"Cricket is the fastest way of befriending an Indian."
While on a shoot for Born to Explore in India, one of the highlights of my trip was the opportunity to learn about India's national obsession -- cricket. The fact that I would actually swing a bat and play had me really excited.
I took to polling the locals about a game I knew very little about. Someone asked me, "Have you ever been in love?" To which I responded 'Yes.' He continued, "then you know that feeling of euphoria, of love, that comes with winning a cricket game. For me, cricket is my soul mate."
It was late in the afternoon and we had been filming in the streets of Delhi all day. Our host, Sanjay Puri from Compass India Holidays, suggested that it would be nice to finish the day off with a little street cricket, or "gully cricket" as they call it. I didn't realize it at the time, but he was setting me up.
When I arrived, there were huge banners welcoming me and my crew. It was an unofficial challenge to test our skills against the toughest possible critics: 100 kids from the RS Secondary Public School in a town called Nihal Vihar. As gracious as I tried to be, my own inner child surfaced and urged me to not be shown up by 10-year-olds. Call it my competitive streak.
For me, sport is at its best when you see the exuberance and joy of children playing in the streets. Dominican children playing baseball with sticks and tin cans, or African kids kicking around a homemade "ball," or Indian children playing gully cricket. Their passion and determination is more fascinating to watch than any World Series Game.
I'm greeted by Ravi, the son of the founder of RS Secondary Public school. He is dedicated to educating these kids who live below the poverty line. But tonight, it's all about the game. He tells me that "gully cricket is really important for these kids. All they need is a space. It doesn't matter whether they have a ground, a small road, even a tiny road. They just put the wicket, chair, anything they can find and just start playing."
I tried to keep that in mind while up at bat, but it was a bit difficult. I had been sitting on a bus for an hour and a half, feeling jet lagged and stiff. There was sweat dripping in my face, the sun was hot overhead, the pressure was on... I wasn't exactly feeling my best. Hundreds of eyes watched my every move, trusting me to live up to their national pasttime. It was time to suck it up, and swing.
Typically, in professional cricket, they use a very hard ball that will hurt if it hits you. Luckily for me, in gully cricket they substitute tennis balls which are cheaper, and allow you to play without any padding.
The kids were respectful of this old man, and threw me easy pitches. I swung. I connected. The ball flew over the rooftops and beyond. I cheered for myself and felt like I had just won the home run derby. Imagine my shock when I was informed that I was out. In this game, if you "lose" the ball, then it's an automatic out.
For two hours, we played. The kids showed me how to stand and hold the bat. They laughed at my poor form, and cheered me on. They sang songs, took pictures and even asked for my autograph.
Playing gully cricket here in the poor suburbs of Delhi, was the game in its purest form. It was also was a bonding experience. I was constantly reminded that "there are many religions in this secular culture called India, but it is said that cricket unites Indians better than any religion ever." Even with my out, I felt love from these children. Their unbridled joy is something I can never forget, and something we can all learn from.