Every town in India has at least one cycle-wallah. The permanence of each varies, with some solidly rooted in a storefront, colourful bicycle wheels posted as advertisement, and others springing up along the roadside wherever there is a large enough piece of shade.
For my husband, growing up as one of 11 children a few hours outside Chennai, the cycle-wallah offered a unique solution to a problem that consumed his days: How does one play cricket without a cricket ball?
With a going rate of Rs 5 -10 for a cork ball and parents unwilling to fork over the change with so many mouths to feed, what is a young cricket tragic to do? As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and eight-year-old Subash continued a tradition I have since learned is alive and well in cricket: Use what is around you, and make do.
In his case, an older cousin taught him how to use discarded bicycle tubes to make a cricket ball. This is not the only method; other friends have reported melting plastic bags down into a dense hard ball. In an interview for the Legends of Barbados Cricket museum, Sir Garfield Sobers talks about digging up patches of asphalt melting in the hot tropical sun and using them for a ball as a young boy. Lacking an official sound-making ball at the time, Dean du Plessis describes playing cricket at his school for blind children in South Africa using a basketball inside a crinkly bag. These kinds of stories are my favourite part of cricket. Not the international teams, the hundreds, or the gaping maws of stadiums, but this hard-scrabble fight to play on, with a Coke bottle for a bat and a sandal as the wicket.
It is often difficult for me to imagine my husband’s childhood, so steeped in now-abandoned orthodox traditions, hours studying over books, escaping to the nearby fields and rooftops for cricket and the freedom it offered. I wish I could go back and be there, watch him with his cousin talking a bicycle-wallah out of a punctured tyre.
The closest I can get is to make my own, and so in Delhi, a few days ago, I asked him to show me how.
It was a Sunday, and our initial search came up empty. We asked around for the nearest “cycle-puncture guy” and were told, “If he is to be there, he will be ahead.” Alas, he was not, and we had to suspend the search until the next day.
After the weekend, finding one was easy. We stopped across from a storefront dangling with tyres wrapped in colourful foil. Apparently, as a child, old punctured tyres were given to Subash for free, but in this case, we had to pay Rs 5. The valve had been removed, and a long slit in the side marked where it had ended its life as a tyre and began one as a future cricket ball.
You don’t need much to make a bicycle tyre cricket ball: A bit of newspaper, a few solid stones, scissors or a knife, and the tyre itself is all it takes. The stones were from the road outside the house we were staying in, and the newspaper was leftover from Udaipur, where it had been used to wrap up a bunch of Re 1 candies I bought.
The tube is cut across its width, resulting in complete circular bands. Subash advised cutting strips 2-4 mm wide. The thicker ones go first, and then they get thinner and thinner as the diameter of the ball increases.
I crumpled up the paper with the small stones at the centre, and set about fitting the tight rubberbands around it. I was working on the roof, where the sun cut through the Delhi winter chill. Symmetry has never been my strong suit, so Subash, using his ball-making expertise, removed some of the stones and paper to start again with a more solid, round core.
As per his suggestion, I was more methodical this time, adding the bands at 90-degree angles to each other, until the paper couldn’t be seen anymore.
I learned quickly that leaving the cut black bands out in the sun to warm made them easier to stretch. Also, the thinner they were, the more readily they fit, but too thin and they would snap.
Apparently, if you know what you are doing, making a ball this way only takes about twenty minutes. Instead I laboured on the roof for over an hour. When the ball was a little under the size of a tennis ball I made one more push, cutting a bunch of thin strips and fitting them around. I thought about the seam on a cricket ball and added one thicker band around at the end.
My hands were blackened with dirt and rubber, the roof was strewn with bits of paper and broken bands, but finally, where once was an old deflated tyre now sat a compact, bouncy, and surprisingly round ball.
I ran down the stairs with it to show Subash. He was watching the India-Australia match, but I insisted we go try it out right then. After all, what good is making your own ball if you don’t play?
We headed to the alley beside the house with a borrowed bat, and to my shock and delight, it worked! It bounced, it moved, it bowled.
Apparently, due to the many different bands, this kind of ball gets a lot of seam movement. According to Subash, this means you have to either play far forward or play later, because the bounce is so unpredictable. Normally this kind of nuance is lost on me, but having faced it and seen it in action, I’m starting to understand. It is fascinating how these makeshift creations inspire their own rules and requirements, a thousand variations of the game played across the world.
I’m not overly romantic about sports. The fervour surrounding it often doesn’t make sense to me, and listening to so many passionate conversations and feeling nothing makes me wonder if a piece of me is broken.
But that ball! Making it with my own two hands, bringing it forth from the remnants of another life and seeing it move, bounce, roll, transformed. Imagining the man I love as a small boy, hunched over a pile of black rubber strips, face drawn in concentration, the excitement when he knows he is almost finished, the echo of his feet running toward whatever make-shift space will be the field that day. Holding it in my palm.
This, I understand.