Theirs was called the ‘Gang of Six’. Eldest among them was Lalji and he was 14 years old. All of them lived close to one another in the densely populated locality of Maniyar.
The name was not given to them for nothing. It was coined by Sama Kakh, a retired police officer of the locality, after giving due consideration to the boys’ life style and activities. The six, Sama Kak said, had, as per his knowledge, broken all records of being in one another’s close company for such a long time. Frankly speaking, the boys were seen together right from the day they were enrolled in a near-by primary school, eight years back. Their meeting point was the shadowy space under a big Mulberry tree, in the middle of their mohalla, which they had cleaned and converted into a nice sitting place. They were there, except during rains & snow, every evening, doing their home work, discussing the issues they thought were important to them, planning their picnic trips and eating Shahtul (a large reddish-black, acidic and deliciously flavoured fruit), by climbing up the tree, one branch reserved for each boy. And they had the exclusive right to the fruit by virtue of having engraved their names with a knife, on the trunk of the tree. During heavy snow fall in winter, they would invariably mould a Snowman by rolling snow, placing it vertically up at a fixed spot, resting it against the tree, and shaping it well like a fat man’s torso. They would then place on it, a spherical head made up of snow again and also attach the limbs. It was the duty of Ramji, the youngest among them, to engrave and mark with soft charcoal, the Snowman’s ears, eyes, nose and mouth. An old Kangri (Kashmiri Fire-pot) was also placed near by, to give a colourful touch to the artefact. And this Snowman was there to represent the ‘Gang’ till early spring when it would melt and vanish.
All this was till Lalji got a transistor radio as gift from his Delhi based cousin, with the added information that India-England Cricket Series was about to commence in England and they could hear the running commentary live on it. This changed their schedules altogether.
It was not that they had not seen or listened to a radio earlier. In fact, two of them have had radio sets in their homes, but they were of no use to them. Their parents would switch on the radios only for the news, being least interested in the games. Now, this transistor set gave them the immense pleasure of listening to what they wanted, at their own will. Lalji was now busy, collecting information about the cricket matches to be played at various places in various countries. He got a new notebook and kept each and every information handy. Before the India-England Series got underway, Lalji had maintained record of all matches to be played over a period of one year. He would now occasionally be seen absent from the ‘Gang’. Others were least worried, knowing fully that he was on the ‘job’.
None of the boys ever played cricket, or even watched a match before. But they had heard about it from their senior schoolmates. Lalji’s cousin had informed them that the game was so tough that even the big powers like America, Soviet Union and Japan were scared of indulging in this deadly game. This however did not diminish the boys’ interest in cricket. They waited anxiously for the first match between the two countries, commentary of which really came live on the little transistor radio during late evening hours. There was some confusion initially, in understanding the words and phrases used by commentators which they overcame at the end of the first match spanning 5 days of play. All through the match, they were seen sitting beneath the Mulberry tree till midnight when under tremendous pressure from their elders, they had to disperse to their homes to have dinner and sleep.
This new development gave Lalji an added responsibility. Being senior, it was his duty to know more about the game. So, every day he would put lot of questions to his seniors and teachers and share the information with his mates. He would also give his comments, to impress others that he was picking up the game fast. After conclusion of the first match, the boys had known a lot about the game, or at least they thought so.
By end of the test series of five matches, Lalji and his team had a fairly good knowledge of the game. They were now aware of most of the rules. At times, they would also analyse the comments of a commentator and pronounce their judgement. And in the heart of hearts, they thought they were perfect players as well. “We are ready to prove our mettle, only if a team from other locality was ready to play with us”, Lalji announced. Others cheered.
They needed eleven people to form a team and they were only six. But this did not pose any problem. The barbed wire fenced plot of land, half a mile away from their home, which was recently purchased by one of their neighbours to construct his new house, was too small to accommodate eleven persons to field. Moreover, they thought they could always invite a couple of boys from the gathering to field for them on a bigger ground, if need be. And to bat, they decided that during a match with a rival team, five of them would bat twice. So, on an auspicious day, the boys finally announced launch of their cricket team. They arranged four stumps, three for the batting end and one for the runners end, in the shape of small lengths of mulberry branches. A new bat was available in the market at rupees ten which they could not afford. After pooling all their pocket money and the additional grant, which one of them received from his parents, they were able to make four rupees. Lalji, who was the natural choice for the captainship because of his age, volunteered to get a selected piece of willow firewood from his home. This piece of wood was given to a carpenter, who got it beautifully transformed into a bat. Knowing that they had no more than four rupees on their body, the carpenter charged them only that amount and also gifted them a wooden ball. Boys were all thrilled. Now they thought, they were in a position to challenge any team. But Lalji’s views were different. He thought it was wise to practice for at least a couple of days, before they challenge any body.
