Monday, October 23, 2006

The (Saudi) Punjabi Cricket Club

The heat hammers off the asphalt and at 45 degrees everything shimmers to attention. Or sags completely. The last puddles, quite deep enough to sodden socks in shoes last night are now mostly gone. Indeed, footprints left in a mud patch last evening are now fossilised. None of this is allowed to get in the way of the weekly cricket game. Played by a group of young men, salted with three or four seniors and a boy of about ten, they seem oblivious to the heat although those fielders with a tree nearby quickly sidle from assigned positions to a shady spot.

The field is non existent save for some vague spot in the imagination. It is about as far from the village green as you can get. Except maybe that wicket I once found in the slums of Mumbai (another story for another time). The wicket is a wide section of road and car park. The occasional vehicle disrupts play but as a general rule traffic is non existent on this holy day. The asphalt merges into the clay and gravel which marks most of this part of the world. Not a stitch of grass in sight. But laid out after the fashion of an orchard is a surrounding grid work of small trees, not too dissimilar to olives but lacking that distinctive sheen.

From my side of the wicket, perched atop some stairs and under some convenient tree shade the fielders are only vaguely present in the game, becoming only visible as they dart out from under their protective trees if a ball comes near - like small fish departing the safety of a pile to snatch at some loose bait and whipping quickly back again to their shelter. The normal cricket banter, sledging and good humour is obvious even though the language is indecipherable. A lot of humour is had at the expense of one young bowler who appeals at every swing at his ball.

Now here is a curious thing - the ball has the appearance of a solid, leather clad, red cricket ball. But in fact it is a well taped tennis ball. I watched as one was thrown in from the "field" and refurbished. Stripping the tape from the ball a young man adroitly wound a fresh two layers of red electrical tape around the tennis ball and returned it to the umpire. Batters managed to thump these a fair distance and reactions by some of the fielders suggested they could still nip you if your fingers were allowed to get in the way.

The group was primarily Pakistani although there were some Indians in the mix and a socks and sandals wearing Saudi joined the sideline and the lively spirit of the competition. Come prayer time (a nearby mosque let us know in loud and strident terms but there are so many mosques in this town the calls are echoed forever in every direction) the mats were dragged out and Mecca aligned but to my surprise, and delight, the game was not allowed to stop. Prayers were conducted in shifts and those on the field bowed, stood, bowed, stood and otherwise carried out their ritual only once their team was bowled out and they returned to the sideline. There is something refreshing about the way they accept each others practise of their religion. Equally there seems to be no rancour aimed at those who do not pray.

This game was also notable for the variety of flannels allowed by the "club". Some players turned up in tracksuits and runners. These are the fanatics and led the sides. Others were dressed in "labourer casual". But a handful were dressed in their traditional robes and sandals and these seemed to be struggling in the heat. Hey, they were all struggling in the heat. Having just learned that shorts were verboten it was interesting to see that, despite the heat all were in long pants or otherwise had their legs covered. Or was this really "club rules"?

I almost forgot - as light hearted as this game was, the serious edge was reflected in the fact that a scorebook was carefully kept. Beautifully embossed on its mock leather cover was the title of The Punjabi Cricket Club. I had to laugh. Entirely appropriate pretense, inappropriate place. And filched from someone's storeroom in another country and reverently attended to like a holy book in this holy land.

But this bearded Taliban-look-alike bunch of cricketers are extremely friendly and engaging. When the fielding team arrived off field they all walked up and shook hands with those who had arrived after the game had commenced, myself included. Improperly clad I had to turn down a handful of invitations to play. Next Friday I should be better prepared.

Riyadh, August 2005

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