Indians at home on the field Cricket: Far from their native country, Indian students remember their roots by playing ball at the Johns Hopkins University.

September 30, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

For Sandeep Gupta, playing cricket in Baltimore is reclaiming a touch of home.

With 20 other Indian students at the Johns Hopkins University, Gupta played yesterday afternoon on a campus quadrangle bordered by a library and classroom buildings. It's still half a world away from the back-lot fields on the outskirts of Pune, a city of more than 1 million people near the western coast of India.

Yet each time he reaches the quad, Gupta said yesterday, he feels the comfort of home flooding back. "It's so much a part of our childhood memories," the 26-year-old engineering graduate student said of playing cricket. "Otherwise, it would have been the one thing I would have really missed."

A few passers-by paused on the library steps and nearby benches, intrigued by the spectacle. About 10 men, almost all Indian graduate students in engineering, were scattered around an asphalt path at the center of the quad, where a batsman stood at each end of an imaginary rectangle to swat at a ball with what looks like a 3-foot plank of wood. For most people familiar with Hopkins, it is a campus where one thinks of lacrosse, a different sport appropriated from a different culture, taken from Native Americans by Colonial Americans.

In India, subjects of the Crown adopted cricket, the precise, bureaucratic and oh-so British game -- one that mandates lunch and tea, the color of apparel (always white) and the tending of the greens to the minute. The sport has been embraced with something approaching religious fervor, and the Indian national team's losing efforts last week in the match against Pakistan have caused some agitation. Several matches in past years between the two bitter neighbors have been put off because of the violence that erupted.

For these men at Hopkins, cricket is nothing like the genteel diversion of the British upper-middle classes or the obsession of a country of 750 million. It is a pickup game, the equivalent of softball in Severna Park or a barbecue in Druid Hill Park, an informal excuse to gather and chatter and escape from homework and forget, perhaps just for a few minutes, that they are so far from home.

"Just [because] you speak English doesn't really merge the cultures," said Chandrasekhar Pisupati, 30, a graduate student in computer science from Hyderabad, in southern India. "The culture is very different [in the United States] -- the food, the music, the movies."

They welcome non-Indians -- Australians, Pakistanis, Britons and West Indians have joined the game at one time or another. But the game allows them to recall who they are. Of the 8,000 full-time graduate and undergraduate students at Hopkins, only 80 are from India. A significant number of them appear at the twice-weekly cricket games.

"Because we don't have any close family here, we can look out for each other," said Sekhar Sundaram, 28, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering from Calcutta, who wore a baseball cap backward on his head. "You try to look out for Indian friends."

Growing up, Gupta played on a makeshift dirt field behind his parents' house in the outskirts of Pune. The children played on a small plateau on the side of hills, with brush on the left and houses on the right. His younger brother tagged along and proved a better bowler than he was.

In cricket, bowlers throw the ball at a batsman, who fends it off to protect the wicket -- three wooden stumps. If the ball is not caught on the fly, which would be an out, the batsman may run from one wicket to the other, and score a run. It is not for nothing that people in England, where the game originated, consider baseball a young upstart.

Gupta bowled early in the game yesterday. As he faced the batsman Manish Sinha, another graduate student, Gupta hung back, cupping the ball in his palm with the extended fingers of his right hand.

He stepped deliberately at first, then started to lope, picking up the pace, like a train leaving a station. As he ran, his right hand shot up, then he flung his empty left hand skyward and, as it descended, the left was followed by the right hand again, like sails of a windmill, and Gupta released the ball high above his head.

When Gupta got a "good land," it meant he had sent the ball on a direct route to a spot a few feet in front of the batsman, where the ball is supposed to carom off the ground and strike the wicket or off the bat and into the hands of a nearby fielder.

Cricket is a game of patience and angles, and Gupta appeared to revel in the endless plotting to outthink, as well as outmuscle, his opponent.

For their part, the various batsmen were trying to time the ball just so and hit it far and away from any fielders.

The temperament required to play cricket involves a level of patience almost unknown to American sports. Even golf, ultimately, has limits on how many strokes a player can take on a hole. For cricket, as long as the batsman protects the wicket, his appearance can last indefinitely.

If a player fields a batted ball and knocks the wicket before the batsman has reached it, that is an out. An inning is over once all players on a side have batted and have been gotten out. The games are often played for two innings. A match can take as long as four or five days. This game lasted about 2 1/2 hours. Gupta's team lost, 71 to 48.

Neither side seemed to care much about the score: there was a lot of teasing and cheering in Hindi and English between players on both sides. Theirs was also a common-sense cricket. A tennis ball has replaced the hard rubber standard, because of a broken nose and a broken window a few years ago.

"I meet a lot of these guys socially," said Indanil Goswami, 31, from Calcutta, who recently earned a doctorate at Hopkins and is an assistant professor of civil engineering at Morgan State University. "And well, I've always loved cricket. So I play every opportunity I get."

Pub Date: 9/30/96

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