the East Indian contingent retreated to the eastern perimeter of the ground and cheered on our captain. Run capo, run! we shouted while the opposing team members fired up their captain, Beat him capo, beat him! Fortunately for us, the opposing captain had some of the same genes as Slowpoke and so even though our captain was not by any means fast he was fast enough to keep his pursuer at bay.
In the past when the chase for our captain appeared to be futile the opposing captain would often turn his attention to one of us and for this reason the moment we scored the winning run we started running, every one of us, not for home plate but for home. In the event that anyone procrastinated he was left to the mercy of his captor. Once I was the procrastinator and I was caught. With a rope slung around my neck I was forced to kneel before my captor and repeat verbatim that he was my daddy and then beg him for mercy. My teammates looked on from the far sidelines and snickered at my misfortune and has since not let me live down that experience. From that day I was always in a state of high alert when we were winning and the game was coming to a conclusion. Today I was prepared to run and was first out of the blocks when I scored the dubious winning run.
From the safety of the bridge leading into our home we watched with relief as our captain came home in one piece and as the silhouetted forms of our antagonists melted away into the tall grass under the orange glow of the dying sun. We had won the match and had outrun our adversaries. Like battle weary soldiers after a grueling day on the front, we washed up at the standpipe and took our places on the stairs to dive into our dhal and roti and regurgitate the adventures of the day. And come next week we will be ready to play cricket again. And if we were lucky enough to win again, we were ready to run again.