“We enjoyed more playing cricket than watching it!” If there is a conglomeration of cricket lovers in this world to claim this way, Masti Ram is already in it.
Hailing from a small town called Harur (mistaken often for Karur) in the erstwhile backward district of Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu, it was compulsion of time that Masti Ram had to play cricket than watching it. This is about late 70s and early 80s, when he was in school. There was hardly any option for Masti Ram to watch cricket than playing (blessing in disguise!).
It was an era of black and white Television and owning it was a big luxury. Only one family in the area had a B&W TV with a blue coloured protection screen and the proud owner used to claim it to be a colour TV! With the limited communication network available in those days, watching cricket in Television was a rarity for Masti Ram. Nevertheless, on couple of occasions Masti Ram (his brother and few of his cousins) managed to travel all the way to Chennai during Pongal holidays to watch test matches at Chepauk. But, Masti Ram now see a paradigm shift over a period of time, the way the test matches at Chepauk during Pongal season were replaced by Pongal releases of big buster movies!
The only other exposure to cricket for Masti Ram was through the cricket commentaries in AIR – All India Radio. That was his real lifeline as far as cricket is concerned. In fact, Masti Ram had a cricket mate by name Ravi. Though not a very good player, Ravi had sound knowledge on the game and was well aware of cricket game book rules. He came from a city (probably from Trichy on his father’s transfer) and he used to wield supremacy not only because of his cricket knowledge but he also used to carry a pocket transistor (Radio) for listening to cricket commentary which Masti Ram did not have. Masti Ram called him HWR (Head Weight Ravi) because of his unyielding nature. HWR always held the transistor (Radio) stuck to his ear and kept the volume very low so that only he could hear the commentary. The reason he gave was that the battery will drain of quickly if he kept the volume high! Masti Ram and all his friends used to look at his face all the time for any exiting cricket moment and even for scores. By the way, he was not an exception because those days magazines reported that in the cricket crazy city of Bangalore, there were guys like HWR standing on the roadside platforms listening to cricket commentary (with low volume) and they would tell scores to interested cricket fans only on getting some pennies! Ravi was generous for that matter! Of course, there was also some notorious friends who used to irritate others by telling the score as, “all out for no loss!”, when asked.
Nevertheless, cricket commentary had played an important role in the life of Masti Ram. The AIR used to broadcast cricket commentary in English and Hindi alternatively. Though Masti Ram studied English (in Tamil medium!), he was comfortable with English commentary but found it very difficult to follow Hindi commentary. That was the time when Masti Ram and a group of cricket crazy friends decided to learn Hindi from an Urdu teacher (only person available to teach Hindi) just for following Hindi commentary. When the Hindi Master started teaching Hindi alphabets followed by ‘mej per kalam hai’ and so on, Masti Ram insisted that the counting (numbers) in Hindi is taught first so that he could follow cricket scores in Hindi commentary. Little did Masti Ram realized at that time that the very learning of Hindi which he did for the love of cricket would help him in his later part of life in late 80s when he landed in Delhi for employment! Thanks to cricket, Masti Ram not only learnt Hindi but could survive comfortably in Delhi as well for many years.
Cricket was an essential part of his growing up, particularly during school days. In fact, Masti Ram and his friends played cricket in a very natural way. There were no proper grounds or pitch for that matter. Cricket kits were something unheard of in those days. Nicely shaped coconut tree branches used to become our cricket bats. Waste cycle tubes cut like thin rubber bands and rolled over a plump of waste paper became our cricket balls. The enormous bounce which those balls produced was moderated by the bad grounds, mostly of loose soil. Any non-moving object of approximately 3 feet (height) and 1 feet (width) used to become stumps. Masti Ram or one of his friends will make 24 long steps from the so called stumps to mark the bowling end. Mostly, the white kola podi (rangoli powder) was used to mark the crease. In fact, the size of crease depended on the size of the bat because the edge of crease was marked at one and a quarter times of length of the bat from the stumps (Masti Ram doesn’t remember who gave all these measurements. When he looked at it retrospectively, he became sure that only HWR (Ravi) would have given these!). So, once it was decided to play, new bat, ball and pitch were ready within half an hour. Of course, finding a play ground was never a problem as any open area was good enough for us to start the play.
Slowly, in 1979 Masti Ram and company managed to get permission to play cricket inside school playground. It wasn’t a proper ground for playing cricket. In fact, they created a pitch and prepared a cricket ground out of nothing in a year’s time. The school adopted cricket after they started playing and a cricket team was in place for the school within a short time, but there were no funds for buying cricket kit.
