On tour with the black craps

From left: Reece Irving, John Bougen (with weapon), Justin Brown, Stew Gunn and Brendon O'Hagan.
From left: Reece Irving, John Bougen (with weapon), Justin Brown, Stew Gunn and Brendon O'Hagan.

BRENDON O'Hagan had heard via one of his mates that there was a cemetery in Varanasi where the locals often played cricket. This was a sitting duck for five blokes who favoured finding exotic locations to whack a six over drinking tea in silk shops.

Finding the cemetery, however, was easier said than done. Our taxi driver managed to find one, but it was frequented by dead people, not backyard cricketers. Not that it stopped us looking for players. Wading through knee-high grass, we voyeuristically hovered over headstones. Three dodgy-looking locals loitered. Several headstones had been pinched, and those remaining were neglected or smashed. A "caretaker" soon saw the whities with the cameras and cricket bat and saw an opportunity. After a chat in Hindi with Blanket Boy (Reece Irving), it was confirmed that the caretaker wanted money from us.

"What for?" John Bougen asked.

Bowling Through India by Justin Brown, published by Random House NZ, rrp $39.99.
Bowling Through India by Justin Brown, published by Random House NZ, rrp $39.99.

"He's the caretaker. He thinks we should pay him for the privilege."

I looked around this overgrown, desolate, depressing final resting place. "How about he caretake it then?"

It was our lucky day. Reece Irving gleaned the information from our driver that there was another cemetery in town. "You want to go there?" he asked. "Or you want to go see carpet?"

"Cemetery please!" we chorused.

Our driver shook his head and put his van into first. As we crawled through another litter-filled mass of mess and mayhem, I tended to side with John Bougen: Varanasi wasn't exactly Vienna, but knowing we would be on the Ganges by nightfall excited every one of us. A few windows were left open in the Goldfish Bowl and a sweet, slightly sickly aroma soon filled the space between us.

"What is that smell?" I asked.

"It's a smell covering another smell," said John.

"It's life!" said Reece.

"It smells like shit," said John.

Despite thinking we were homicidal maniacs, our driver came through with the goods, parking outside the nondescript, rundown entrance to the second cemetery of the morning. He then, via Reece, introduced us to Mr Thomas, the cemetery's Roman Catholic priest and caretaker. The irony didn't escape us that we were about to play cricket, in a cemetery, in the City of Life. Indeed, in one of the holiest cities on Earth, where most locals choose cremation over burial, it seemed incongruous to be in the middle of a cemetery. But then, this cemetery was hardly a going concern. It was once used by the British Army, and soldiers as well as any immediate family had been buried here. What we didn't realise was that Mr Thomas had been trying to stop the cricket-playing so he could make it a more reputable place. Until we arrived.

Before long, the puns came flooding out: "We'll have some stiff competition today."

"I bet the game will be dead boring."

"People will be dying to play."

Mr Thomas herded us through the cemetery gates, past his modest but tidy hut. A boy grabbed our bat. "Match?" he yelped. "Match?"

"Yes," we said. "Match."

Sprinting over to the makeshift pitch, the boy pushed whoever was batting out of the way. We soon joined him and within minutes a multitude of kids surrounded us. They came out of the woodwork like meerkats. Some, especially the older boys, would make most international sides; their style and flair was enviable. And yet, amid such lunacy, gravestones and tombs. We ambled through the grounds, fascinated, saddened:

MARSHA Dt of birth 22.8.96; Dt of death 23.9.98

IRENE Dt of birth 4.1.98; Dt of death 7.1.98. With lots of love and kisses, papa and mummy

MARIA The beloved wife of Edward Robbins who died at Benares on 24th October, 1858, aged 42 years and 7 months. She died as she had lived; a true Christian, a fond and faithful wife, and affectionate mother.

IN MEMORY OF Caroline Aldus Robbins, infant daughter of the above, who died on 2nd October, 1858, on the passage up the river Ganges, from Calcutta to Benares. Aged 11 months.

The fact that cricket was to be played above someone's dead ancestors didn't seem to bother anybody. After all, tombstones make for perfect stumps. And why not play on top of people's graves? Is it any more disrespectful than burning a body then throwing it into the drink? Indeed, one got the feeling the soldiers buried here would have endorsed their sacred place being used for the sacred game.

As usual, the match took an age to start. But at least the kids were willing to play for the Black Craps. Maybe the thought of actually playing was worth being embarrassed for. Whatever their reasoning, Stew Gunn and I were ecstatic: finally we had some depth.

As they taught us the local rules ("third row of graves is four runs"), proud mums ordered the younger kids to go away and put on their Sunday best. They returned with combed hair and ironed trousers up to their armpits.

Their taller, older, scruffier-dressed counterparts looked as though they were designed for cricket. They breathed the game. As soon as a ball was tossed their way, they took on the personas of [Sourav] Ganguly, [VVS] Laxman and Rahul Dravid.

WE BOWLED first, and badly. Square cuts soon ricocheted off tombstones. Sixes gave the crows something to worry about. Their opening batsman, Anu Kham high back-lift and exquisite footwork walloped us over goats, past buffalo lazing in the midday sun and finally, and to our horror, right into a makeshift rubbish dump in the far corner of the graveyard. The result: they batted like Australia; we bowled like Zimbabwe. Blindfolded.