Next Sunday, they went to the ‘play ground’ fully equipped and took along a dozen of children much less than their age to watch them play and clap. They decided the batting order by drawing lots. Lalji was overwhelmed with joy as he was to bat first and Kundan, the last man to bat, was to bowl first. Lalji gave some useful instructions to Kundan, ‘How to bowl a fast ball and how to deliver a spin?’ Kundan nodded his head, confirming his grasp of the things. Lalji took charge as opener and looked around in a manner of a great batsman looking out for weakly defended territories. He was set to receive the first ball but wanted to receive a trial one first to gain confidence. He took the stance and signaled Kundan to bowl. Kundan delivered a fast ball, which took some time to reach Lalji. Lalji hit the ball forcefully. But it was dead before it could reach back to the bowler. Children clapped.
Now was the time to deliver first ‘official’ ball of the hour. Kundan came running from quite some distance and threw the ball. Lalji took a step forward to make it bigger this time, and in a flash, he was clean bowled, the middle stump thrown two yards away licking dust. Lalji’s bat was still in the air. Children behind him clapped again as Lalji stood motionless with his cheeks red.
It was the turn of Raghu now. He was two years younger to Lalji but had robust health and wide chest. Kundan was spinning the ball in his hands. Having sent the first ball very ‘fast’, he made up his mind to send a ‘spin’ this time. As soon as he delivered the ball, which was anything but spin, Raghu moved to his left and hit the ball high in the air, and through a large glass window right into the attic of a bungalow at the boundary. Glass panes came crashing down. Raghu was terror-stricken. A baldy, his eyes red with anger, peeped out of the window and yelled. Before the boys could assess the situation, a servant came running from the bungalow and caught Raghu by neck. Soon after came the baldy with the wooden ball, his white shirt miserably splashed with tea. He slapped Raghu hard on his face. Raghu fell on the ground. Baldy was mad. He continued to thrash Raghu with his fist and foot. Lalji, as leader of the team, intervened and pleaded for mercy, only to get a hard slap from the servant. This provoked Kundan.
He came running from his position and caught servant’s raised hand, and in a moment, Kundan was thrown away by the baldy with a kick. Children sitting at the fence were now crying and weeping and abusing the baldy and his servant. The baldy ‘captured’ Raghu and Lalji and would not leave them unless they pay for two glass panes, a china clay cup and laundry charges for the shirt. All this amounted to rupees eight. Boys did not have a penny and the baldy would not let them go. All the boys were weeping and wailing. A passer-by intervened. He pleaded with the baldy to lower his costs. Baldy, taking a lenient view, offered a two-rupee discount on the cost of damages, but the boys had nothing on them. The passer-by mediated a deal. Boys were asked to part with their bat and the ball, which according to their own confession, was valued at rupees four. Making sure that they had no money to pay the balance, and seeing them in tears, the baldy was further moved. He let them go with the promise that they would pay the balance next morning.
The baldy was gone and so were his servant and the passer-by. The boys started towards their home in a perfect line, Lalji at their head and the children at the tail. All of them had their heads down. Lalji, Raghu and Kundan were still rubbing their body parts to eliminate pain. There was no weight to be carried back home. Stumps were not removed from the ground. They were kept standing there as a token of the Gang’s entry into the game of cricket. They decided, and also persuaded children, not to reveal this episode to anybody in their mohalla.
The boys’ dreams were shattered and next day, they took an oath not to play cricket again. Lest the running commentary tempt them to play again, Lalji wrapped up his transistor radio with a piece of cloth and placed it under the heap of old books in a large wooden box in his home. And for a full year, no one from the Gang took the route alongside that bungalow, lest the baldy spots them and demands two rupees. This, in spite of the fact that they had to traverse a long distance around to reach their school everyday.
As far the boys’ permanent spot under the tree, it remained an abandoned place thereafter, as the boys were scared to think of being sighted and ‘arrested’ by the baldy. Came winter and with that a heavy snowfall. But there was no snowman under the tree this time. Everything around was frozen. The branches of the tree were hanging low, drops of water trickling down their leaves, perhaps mourning the disintegration of the ‘Gang’.