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Mountain Cricket

I duck to get through the improbably low door, enter the room and liberate my backpack.  The crack of a bat striking a ball catches my ear and I return to the balcony to check it out.  A remote village in a high alpine valley seemed an unlikely place for a cricket match; but that is exactly what I discovered.  Half a dozen energetic boys and girls played on the irregular terrain of the adjacent cornfield and even as darkness set in I could hear laughter and voices and glimpse shadows moving about.

In the villages that dot Kullu and Parvati Valley in Himachal Pradesh State, flat does not exist. In this part of the country, improbable settings frame the most remarkable matches.  Here, everything is improvised, from location of the pitch to equipment. The only constant is the dream of becoming a cricket star.

Cricket enjoys a strong following in India and is the country’s most prominent sport.  Players gather on makeshift pitches across the nation to play the game.  India’s Twenty20 Cricket Championship in the fall of 2007 fanned the flames of the cricket bonfire and the sport experienced a massive surge in popularity.

The following morning, I take a closer look at the pitch. Pyramids of drying corn bundles cover the uneven field; the shadows I saw the evening before. Mateura Village sit atop a ridge overlooking an alpine valley, part of Parvati Valley. The Parvati River runs a few hundred meters below and from both banks jagged mountains shoot to the sky.  Here, generations of farmers have tamed the steep topography and terraces of apple trees, corn, chili peppers and vegetables abound. It is harvest time here in September and October and as much as the enthusiasts would love to play cricket all day long, there is work to be done.  The game must be played around the rhythms of the daily routine.

The recently harvested cornfield is the setting of work and play and I watch as the morning unfolds. The younger kids break down the pyramids and lay out the bundles uniformly. An older boy deftly gathers several bundles with a rope and carries them to the base of a tree on the edge of the terrace. At the end of the day, they will be stacked in the branches to feed the animals in the coming winter months.

Women and children perform the bulk of this work early and late in the day, and an old grandmother lingers nearby to bark advice. Tasks are divided as evenly as the overs of a cricket match with the heavier work handled by the older and stronger kids while the smaller ones perform light duties. Between tasks, a makeshift pitch is taking shape in the tilled rows, corn stalks, chunks of earth and other obstacles that dot the field.

When the field is cleared of corn the game begins. The boys are passionate, playing with intensity, a smile and an easy laugh. They are quick to call “How’s that?” in hopes of hearing “Out!” As one or another disappears for a short stint at work, it becomes clear the girls are also keen competitors and they spiritedly join the game.  As the sun crests the mountains and the day grows hot, the cricketers are called to school and other tasks and the game concludes.

Late in the day, when the powerful sun has dipped below the peaks and the shadows grow longer on the field, the family returns. It is the mother’s task to stack the corn bundles in the tree and she climbs up to the drying area. Her eldest son passes bundles one at a time.  She sets a solid base and patiently places each bundle. The younger set is free to play cricket and they set wickets in the tiny batting area. They would work to make it longer and less angled at every opportunity.

I am standing in the mid-off position with camera in hand. As I am not playing, the kids unanimously declare me umpire.  The competition is friendly but fierce; the language of sport breaking all barriers. The incoming bowler invariably taunts the batter that I understand by tone alone. The batsman just smiles and gets set.  This time the bowler’s boast was in vain as the ball is sent flying with a resounding whack and an accompanying cry of joy from the batter.

Later, two girls return from school and the younger joins.  Her older sister helps stacking the corn that is now quite high in the tree. She passes to her brother and he relays it up to the mother.  When the work is complete they both join in the game making a total of seven players.

The oldest boy handles each bowl with ease and clearly pushes the younger brother to bowl harder. In spite of rudimentary equipment and an uneven pitch, each player demonstrates surprising skill. Everything is homemade: the ball is a small sack stuffed with small round pebbles and wrapped in a thick woolen outer cover  It flies well yet remains soft enough that a solid strike will not send it sailing down the mountainside.  The bat is cut and shaped from rough lumber and the wickets are a trio of sticks with a single bale connecting the outer two wickets. The center wicket is shorter and it is precisely this fact that has lead to the current dispute. A fast bowl struck the center wicket clean and the bowler screamed “Out!” with great pride. The batter, turning to see the bale still in position countered with “Not out!”  All eyes turned to me for judgement.

“Out!” I shouted and invited them to see the photographic evidence of the ball passing the batter on a direct line to the center wicket. We all laughed together and I thanked my new friends and left the field. They continued to play until the grandmother arrived to inspect the corn stack and order everyone home for the night.

Darkness blanketed the pitch and I caught the fading sounds of their voices as they walked the trail below.  As silence filled the night, I knew the peels of laughter of another mountain cricket match would return the next day.

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