India scored sixty-seven for four on a goat track. It seemed a formidable total. The outfield was stony, dry and dusty. The pitch wasn't much better. But this was their ground they knew every quirk. Goats and sheep grazed, unfazed. Kids in school uniforms gathered on stone walls surrounding the cemetery. World cup-style celebrations ensued whenever a wicket was taken. Every one of these kids wanted to succeed. They wanted it bad. And even though they'd never admit it, as often seems to be the case in a selfish game like cricket, they secretly hoped their mate would get out so they too could face the Kiwis.

As always, while all of this nonsense was going on mid-pitch, Reece continued to be smothered, swamped and harassed by locals. Today it wasn't only his shortcomings with the scorebook which were to be tested, but also his patience.

A woman who, when not blocking his view of the match, kept asking for money, claimed that a shot by one of the Kiwis had struck her son in the face. He even had the scratch to prove it. She dragged her son over by the arm, squeezing it so hard as to make him cry. "You hit my son!" she said. "Pay doctor's bills!" If nothing else, she deserved brownie points for inventiveness.

Reece's adversaries had now become his allies: "Get away, woman, he's just trying to score!"

Alas, these off-field antics didn't stop the Black Craps losing, managing a paltry 44. All this in spite of the fact that John thumped an aerial straight drive so far that it careered over the long-on boundary and ended up on the surrounding train tracks. Lost ball and a proud jig by John. He then showed his true New Zealand colours by self-destructing on the very next ball. But at least he had his moment in India.

Our "depth", which initially excited a weakened, some would say desperate, Black Craps side, consisted of two boys who couldn't hit the ball if it had a bell on it.

After John's departure, Stew and I were left to pick up the pieces but, needing more than 20 from the final over, my cemetery-dwelling batting partner, obviously playing for his average, batted as though we were here for a five-day match. Needless to say, our PC "let's give everyone a bat" theory backfired. India had once more, very cleverly, given us their worst players and we had paid the price. Our opposition, on taking the final wicket, high-fived and celebrated like world champions, taunting and jibing as only winners can.

In this whipping of epic proportions, one player stood out as Man of the Match: Anu Kham, the Jandal-wearing master blaster with an unbeaten 52 and a selection of shots most international players would give their right arm for. But what really secured the award for him was that when during the third over of the game Vicky, the ball, split in two, he ran off to get a new one. He returned in record time, probably because he happened to be batting at the time. When presented with his Auckland Aces hat, Anu pulled it on as tightly as a swimming cap, and smiled like a loon. A half-century and a half-decent souvenir not a bad day.

AS I FACED a few more practice deliveries (or, truth be told, chucks), the ringleader approached and asked if we could please play another game. I agreed to a shortened version as long as they bowled and didn't continue to throw the ball, a la Murali and Harbhajan. (This seemed to be a habit with Indians, particularly in the backyard form of the game where a tennis ball was used.) Just as I was about to inform the others, however, I saw everyone crowd around John. No one was laughing. John was on his phone, which wasn't uncommon. What was odd was that he wasn't cavorting about with a smile on his face, telling stories to the recipient. He lightly kicked the dirt and moved around the cemetery as if to find some privacy. An eerie vibe wafted through the cemetery. A stillness prevailed. Reece shooed away small children keen to get a glimpse of John's mobile.

He had now been speaking for more than 10 minutes. Something was wrong. Stew approached me, his eyes a mixture of confusion and sadness. "Did you hear that?" he asked. "Anna's dead."

Anna, John's ex-wife, had been living in Cairo for the past two years. The previous evening she had apparently gone to sleep in her apartment not knowing that a candle was still burning. Sometime during the night her home caught fire and she died of asphyxiation, her golden retriever, George, by her side. Their daughter, John's only child Nicola, was back in Auckland, completely unaware of what had happened.

This was all too weird. Twenty minutes earlier we had been parading about like idiots. We had laughed and joked and hit tennis balls up trees. Now, walking back to the Goldfish Bowl, we thought about Anna. And death in a cemetery. And our own families. And the trip. And John. And can't life just change in a split second? A cemetery, for Christ's sake. In the City of Life.

India's ringleader, unaware of the news, approached me again. "Game?" he asked once more, throwing the ball from hand to hand.

I couldn't think. "No, sorry. No game."

"Please!"

"No, seriously, not now."

"Short game!"

"We've had some bad news from home."

He nodded, a look of compassion on his face. "Oh," he said, putting his hands together in the prayer position and putting them up to his chin. "Emergency?"

"Yes," I said. "Emergency."

He placed one hand on his heart. His other non-English-speaking friends were obviously anxious to get another game started. He quickly shut them up, explaining in Hindi what had happened. A look of unease and intrigue showed in their eyes. They shadowed us from the ground, past Mr Thomas' modest hut.

"My family and I are very sorry for your loss," said Mr Thomas. He opened the sliding door to the Goldfish Bowl and we drove off.

One thing was clear: John would have to somehow get back to New Zealand to be with his daughter. Later we learnt that he would have to go to Cairo during Eid, the busiest time in the Muslim calendar to collect Anna's body, and then attend her funeral two days before Christmas.

He had never liked Varanasi.

An edited extract from Bowling Through India by Justin Brown, published by Random House NZ, rrp $39.99.

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