This blog is inspired by a conversation I had with my brother this morning. He is an orthodontist who besides teaching at a dental college also runs his own practice in the evenings. Six days a week. Needless to say, he is very busy, often out for thirteen to fourteen hours a day. The current coronavirus lockdown has seen him staying put at home with a fair bit of time on his hands. A novel experience for him! When we spoke this morning, he said he had been reading up about the Australian cricket teams of the 1970s and spoke about cricketers such as Ian Redpath, Doug Walters, Max Walker and the Chapell brothers amongst others. “I used to write their names down on the Caltex cricket scorecards,” he said.
That unleashed a torrent of memories. One of my uncles had gifted my brother, a board game called “Indoor Cricket Game” which served as an advertisement for Caltex. Caltex started off as the California Texas Oil company and after a series of mergers is now known as Chevron. Caltex still remains the brand used in certain parts of the world, notably the Asia Pacific region. My brother reminisced that he had spent many happy afternoons playing that board game. I could relate to his experiences since I enjoyed playing that board game too when I was growing up.
As my brother and I talked, we tried to remember the layout of the board. It had a dice that we used to score runs, a board with dials and scoresheets. After hanging up, I turned to the omniscient oracle of the modern world – Google and searched for “Caltex Indoor Cricket”. A solitary hit showed up, but it was the jackpot! A seller in Mumbai, India has put one of these sets up for sale on eBay for a trifling sum of $125. $165 with shipping to the US. The posting has a number of pictures that refreshed my memories of the game.
The current lockdown/stay at home has seen kids hunkered down at home, unable to play with their friends. It is hard no doubt, but the internet offers so many options. From video chatting with friends, playing online games, reading books to streaming movies, the possibilities are endless. In fact, when coupled with mobile phones or tablets, this has led to a phenomenon of social distancing even in normal times. It is not uncommon to see kids sitting in the same room chatting with each other over their mobile devices.
If this shutdown had happened in the 1970s, things would have been a lot different, especially in India. For starters, we did not have a TV at home, in fact, television broadcasting came to my city, Bangalore, in 1979 or 1980. We either played on the streets or at home. The indoor games usually involved card games, carrom or board games such as Ludo and Snakes and Ladders. There were traditional Indian games such as those that involved cowries. Western board games were limited, Monopoly was popular and there were Indian knockoffs such as Business (cities in India) and Trade (suburbs of Bombay). As a last resort, we could always conjure games that suited our imagination.
All the other games involved multiple participants. In a lockdown situation, I can think of two games that one could play by oneself. Besides the “Indoor Cricket Game,” there was “Book cricket”. Now, I am crazy about cricket as my blog on Lords attests. I’ve been wanting to write a blog on cricket but there are so many facets to the game that I think I will have to write it in installments. Accompanying the board game was another gift – a biography of the versatile Indian all-rounder, Vinoo Mankad. Authored by the cricket statistician Sudhir Vaidya, this book along with its black and white photographs was read so many times by my brother and me that it finally fell apart. On lazy summer afternoons, reading about Vinoo Mankad’s heroics would inspire us to pull out the board game.
The game came with a board that had three dials. It included a dice and score sheets. The rules were printed on the inside of the cover. Two small dials represented each batsman, the bigger dial represented the team score. The smaller dials went up to 100, while the larger dial went up to 200. The idea was to roll the dice for each batsman and then move the dial by the number on the dice, these essentially representing the runs scored. The dice worked great in this regard since the maximum runs that could be scored were six (okay, with no-balls and overthrows, more runs are possible but those are, as an engineer would say, “edge-cases”). As each batsman scored, the dial representing the team score was also moved correspondingly. At certain points on the batsman’s dial as well as the team’s dial, the batsman could get out. The mode of dismissal was also displayed. We dutifully recorded the score and the mode of dismissal at the fall of each wicket. If a batsman was lucky enough to score a century or the team’s total exceeded 200, we would just keep track of the runs as the dial went past 0 again.
