Thursday, May 01, 2014

For Delhi, it's just not cricket | Guest post by Jo Winterbottom



It's a beautiful sunny morning – crisp and just chilly enough for me to need a sweatshirt over my cotton jumper. I'm ready early, about 6.30 a.m., because I don't want to keep my driver waiting. He's taking me to watch his church team play cricket at India Gate and I can't wait.

[Photo by David Castor via Wikimedia Commons]
Anthony and I have been to IPL matches together and regularly discuss India's – and England's – performance on the world stage. But I've never watched his team play – and this is my last chance before I leave India for good and a new job in the United States.

I've packed my towel and a cushion so that I'll be comfortable sitting on the ground and I have a book with me too, just in case I don't have the stamina for three hours of play. Anthony arrives dressed in tracksuit and trainers instead of the smart jeans and crisp shirt he usually wears when he's working and we set off in my car for India Gate, where they plan to play.

India Gate is a huge green area in the centre of New Delhi, the site of the memorial to India’s unknown soldier. At its centre is the monument, a massive sandstone arch designed by the British architect Edwin Lutyens and a legacy of empire that has been, like so many other colonial hangovers, absorbed into modern India’s culture. Around this arch fan out wedges of green grass and trees which eventually are bounded by a four-lane roadway that is the hub – and sometimes the congested heart – of political and business life in Delhi. It reminds me of London’s Hyde Park, which plays host to cricket and football matches, live music concerts and Speakers’ Corner, where anyone can stand on a soap box and address the public.

At this hour, at India Gate, there are only a few people around, joggers, someone doing push-ups, and a few groups of men limbering up for games of cricket. Our team gravitates towards a stretch of bare ground that we’ll use as the wicket, near a couple of shady trees where rucksacks are dropped. A couple of the men are wearing white cricket trousers but for the most part, they are in tracksuits and trainers or jeans and t-shirts. Our stumps are in a variety of sizes and our ancient bat is bent at the end. For these are not wealthy Indians out for a day’s relaxation. These are Delhi’s workers – drivers, office assistants, even some night-shift workers who have come here straight after their shifts.

It’s a special day in another way, too, as Anthony has a brand new bat, a birthday gift from his wife, Georgina, and his children. Mark, his eldest son, is here to play with the team and has the makings of a very talented fast bowler and a handy batsman too. The bat is still in its plastic wrapping as Anthony and a couple of team members use it for practice swings.

By now, the sun is just starting to dry out the dew on the grass. The teams are standing around, sizing up the opposition and talking tactics. There’s lots of laughter too, as these men all know each other from the church. Several come up to me and introduce themselves, shaking hands and thanking me for letting Anthony come on previous Saturdays to play in the team. I laugh with them and say it’s my pleasure, surprised that they would expect a boss to dictate hours without thought for the employee’s commitments.

With the opening banter and team hugs over, we are all anxious to get started. Some of these guys have jobs that start in a couple of hours so they will have to bat early. Anthony wins the toss for his team and decides to bat. He’s opening batsman and will be using his new bat. As he’s limbering up at the crease, the siren sounds. Wah-wah-wah-wah. We see a white police jeep trundling over the dewy grass towards us. The loudspeaker is saying something in Hindi, too complicated for my very basic understanding, but even I can get the drift. Everyone is still as they listen to the message. Stop playing.

The jeep pulls to a halt a couple of yards from us and we walk over to find out what they want. The two policemen in the jeep are speaking in rapid Hindi and Anthony is listening, his face telling me the news I don’t want to hear. I catch a couple of words, some in Hindi and some in English. Not a playground. Closed. And then they leave, their jeep slashing bright green tracks in the dewy grass, to deliver the same damp message to another group of would-be players nearby.

India Gate used to be open to the public every day, attracting crowds of Indians, many of them without access to any other large open spaces. Here they would go boating, walking, romancing and of course play cricket, the national obsession. But around December 2012, the area was closed off. In early March, we saw people walking the paths of India Gate again and the ice-cream sellers and balloon vendors coming back. The previous weekend, Anthony’s teams had played a match unhindered.

New Delhi police said that was a mistake.
"It's not permitted, it is not a cricket ground," Deputy Commissioner of Police in New Delhi S.B.S. Tyagi told me by telephone. "Three years ago, maybe, but things have changed. We don’t allow any function, no gathering for political purposes," he added.

It's not just cricket that makes it different from Hyde Park.

(Write to Jo at jowinter60@gmail.com)

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