Friday, August 22, 2008

"Ground" Realities

Many of us grew up playing cricket on whatever open spaces we could find, no matter how strangely shaped. In previous posts (here, and here) I had referred to cricket being played on concrete walkways, apartment-building terraces, and even baseball diamonds. There is enormous variation in the shapes and playing surfaces, and it prepares the young cricketer for anything!

Fans of Sunil Gavaskar must surely know that his early cricket was played on a narrow, rectangular strip of ground next to his apartment building (in Chikhalwadi, Mumbai). That forced the kids to play as straight as possible, and perhaps that's why Gavaskar was the master of playing in the 'V'. Also, the ground-floor apartments had glass windows, and any hits in the air could smash the window panes - which taught the young Gavaskar to keep his strokes along the ground!

In contrast, a lot of West Indian cricketers play their early cricket on the beaches of the Caribbean. Strokes hit along the ground don't travel too far in the sand, and the only way to score runs quickly is to hit them in the air, avoiding the fielders as much as possible. That may explain why Viv Richards was a master of the lofted shots. Alternatively, you had to be a Clive Lloyd type of batsman, who would bludgeon the ball with such force that it would reach the boundary even on a sandy beach!

In the old days of uncovered pitches, England had its share of great spinners as well as batsmen who could tackle spin bowling. The English cricket season is during the summer months, when it seems to rain much of the time! As a result, the county grounds would be grassy and soggy, and the pitches would be "sticky dogs". There are many examples of two spinners opening the bowling in Tests in England, because of these conditions. English and Australian spinners enjoyed great success in Ashes Tests in those days.

My own little experience with "ground realities" made me a predominantly on-side batsman. The ground in our colony had a reasonably good playing surface, but the pitch was skewed to one side of the ground, with a boundary wall close by. As a result, the off side was very small - barely 20 to 30 ft - so that there were no "boundaries" on the off side. If you hit the ball to that boundary wall, you just kept running and it was almost impossible to get more than 2 runs.

The on side was quite large, and dotted with several fruit (chickoo) trees that were about 15-20 ft tall. Given the constricted off-side, many of us ended up as "specialist" on-side batsmen! We'd play with open stances - not side-on, but with shoulder pointing to mid-wicket, almost. At the slightest hint of a short ball (plenty of those, at our level), we'd try and hook or pull the ball onto the spacious on side. Of course we also had to ensure that we cleared those fruit trees, else the ball would simply fall to ground somewhere near square leg or short mid-wicket, where a fielder was invariably stationed. So we never learned how to "roll the wrists" and keep the hook/pull shot down, but we certainly honed our ability to play the bouncer and capitalize on it!

The downside was that our off-side game was badly underdeveloped. I was never able to play the square cut or square drive reliably, for example. Never got the timing right. Although the bowlers tried to restrict the batsmen by bowling on the off side, we'd just step across and hoik the ball to the on side. The long-off boundary was just about the only scoring option on the off side, so we did get plenty of practice at the lofted shots, especially against the (few) spinners. But inevitably, due to our open-chested stances, we'd end up pulling the lofted shot to long-on or deep mid-on.

Makes me wonder whether Sourav Ganguly played his early cricket on a similar ground, except with a non-existent on-side!


Sinoj Mullangath said...

Gavaskar also had to play carpet shots because first bounce (off ground; catch off the walls were definitely out) shots were also considered catches.

Very nice article! Loved reading about galli cricket, brought lots of those memories back

Neeran Karnik said...

@sinoj: Thanks Sinoj. Yeah, I'd forgotten about the "one-bounce" rule, or as it's known in Mumbai cricket "ek tappi out", or "one-tup out". It quickly becomes the predominant mode of dismissal especially when you're playing with a bouncy rubber ball! More on that perhaps in another blog post...