Cricket here is a passion that's almost frenzied... and any available space - open ground, small or large, and even lanes in the absence of one - transforming into a cricket field. And from toddlers to teens to young men - students, professionals and working men during holidays, the unemployed and the loafs - everyone's chasing the red ball or taking a shot at it as they masterfully wielded their bat. Fiercely vociferous, and shamelessly belligerent as they battle it out, in fair weather or foul - under the scorching summer sun, or the driving rain - with scant regard for residents, pedestrians, or even traffic!
And my new neighbourhood was no different... and neither were the boys!
From early morning, even before I rose, I could hear the loud shouts and yells - the calls of encouragement and the bellows of disapproval and anger - as they began their daily game... about a dozen and a half teens all donned in white, jumping over the wall and forming teams, setting their own rules to accommodate for the lack of required number of players and the field size, especially with its wall that had to be negotiated if the ball was hit beyond it by the batsman. Ocassionally inviting teams from neighbouring colonies for a friendly game or a 'league' match!
But, despite the shortfall in numbers, they never allowed the slightly younger kids to play with them, no matter how much they pleaded with the older boys... and these kids in turn played their game in the narrow lane... regularly hitting the ball into gardens and courtyards... smashing no small number of window panes... and then running away as the owner rushed out, screaming and cursing...
But soon back at their play... all innocent and guileless; virtuously ignorant as to who had been batting when the glass got broken!
Oh, I had seen it all, done it all... had even represented my college at the university level, and had once been considered a promising player. But then, cricket could never be my profession, and after college the hunt for a job began... and now, in my new home, I was a stranger... my skills unknown.
I felt my passion boil and bubble... but since I had neither seen, nor encountered anyone around my age in the whole colony (everyone seemed to be a kid or a teen... their parents... and much older, retired couples!), I simply watched the boys from my terrace - as I got ready for work, and during Sundays, since I was done with my 'exploring', and the heat was too blistering for aimless wanderings.
Just watched - their boisterous games... and their camaraderie (despite the scuffle and fisticuffs that erupted periodically)... the loud gaffaws, brags and bravados... the joshing and the hazing... the constantly shifting alliances and kinship... and the quicksilver fallouts, which then lasted just as briefly!
And I specially watched Sohail... that arrogant, self-appointed leader of boys - I had become aware of practically every single kid, and could match individual face with name.
Watching his every move... his every action, as he went about the ground clapping his hands and barking out orders... hustling his team around... intructing and placing his fielders... setting a smart field against the opponent - a good batsman, and an astute captain.
The kid was actually cute, enticingly so... of medium height, and a stocky built... smooth, with a glowing complexion, and a pout that was maddening - the lips, full and luscious, forever stretched in a disdainful sneer over a mouth full of teeth - almost a snarling serval!
And he had the most impossibly pronounced swagger, that invariably grabbed an onlooker's attention, forcibly drawing their gaze to that magnificent butt of his - a pair of large melons, full and firm... set delicately atop those powerful, muscular thighs... filling the seat of his flannel to capacity... the seam distinctly digging between... almost parting those plump cheeks -- Bewitchingly sinful... Tantalisingly tempting!
And his constant need for attention... his intense desire for approval (so common in all adolescents), only made him fascinatingly more desirable...
I honestly don't know how obvious my fascination was, but on several occasion I caught him looking at me, turning away with a silent laugh as our eyes met... And when he was nearer to my end of the ground, I even fancied that I could perceive a mischievous glint in those eyes... a silent dare - as if he knew... was aware - not only of my fascination, but also the cause of that attraction!
Then, on a late Saturday afternoon in April, as I sat sipping my tea on the southern terrace overlooking the ground, idly watching the game in progress, I had my first real 'interaction' with the group of boys.
The game was at a critical stage... Sohail was batting, when he cracked the ball with great flourish...
It was a massive shot... and it sailed high... beyond the wall, right out of the ground... and landed in the rear garden of the house!
According to their rules of the game (and I had learnt all of it by now), Sohail was not only out (for hitting the ball beyond the ground), but he'd have to climb over and retrieve it... plus, five runs would be deducted from his team's total score!
A great cheer instantly went up as the opponent began to celebrate - both, Sohail's dismissal, and the deduction of runs - for it meant that they had won the match by the slender margin of a mere three runs!
Sohail had actually managed to snatch defeat (for his team) right out of the jaws of victory!
I almost laughed at the sorry predicament of that arrogant tyke, when I saw him look up at the terrace and gesture with his hand, yelling, "Oye, pass the ball..." taking a while before realising that he was actually addressing me!
The ground instantly fell silent as every pair of eyes turned to look up at me.
I remained where I was, staring back blankly...
Flinging his bat to the ground Sohail ran across the field, right up to the wall and looking up, asked, "You deaf or what, huh?"
I grinned down, "That was a stupendous shot, or should I say stupid? Now, jump over and get the ball yourself!" and immediately heard the tittering behind him.
His eyes blazed, but he silently went across to the gate and climbed over... running down the couple yards before jumping over the low wall and entering the garden below.
I saw him look around the various flowering plants before spotting the ball and taking it.
He then looked up and very slowly raised his left hand, unfurling the middle finger at me, giving a crooked smile and was gone...
