Even as India witnesses a spike in interest surrounding women’s cricket after a dream run in the World Cup, another group of cricketers in the country are preparing for their own world event, hoping to popularise a completely different version of the sport.

India will be one of nine teams to participate in the Indoor Cricket World Cup, to be held in Dubai from September 16 to September 23, 2017.

Indoor cricket too is a contest between bat and ball, but is different from the outdoor game in many ways. As the name suggests, the game is played within enclosed nets. Eight players form a side and each innings is of 16 overs.

A batsman is not ‘out’ after he is dismissed. He has to bat four overs irrespective of the number of times he’s dismissed in that period.

The running between wickets is different too; a batsman need not run all the way to the bowler’s end to complete a run – he just has to reach a line that’s halfway down the pitch.

But before you think this is a batsman’s paradise, let’s clarify that five runs are deducted each time a batsman is dismissed. Runs are awarded depending on which part of the net the ball is hit to. A host of such rules make indoor cricket a unique sport.

India head into the World Cup with only an outside chance. It will take some effort for them to challenge Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Australia are the undisputed kings of the game, having won each of the nine World Cups. It’s no surprise, given the sport was introduced in the country as early as the 1970s. Australia now have an established structure, governed by Cricket Australia themselves. The likes of Michael Clarke, Steven Smith, Ryan Harris and Aaron Finch have all been through indoor cricket before becoming big outdoors. Another big name in world cricket, Jesse Ryder, will turn up for New Zealand in the Dubai event.

Rules of indoor cricket

8 players per team.
16 overs per innings.
4 batsmen have to bat 4 overs each in pairs.
Minus 5 each time a batsman is dismissed.
Three consecutive dot balls in an over results in a dismissal.
Each bowler has to bowl 2 overs.
The ball is never dead, which means the game is always active.

New Zealand, South Africa, England and Sri Lanka have no trophies to show, but have all hosted World Cups in the past.

India, meanwhile, are just about trying to find their feet in indoor cricket. The governing body, India Indoor Sports Foundation (IISF), was recognised by World Indoor Cricket Federation (WICF) only in 2010 and the team has played only two World Cups. In their first, in 2011 in South Africa, India defeated England and Sri Lanka. In their next, in 2014 in New Zealand, India won the plate finals against England to finish fourth overall. Between the two events, India also beat Sri Lanka 4-1 in a home series.

While the team has made decent progress in a short time, the administrators have plenty of challenges in popularising the sport. Indoor cricket is naturally popular in countries like UAE, where the climate makes it impossible to play in open spaces for most part of the year. India do not have such worries, but the biggest challenge is to get people to pay to play cricket. Why would they, when cricket can be played for free anywhere, ranging from office spaces to streets to balconies and terraces?

“For six to seven months when we started, we gave the facilities to people for free,” says Tahir Ali Khan, the national team coach. “Then we realised we can’t get people to pay and play, so we started talking to people about entertainment, enjoyment and enhancement. From there, we coined a word – ‘healthetainment’. Now, we sell healthetainment, instead of selling just indoor cricket. People who come to the arena can play football, basketball and all sorts of sports.”

Despite that, the number of such arenas is less than ten across the country. Compare that to Australia and South Africa, which have more than 150 such centres each.

“Indoor cricket is still very unknown,” rues Milind Punja, the IISF secretary. “Not many people are aware of what it really means. Most of them feel it’s outdoor cricket played indoors. But this is a completely different game.

The net is split into different zones. Bonus runs are awarded depending on which zone the ball is hit to.
Zone A: Behind the striker and wicketkeeper: 0 runs
Zone B: On the sides between the striker and mid-pitch: 1 run
Zone C: On the sides between mid-pitch and bowler-end stump: 2 runs
Zone D: Behind the bowler: 4 runs on the bounce, 6 runs on the full

“The main hurdle in developing indoor cricket is lack of infrastructure. That’s why it hasn’t become too popular yet although cricket is very popular. It’s changing, slowly of course, although not the way we would like. That’s mainly because we don’t have enough sponsors and people have not come forward to put up arenas.