Masti Ram and friends raised some funds and managed to buy four stumps without bails (three for batsman’s side and a single stump on bowler’s side) and a bat (oil). Initially, they could afford only one bat. So, when they played, the runner in the opposite crease will hold a stick in his hand instead of bat. Whenever there was a single run or on completion of over, the batsmen sought permission from the umpire saying “B.C” (meaning bat change). Without BC permission, there was every chance of the batsman getting run out, so they believed!
On one occasion, when Masti Ram was batting, he had a runner at the opposite crease called Shivashankar, an occasional absent minded. On that day, he forgot to hold the stick which he was supposed to have instead of bat. When Masti Ram played a hit shot, the ball went into air towards mid-on area and a good fielder he was, Shivshankar without realizing that he was the runner (batsman) at the opposite crease, swiftly rushed towards the ball and caught it! He was jumping with joy that he dismissed Masti Ram while Masti Ram was expecting him to come for a quick single! Of course, Shivashankar was declared ‘man of the match’ on that day for this extraordinary job!
More interestingly, in most of the matches, players from the batting side used to perform the role of umpires! There was always a situation when suddenly the umpires would start playing and the players who got out would walk into umpires’ position. They never had any complaint of umpires being biased or favouring the batting side. The fielding side always accepted the decisions of the umpires knowing pretty well that they were part of the opposition. When Masti Ram looked back, he realizes that they could play cricket the way they played just because of the love for cricket. Also, Masti Ram used to wonder how the game of cricket penetrated so much in to the small places like his hometown and country sides when there were no effective communication channels.
Particularly for Masti Ram, cricket was in everything he was doing. In fact, his counting habit was linked to the numbering system of multiples of 6 (one over). For instance, while skipping, his counter will stop at a number divisible by (six). When he used cycle pumps to fill air in bicycle tyres, the pump up number would be in the multiples of six. At times, he kept this counter on for idlis and chapatis! (of course, never in to the second over)
During his cricket days, Kapil Dev was the emerging star. In fact, Masti Ram was nicknamed as Kapil Dev(!) of his town. His cousins and their friends (who were much junior to me in school) told him after many years that they were his big fans! The pity was that they never told Masti Ram about it when he was actually playing. Anyway, one of Masti Ram’s fond memories is that there was a charity match played in which he was 48 (not out) in the finals and was declared ‘man of the match’. In fact, for this charity match, Masti Ram and his friends sold tickets to public and the money collected was donated to the Girls School for construction of class room. One of Masti Ram’s friends (a movie buzz) and a fervent fan of Kamala Hasan invited the then President of All India Kamala Hasan Fans Club. Masti Ram received the Man of the match award from him. However, he could not play beyond the district level representing his school.
Nevertheless, when landed in Delhi for employment in late 80s, Masti Ram hoped that he could play some cricket in some other form. Of course, he played cricket in the India Gate lawns with a totally different set of people, the way he used to play at his home town with a complete déjà vu, just for the sake of fun. That was the time, when he realized that it was time to watch cricket, played enough. The shift was smooth because by then TV became an essential part of household.
Well, it was during this time in Delhi, Masti Ram came across an interesting boy called Sunny (son of one of his colleagues) who was so much inspired by Kiran More, wicket keeper of Indian team at that time. Sunny wanted to be like Kiran More. He was after his father and with continuous nagging he managed to get the complete set of wicket keeper kit. Later on, his friend narrated what happened after he got his son the wicket keeper kit. Sunny with his complete attire of wicket keeper started jumping and shouting ‘sabhash Raju… sabhash Raju’. Kiran More used to encourage Venkatapaty Raju, a spinner in Indian team at that time, in that manner. When Masti Ram’s friend forced Sunny to go out and play in cricket field, he refused to go saying that all that he wanted to do as wicket keeper was to jump like Kiran More and shouting ‘sabhash Raju’! Another friend of Masti Ram remarked at it as, ‘he is not Sunny, he is funny’!
When Masti Ram looks at these memories closely, he believes that they could completely engulf the spirit of the game in all possible ways. Through all these cricketing moments, he believed that they were quietly shaped in many different ways and perhaps were prepared to face life with different skills in terms of teamwork, trust, managing emotions, fighting spirit and above all developing detached attachment!
Ultimately, the greatest lesson of life time that cricket gave Masti Ram is, ‘if you bowl ‘no balls’ in the net practice, you cannot escape from bowling ‘no balls’ in real matches!’ This, he believes, is as powerful as the saying, ‘if you are bent, you cannot expect your shadow to be straight!’