Literary Journalism

Bats and Balls: How 'IU Halkats' Play Cricket

Arindam Mukherjee

At an ungodly hour of 3 a.m., with five inches of snow all around and howling cold wind, a group of thirty people stood on the mount called the Leo Dowling International Center. As time progressed, the group got bigger. People packed in heavy warm clothes clambered up the slope to the humongous angular house that overlooked Jordan Avenue. That someone had forgotten the key to the front door was another matter.

“They said 2.30 a.m. and now we have already missed the toss and the first five overs,” cursed someone in the huddled group. Ten minutes later, the door clicked and the group rushed into the house. It was more of a rush to grab a seat as close to the television set located in the front room. The quicker ones managed to seize vantage points near the flat screen where they could lie down on the carpet and still not miss the action. The luckier ones got the couches. The latecomers took positions good enough to view the 24-inch screen from a sizeable distance.

India was contesting Pakistan in the cricket World Cup in England, and none in the room wanted to miss a second of the live action. Within minutes, 100 odd students from India and Pakistan packed the 20 ft by 40 ft room and all eyes were glued to the television screen. Pakistan had won the toss and decided to bat. Soon, at the fall of the first wicket, everyone jumped up, arms flailed and in unison the room screamed, “Out!”

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Rubbing the red leather ball vigorously against his white trousers, the tall young man glares at the helmeted batsman who stands with a bat 48 yards away from him. After a quick glance to check the appropriate shine on the ball, he starts to run.

Within 22 yards of his approach to the batsman, he hurls the ball with a stiff-arm overhand delivery. The batsman takes a step forward and whacks the ball into the field, sending the bowler’s teammates scampering all over the field to retrieve the “red cherry.”

That was the day when I couldn’t believe my eyes as I walked past the Woodlawn Field. A handful of boys were playing the virtually unheard game of cricket in the university town of Bloomington.
At that time, I also did not know about ‘The Halkat.’

‘The Halkat’ lives on the Mahatma Gandhi Road in Bloomington. To be precise, there’s no such road by that name, but walk by 439 South Dunn, and the delicious exotic smell of sambhar daal (soup with pulses mixed with spices) floats through the air. Faint wafts of Bollywood music mixed with a strange medley of languages accompany the smell. The place feels very close to India. Throughout the years, students from India who come to study at Indiana University have chosen to call the Sunbelt Apartments their home - the M.G. Road. The Halkat is part of the same group.

“Halkat means good-for-nothing,” says Kiran Annaiah, a strapping young lad from the city of Bangalore in the southern part of India. “And not everybody can be a part of this group. You have to talk to us to be part of Halkat. We have to approve you,” he winks, and breaks into a hearty laugh. The group is made up predominantly of graduate computer science students including Prashant, Purvesh, Sumit, Sashwat, Nihar Sanghvi, Amey, Jigar, Bhanu, and others. Annaiah studies bio-informatics.

“No girls,” he declares. “I don’t think they would even want to stay while we play cricket and the free-for-all language we use.”

Annaiah hasn’t been home for five years now. He remembers the sadness on the face of his parents the day he flew from Bangalore to Idaho. He misses Bangalore. His roommate, and fellow ‘Halkatian,’ is a guy named Kranthi Varala who also studies bio-informatics. Unlike Annaiah, Varala has been lucky to visit home at least once since he came to America around two years back. Varala, on the other hand, misses his college friends and more importantly his school cricket ground where he used to wield the bat during the evenings after school.

“I come from Hyderabad, the city of wristy batsmen,” he says emphatically.

Every Saturday, Varala, Annaiah and the whole Halkat group visit the University Gymnasium at the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. Somewhere in the maze of the sports complex, in a 50 ft by 100 ft hall, the group plays indoor cricket - two hours of non-stop, back-to-back, five-over games. A small wooden bat, a tennis ball and a trash-can serve as their only equipments.

Cricket was never a indoor game. Like baseball, its distant American cousin, it is a passionate field sport in which athletes wield bats, score runs, play innings and gulp Gatorade.