“The other reason is, it’s not a spectator sport. It’s a players’ sport. You can have outdoor cricket in a stadium and the sponsors can get their money back if 25,000 people watch. The returns in indoor cricket are not as big. That’s one hurdle we need to cross. Those who invest in indoor cricket are mainly those who are passionate about the game.”

The game in the country is highly Bangalore-centric too. Most of the centres are from the city, which means Bangalore is miles ahead of the few cities and states that participate in the ‘nationals’. And apart from the odd exception, the Indian team is effectively a Bangalore team.

Things, though, are changing gradually for the better. India now have a sponsor on board – Petromann Events – whom the IISF is banking on to take the game across the country. They’ve also roped in Sandeep Patil as a brand ambassador to promote the concept and are working with the government for official recognition as a sports body.

The next step, IISF hopes, is to create a structure similar to the one in outdoor cricket.

“We’d like to make it the same way as outdoor cricket. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened yet because we need more arenas for that to happen,” says Punja. “We want to start from school level and move up to senior level, like with outdoor. Since arenas are restricted only to a couple of places, that’s where you’ll get the players from. Bengal has [an arena]. There are other states with some makeshift arenas too, but we need more arenas that satisfy the standards set by the WICF.

“We have a sponsor who is now funding the World Cup and beyond. They plan to open more arenas in other states and we’re working with them to spread the game.”

Indoor cricket too is a contest between bat and ball, but is different from the outdoor game in many ways. © Wisden India

Indoor cricket too is a contest between bat and ball, but is different from the outdoor game in many ways. © Wisden India

The nature of the cricket itself makes it slightly difficult for India’s players, who have grown up playing outdoors, to adjust as well. Indoor cricket is played with a lighter ball, which aids swing. The game’s rapid pace and restricted space makes speed and agility vital, which in turn makes fielding the most crucial factor. All these factors help countries such as Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, leaving India with a lot of catching up to do.

Tahir, who has also coached UAE in the past, believes all that will fall in place if India focus on the most basic aspects of the game: fitness and fielding.

“It’s not a major transition,” he says. “It’s just a mindset that it’s [more] difficult to play indoors than outdoors. Indoor cricket is not rocket science. The most important thing is you need to be agile, you need to be fit. In outdoor cricket, there are people who can wake up at 7am, stand at third man and return home in the evening from there. But in indoor cricket, it will engage you to play, you have to bat, bowl and field whether you like it or not.

“Generally in indoor cricket, you don’t have to worry about conditions. We’re not going to get any help from the floor. But if the centre is air-conditioned, it will play a big role in the ball swinging. The difference between outdoor cricket and indoor cricket ball is the weight. Outdoor ball is 5.5 ounce, the indoor one is 3.5 ounce. And if it’s going to be AC, the weather will be much cooler and the ball may swing more.

“But the swing will be the same for everyone. It’s good to have competition, we can’t move forward otherwise. I don’t look at Aussies as a threat, they’re competition. India has gone up in sports big time and we’re not inferior. India played indoor cricket when there were no facilities. When the facilities have come, our game is improving. From nowhere – in the past, India never scored anything in the plus – we’re now No.4 in the world. We need to have the vision that India will lift the cup this time.”

In that pursuit, India now have a pool of players who have played the game for a few years, some of them also having the experience of playing World Cups.

“The experience of the previous tournaments will help us,” says Yathish Gowda, who featured in both of India’s World Cups, and is a Wisden India employee. “It was a great experience. As a cricketer, everyone wants to represent the country in some format or the other and I got the opportunity. The experience is surreal, you have to be there to experience it. We’ve now got an idea of what to expect and hopefully we can do even better.”

“In the first World Cup, we were pretty amateur,” says Dhanush Bhaskar, who led India in the previous World Cup. “We knew a few tricks but the Aussies and South Africans are really good at this game. We got a few tips from them and with videos, we’ve worked really hard on that.

“The bridge is now narrowing. This is just the start, let’s see how it goes. We’re aiming to win the World Cup this time. It’s not about semifinal or the final, we’re aiming to win the World Cup.”

If they do manage that, the game could well get a face-lift, just like the women’s game got after their heroics in England.