After that day, whenever I went out on the terrace - be it morning before I left for work, or the few evenings when I returned early... and of course, the Sundays - I saw him keenly observing me... the look haughty as he locked eyeballs... engaging me, daring me... turning away with a silent, contemptuous laugh as I ignored that look, refused his challenge!
Well, I ignored that look... but I couldn't ignore him....
He had failed to subdue me (as he had, the other boys) with his arrogance, but his hubris had ensnared me... ensorcelled my every conscious moment... making me lust, yes, lust for him!
** ** ** ** **
And then, one Sunday morning in early May, after my return from a three-day regional workshop in another town, I woke up to an eerie silence...
I opened my eyes and stretched, yawning lazily... and then lay still as I slowly became aware of the total lack of sound, the all-encompassing hush. It was weird, when suddenly I realised what it was - the usual cacophonous screech of the regular cricket match - it was missing!
I wondered for a moment, and then getting out of bed pulled on my boxers, going out, curious - and there they were, the boys... but just seven of them, sitting listless and forlorn... not a peep anywhere!
I went back inside and switching on the kettle, entered the bathroom.
Back on the terrace with my tea, I saw the boys whispering amongst themselves, and then they looked up... one of them, Anuj, standing up and waving at me, "Bhaiya, kheloge?" -- [Will you play with us?]
"Where are the other boys?" I asked.
"Away," he called back, adding hopefully, "If you play we can have four member teams..."
Well, there was my opportunity, to indulge in my passion once more, and they were inviting me!
"Okay," I called back, "give me a moment."
Pulling on a pair of jeans and a tee (since I didn't have my cricket gear with me), I went down and clambered over the gate... the boys running over, smiling in welcome, introducing themselves...
It was around ten-thirty when the scorching sun finally drove us to seek shelter under the shadow of one of the trees that bordered the expansive ground, and we sat there, talking - the boys telling me about themselves, about school and home... and the other members of their group.
Bursting with curiosity, wanting to know about me - my home, my work, and cricket. Tickled pink to know that I was the youngest, that this was my first sojourn outside home; openly admiring, much impressed with my game... gasping with excited wonder when I finally mentioned that I had played at both the university and State level.
"Bhaiya..." they chorused in hushed reverence, "why don't you play with us?!"
"I work, guys!" I laughed, and then quickly added as I saw the crestfallen looks, "Well, if the other members of your group don't object, I can join you on Saturday afternoons, and Sundays!"
"Great!" they exclaimed together, Anuj wondering, "But why would anyone object?!"
"Zubair-bhai, if anyone does," grinned Junaid, the youngest of the lot, just fourteen, "you can always be my personal coach!"
"Sure," I grinned, tousling his unruly curls.
"So, what's the big occasion," I asked as the boys began to pack the kit, "how come everyone's away this weekend, huh?"
Paul, the oldest of the group rattled off a half dozen names, "They're gone for a week, visiting relatives or grandparents, and the rest are out for the day with their family..."
"And you guys aren't going anywhere?"
"Nah..." they shook their head.
"And where's your leader?" I finally asked, curious to know more about Sohail, without being too obvious.
"Leader?!" asked Paul, looking at me.
"Oh, you mean Sohail-bhai?" grinned Junaid, his eyes twinkling, "He's busy today, um, they've invited some big film-star to inaugurate their latest store, and they'll have a big party later!"
"What store?" I asked with a casual shrug.
"Oh, they have a whole chain of optical stores, you know, eye-care..." informed little Junaid, "specs, shades, contacts... all branded and stuff, mostly imported and pricey!"
"Ah!" I gave an appreciative gasp, and then questioned in all innocence, "You guys aren't going for the inauguration and the party?"
"We weren't exactly invited..." Akram stated, the tone hurtful, though he did try to mask it with that nonchalant teen bravado.
"Well, his dad doesn't exactly like his coming here, you know," explained Junaid with a faint smile, "play with us..."
Akram let out a grunt, but didn't add anything to that bit of information.
I shook my head in incomprehension, and then quietly asked, "He doesn't live here, in this colony?"
After almost two months, I was also, (besides matching faces with names), aware of the homes of most of the boys... but had never seen Sohail anywhere other than the ground.
"NO!" exclaimed Junaid, once more ready to share every information he had, on anything I wanted to know, "He lives in one of those gated communities across the main thoroughfare. They're super rich, you know, and he's the only son!"
"A-ha!" I nodded with the right amount of awe, before asking, "Then why doesn't he play with his own neighbourhood kids instead of coming here, especially if his dad disapproves?"
"There aren't too many guys his age in their community," explained Anuj.
I gave another nod of understanding, and with a sly smile gently dangled the bait, "That, or, because you guys allow him to boss over you?"
"HUH!" Akram let out a snort instantly.
"Well, not exactly," Anuj quickly interjected, "but he does buy the balls, and both set of kits are his..."
"We couldn't afford a kit even if all of us contributed," shrugged Khalil, "and our dad would kick our butt if we asked for balls every week!"
"Um, he's a good all-rounder..." Julian, the silent one, observed with an almost apologetic smile.
"Take a break, dude!" Akram interjected with a scornful simper, his eyes rolling.
"Nothing like you, Zubair-bhai !" Junaid whispered promptly, patting my arm, giving me a cocky smile - a real smart cookie!
Well, I noted with a shameful sense of satisfaction, the platoon was ripe for rebellion!
... to be continued