Those were the simple mechanics of the game, but we made it more interesting. I could play the game by myself if I was alone at home or with my brother or my friends. The latter option was more interesting. We would choose teams, one could, for example, represent the Indian team, the other player the West Indian team. Alternatively, we could represent Indian state teams or English county teams. The possibilities were endless. One could even assemble a World Eleven! This gave us the opportunity to select players, toss a coin and start the game. Given that eleven batsmen played for each team, the game could go on for a long time. We had the time. We had plenty of time. We had time for a series! I have many fond memories of playing this game. As time passed, the board started fraying at the edges. The surface lost its sheen and the dials became loose. We probably ran out of score sheets, but these were easy to reproduce. One thing was certain though, no matter how much the board was worn, there was no worry about fifth-day dust bowls or rank turners. The dice could be rolled on a smooth surface!
Book cricket, on the other hand, was very simple. It was in fact, the poor man’s version of the indoor cricket game. All one needed was a book with printed page numbers and a couple of sheets to write down scores. We would agree on the page that would be referred to when the book was open, i.e. left or right page and the game would be on! To score, we would open a page and look at the last digit of the page number. If it was a number between 1 and 6, we would add the runs to the tally. If the number was between 7 and 9, no runs were scored. If the last digit was 0, then the batsman was out. You could use your imagination to come up with the mode of dismissal. There was a possibility of cheating in this game though. If for example, you scored a six, you could close the book, but not completely and then open it again for a six. Also, if you had a book with creases, you could open certain pages deliberately. That was not a major concern though. We just wanted to enjoy the game.
A third and upscale variant was a more expensive game. It involved a green rectangular cloth with the oval boundary line printed on it with field placements. Fielders were affixed to discs that had “V” notches at the base. You could place them at fielding positions with the “V” angled towards the batsman. The batsman himself could be controlled by one player while the bowler “bowled” using a stainless steel ball-bearing that was dropped down a slide. The batsman would block the ball and then hit it to any corner of the field. The pace of the ball could be altered by varying the angle of the slide. The batsman was out if the ball hit the wicket or the ball was “caught” by a fielder. I don’t remember the name of the board game, my friend had a version that we used to play for a short period of time. I just looked up the web and the original version seems to be called “Test Match”. This game certainly gave the players more control and expertise with practice as opposed to the other two games that relied solely on chance.
When none of these would do, my brother and I would play cricket at home. The front door of the living room would serve as the wicket while the cupboard at the end of the hall would serve as the bowling end. We bowled underarm and played with a tennis ball. These games were hard-fought! I once remember playing a “test match” with my brother, probably in 1976. His team was the invincible West Indian team and I was representing the Indian team. Alas, true to the nature of the contests in the mid-1970s, I was bowled out very quickly and my brother kept batting on and on. Since each team had eleven batsmen, I had to get him out ten times! He tried to make it a little easy for me by batting left-handed for Clive Lloyd and Alvin Kallicharan. Much like the Indian bowlers, I found the going hard and could not wait for the game to get over.
Those were simpler days indeed, very different from today. Given the limited options, I played the same games over and over or reread the same set of books. If I was visiting someone’s house with my mother and there were no young kids to keep me company or books to read, I had to play matches in my mind. If I had the foresight to take a tennis ball with me, I could practice my bowling against a wall. If times were desperate, I could practice my bowling with a stone, taking care not to damage any property. But the fire burned bright and even though the kit was meagre, heroic battles were fought on the fields in my mind.
When I look back, there were times I gave my mother grief by complaining that I was bored. However, I think solitude was a good thing. It was par for the course and not something one endured under duress. Even though I am sentimental and wax nostalgically about my childhood, I don’t think I will fork $165 for the Caltex Indoor Cricket Game. Instead, I think I will play a game of book cricket for old time’s sake. Teams from the 1970s of course!