Still at the crease

The midday sun shone grimly on Sahil. The heat waves blowing from the courtyard were staunch reminders to not venture out. The cool indoors looked inviting. The verandah chair, the ceiling fan and the perspiring glass of fruit juice desperately shouting the eleven-year-old back inside. Nevertheless, Sahil strode out, cricket bat in one hand and a tennis ball in the other.

His destination was the garage wall on the far side of the courtyard. Muddy ball marks tattoed the whitewashed cement. A broken glass pane on the ventilator carried the scars of a stray edge. The coconut trees arched down lazily, providing just enough shade to cover the area in front.

Sahil placed his back to the wall and walked ten feet straight ahead. He sketched a line with his bat and took a guard like his favourite cricket idols on TV. A few random plonks on the uneven pitch, a bit of gardening to smoothen the ground and he was ready.

He arranged imaginary fielders all around the yard and took a mental note where he wanted to play his shot. Eyes closed, he imagined this was his stadium. His team needed him to bat the entire afternoon to see off a wily spinner, a crafty leg-break bowler with a smooth wrist action, an Aussie with striking blonde hair.

Two pats with the bat and he took his stance. With his left hand, he threw the ball at the wall with all his might. It ricocheted with a hint of turn, gripped the dry surface and began spinning into Sahil. A googly first up. Sahil reached deep back into his crease, utilising all the available space, waiting to stroke the ball very late. The fine leg was squarish. The easy two runs were enticing.

The ball gripped more than expected, turning in sharply. It kissed the inside edge and went on to his leg, landly inches away from the theoretical fielder at short leg. A close call. Overconfidence nearly got the better of him. The Aussie was smiling now. Sahil smiled back. He liked a bit of banter on the ground.

The bowler was ready now. Sahil let go the ball again and took a long stride to meet it just as it landed. The ball zipped across the cemented patio and nestled on the grass bank under the areca nut tree. Four runs. This was going to be a long afternoon and one of his grittiest innings.

A sharp shower interrupted play just as Sahil was approaching his fifty. Soon after, the umpires called for an early tea-break. Grandma made more fruit juice with some fried pakodas. They were the perfect refreshments. In the meantime, Sahil was mapping out where the rival captain had placed his field. Wickets were tumbling at the other end, but Sahil’s was the number which still eluded the opposition.

The damp surface now meant the pitch was deprived of its usual bounce, while the wall displayed more mud stickers than ever. Sahil carried on with his innings in his typical attacking fashion. The dances down the wicket were more prominent to account for the lack of bounce. The leg side field opened after the pacers were back with their spells.

Very soon, the umpires had to make a call to halt play for bad light and offer Sahil the option to return to the dressing room or continue for the next fifteen minutes under floodlights. The courtyard was brimming in bright light from the new white halogens Grandpa had installed last week.

Now batting on 95, Sahil decided to play the extra overs in search of an elusive home-ground century. The sly leg-spinner was back. He would definitely have the advantage on ith this soggy surface. Sahil mustered all his batting prowess and hit the ball in the gaps for four vital singles.

Batting on one run short of a deserved hundred, Sahil was tempted to take the light and continue the next day. The deafening chants from the audience cajoled him out of it. Word had spread about his innings and the stadium had filled up.

He adjusted his sleeves, wiped the sweat from his forehead and took his stance for the last ball of the evening. The spinner’s stock ball greeted him. A tossed up leg breaker designed to tempt the batsman to drive, in pursuit of a healthy edge to the fielder at first slip. Sahil went after it.

He was deceived. It was a tossed-up googly instead. He failed to read the seam in the diminishing light. The ball crept between the bat and pad, missed his back leg and took the outside half of his leg stump. Comprehensively bowled out.

Sahil flung his head back in anguish, looking back the dislodged bails. The blonde spinner was celebrating with his captain. Surely, this was the game now. The chants had disappeared.

He looked at the umpire who stared back blankly, holding his right hand aloft, signaling a no-ball. The bowler had overstepped. Shrieks of joy erupted from the audience. The batsman was not out.

The bowler was shaking his head in disbelief after a long consultation with the umpires. It took a moment but soon everyone had settled. But Sahil was walking away towards the pavilion, indicating he wanted to take the option of stopping play due to bad light. He would come back the next morning, still batting on 99, still at the crease.

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