Two teams of eleven players each contend on a huge grassy oval, often as large as a soccer field, in the center of which lies a the cricket pitch- a closely cropped area (occasionally covered by a mat) 22 feet and 5 feet, at either end of which stands a wicket – three vertical stumps connected at the top by two horizontal pieces called the bails. Unlike baseball, the bowler must throw with his elbow straight, delivering the ball with an over-arm, catapulting motion, unlike that of a baseball pitcher. The bat is wooden, slightly over three feet long, and flat like a paddle with a slight wedge in it. The ball is made of red leather and weighs slightly more than a baseball. The Halkat applies its own techniques with the tennis ball, which is four times as light as the cricket ball.

The boundary, in the game of cricket, is the line that encircles the perimeter of the entire playing field, and across the field are strewn in designated position – members of the fielding (bowling) team.

The Halkat has cut out its own rules for the indoor version. The square walls of the room substitute the oval-shaped boundary, and five players constitute a team. The trash can serves as wickets and stands glued to the wall at one end. Around 22 yards from the trash can to the middle of the room is the bowler’s end. The three sides of the room facing the can have been designated number of runs allotted to it. If the batsman hits the side walls he gets a run. If he hits the front wall he gets two. The batsman is also ruled ‘out’ if the ball hits any of the walls directly from the bat.

The Halkat is in a good mood today. The hall is filled with friendly banter as Varala grabs the bat and takes a batsman’s stance. Nihar makes sure that his teammates are correctly positioned where he wants and begins to bowl. The sweet sound of the ball hitting the bat reverberates in the room.

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Back in the subcontinent, the Indian cricket team is touring Pakistan after a gap of 14 years. The year 2004 has already been slated to be a historic year in the relationship between India and Pakistan, both on and outside the cricket field. More importantly, India is winning games after a long time. India cracked the one-day series 3-2 and wrapped up the five-day test match series 2-1.

The Halkat couldn’t miss a single piece of the action. Annaiah bought the whole cricket package for $120 to watch on the Internet. The Halkat shared the cost. For viewing the World Cup last year, the Halkat had approached IU International Center and organized to install satellite service. The live television package was bought for $450 and shared between 100-odd students. The entry fee for the students to see the games was set at a paltry $10 for the whole series. The excess money went to the cause of a social organization called Association of India Development, which funds developmental projects in India.

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There seems to be a sense of connection in Halkat’s cricket hullabaloo. It serves as a medium of fun and relaxation. More importantly, it reminds them of their roots and connects them to their homeland.

We get a similar sense of belongingness in C.L.R. James’s book Beyond the Boundary. James uses his prowess with both the pen and his bat and puts the game in the perspective of a Trinidadian black man, who tries to find his own identity in this Englishman’s game.

Born in England during the 1700s, cricket has remained comparatively obscure in America. According to a short historical review on cricket in America by Amar Singh, there is evidence that some of George Washington's troops played a game of "wickets" at Valley Forge in the summer of 1778, perhaps a Yankee version of the British game. Many colonists in the so-called "Plantation Colonies" of Georgia, Virginia and North and South Carolina also played cricket.

The earliest record, says the review, is the "secret diary" of William Byrd II of Virginia. He refers to an early morning game with family and friends on the front lawn of his impressive estate, Westover, on the banks of the James River in Virginia on April 25th, 1709. While there are also subsequent references to cricket being played elsewhere, such as Oglethorpe's colony in Georgia in 1737 and an advertisement in a New York paper for more players in 1739, the first recorded American cricket match per se was in New York in 1751 on the site of what is today the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan. A team called New York played another described as the London XI 'according to the London method' - probably a reference to the 1744 Code which was more strict that the rules governing the contemporary game in England.

But the present day America is more oblivious about the game than the past.
“I think I would be retired by the time I see the U.S. playing in the Cricket World Cup,” says Stan Sutton, the sports editor of The Herald-Times, when I asked him if America wanted to give the flat bat a hand.

But that doesn’t worry the Halkat. Back at M.G. Road, in one of the Halkat’s den, rests a scotch taped flat wooden piece of a bat that has become the group’s legacy. Even the Halkat doesn’t know where it came from. It had been passed on from student to student through the years. It sports several scratches and bears several battering marks, but the foundation of it is still rock solid.