A sport becomes the heart beat of a nation only when the habitants of that nation start playing that sport. It may be in the backyards of houses, parks, streets, open spaces, play grounds or sometimes even classrooms; there is where the ultimate passion for the sport bundled within vibrant hearts dwell- proclaiming the rich heritage, culture and history of the sport in their respective countries. It is not the rendition of the team that represents the country that keeps the lamp of love for the sport burning in a state. If not cricket would not have survived in Sri Lanka. If not the ardent fans of Bangladesh would not be rooting for the tigers amidst a spree of failures. If performance matters then Nepalese would not throng whichever the place cricket is played; Afghans would still be languishing in bunkers instead of swarming cricket stadiums.
As far as cricket in South Asia is concerned, it is the streets where the genuine zest for cricket breathes. Cricket games would start as early as sun rise and would continue till as late as sun set. If street lamps can provide ample lighting, then the games would continue until parents decide to interfere. It is in the streets where unweary bowlers would hurl out balls with a lion heart from morning through afternoon till dusk. Money or contract dispute can never stop games. A bottle of Coca-Cola would be an adequate incentive to joust like hungry lions with the opposition. Rain will never stop play; wet pitches will seldom halt games.
Cricket in streets “unite worlds, tear down walls and transcend race, the past, and all probability”. There is an infinite amount of talents lingering in the streets across South Asia. However, it is an elite class of a team that gets the chance to play cricket professionally. Despite being laden with inconceivable talents, street cricketers are often found to be too raw and crude to get into mainstream cricket. There is hardly any recognition for a street Demi-god, that once ruled cricket in his area.
Street Cricket in my eyes was just an amateur level of sporting until I came across this prose in Shehan Karunathilaka’s award winning novel Chinaman- The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. “Softball matches attracted most of Moratuwa’s cricket urchins. Sons of fishermen, carpenters, and prostitutes.” “My, you should see the talent those days. There was Val Adi Sarath from Maradana. Faster than even Ravi de Mel.” The book has references to several cricketers who rose from the streets to conquer turf wickets. So the inevitable question comes to my mind. Why not nurture street cricketers?
Why should we advocate street cricket?
First and foremost, South Asia’s greatest treasure of cricketing talents lounge in the streets. From Rahul Dravid to Mahela Jayawardane everyone has grown up as cricketers in the streets. A cricket bat to a boy in South Asia is as important as a Barbie doll to a girl. Spinners who bowl both leg breaks and off breaks, fast bowlers who can swing even a tennis ball, batsman who can whack balls to smash window panes: all exist in the streets. Whether or not they take their game to the next level by entering the white-collared hard ball cricket would sit between a street cricketer becoming an international star and petering out like street lights into oblivion. Unlike school cricket and club cricket there is a plethora of talent to reckon with. You have a humongous number of personnel to chose promising talents from.
In Sri Lanka, where school cricket still rules the roost, finding fast bowlers of supreme quality out of schools is a rare phenomena. Out of all the current Sri Lankan pace bowlers, Lasith Malinga, Shamind Eranga, Nuwan Kulasekara and Nuwan Pradeep, all hail from the streets, beaches and palm grooves of Sri Lanka. It was once-an-amateur cricketer’s penchant for running in and bowling as fast he could that bounced Jimmy Anderson off the penultimate ball of a test match, to deliver Sri Lanka its maiden Test Series win over England.
The next major reason, why we should harbor street cricketers is because, they are self trained. They do not look for coaches to overhaul their performances and find fault. Under pressure situations they do not look for the captain or the senior bowler to discourse advices. Most of them are independent and are self motivated. If not survival in streets would not have materialized. More often than not cricketers from the streets become their own coach, for they learnt the art of cricket through televisions. Street Cricketers are independent and are capable of being their own mentors, helping them circumvent any practical challenges. Of course they will need expert guidance but they are not entirely dependent on them. Wasim Akram branded Mohammed Shami as some one who needs to be motivated to unleash his full potential, something that fast bowlers from the streets are capable of doing themselves.
Street Cricket can also be a breeding ground for unabashed, disparate and unorthodox cricketers who are the need of the modern era. There have been many cricketers who developed their own unique recipe for cricket through their own experiments in backyards and streets- who have entwined the world of cricket with their mavericks. The great Sir Don Badman had a idiosyncratic grip and an unconventional stance, thanks to his younger days during which he practiced hitting golf balls that bounced off the sinus tank in the backyard, with a stump. Javed Miandad was veritably a street batsman in action in the top most echelon of the game. He had unorthodox ways of scoring runs; the famous six that he hit off the final ball against India was hit with an open stance. Yet his test average never trickled down below 50. Sanath Jayasuriya had a square stance and had an aversion to playing balls along the ground. His unorthodox ways of manufacturing shots opened up spaces in the ground where a ball of a particular length would not have reached before. A full ball on the pads was not not flicked through midwicket but instead was “picked up” over square leg. Virender Shewag hardly moved his feet but laced balls through all gaps in the filed. Dilshan opened his front foot even before the ball was bowled, yet played shots all around the ground. Jeff Thompson’s short run up suited backyard cricket and his slingy action helped him propagate pace. The aforementioned cricketers never came from the school of orthodox cricketers. Even though most of them played elite level cricket in their younger days, it was their quirkiness and unique shot making that made them stand ahead of the rest. Cricket in streets would engender more unorthodox cricketers who can become the flag bearers of a nation, should it be harnessed properly.
Lasith Malinga’s laser guided yorkers and slingy actions were not the result of the sweat shedded in the nets. They evolved through a teenage guy who admired Waqar Younis and aped his slingy action to hurl burnt tennis balls at the toe of batsmen in a remote village of Rathgama. Nuwan Kulasekara’s pin point accuracy with the ball rose from countless parsimonious spells he bowled in his village. Shaminda Eranga was never taught to bend his back and use his wrists to generate pace during his life in the peri-urban Kurunagala. Yet he could bowl fast enough to earn him a place in the Chilaw Marians team ahead of many fast bowlers who spend day in, day out in the nets to perfect their bowling. Nuwan Pradeep touched 150kmph when no other bowler who played leather ball cricket could.