I had been playing the 40-over a side leather ball cricket with the same team for 8 years and for the last four out of the 8 years, I played it with almost the same set of XI guys (the team is part of a club that rotates its players across teams to encourage club wide bonding). The moment I accepted my bay area job offer and the timelines of the move crystallized, I knew that the next weekend's game was going to be my last one with this team. Sadly, a sinking feeling inside me was also telling me that my life was changing in a big way and the next game was possibly my last ever in leather ball - league format. In the context of the league, it was an important match as we had to essentially win all the games non-stop to qualify for a division promotion. The next game was against a very strong King County CC boasting of super fast pakistani + afghani pace bowling line up that gave opening batters the chills the night before. It also boasted the super fast bowling sensation Naseer Jamali who was playing for US national team at that time. I have played against Naseer since he was 19 year old kid. Naseer is left handed, bowls like Akram but with a Shoaib Akhtar like run up and a nasty inswinging deliveries at 85+mph. The team has enormous rivalry with my team and the sledging gets really bad when I, a known troll, am at the wicket. I don't tell my team that this is going to be my last match with them as this is an emotional group of boys and instead decide to wait until the game is over. It maybe some small time useless league. But friendships are very real. The peace of mind and release of life pressure this small recreation provides is immeasurable.
We are set a target of 141 and I walk in with my opening partner of 4 years knowing fully well that their bowling attack is going to make this target very tricky, especially on a ground as large as Marymoor. Ever since I was a small boy playing cricket, I opened the batting but always took the non-striker end. This was a result of idolizing Sunil Gavaskar in my formative years. This time, I decided to take first strike much to the surprise of Sriram, my opening partner, who in the four years had given up all hopes of trying to convince me to take first strike. Javaid is their opening bowler and bowls one of those banana outswingers at reasonable pace. He can bowl a straighter one without a change in action and essentially preys on the batsman's doubt whether to leave the ball or not. I have hurt this team badly in the past by moving around the crease so much and spoiling their line and length. The team is super charged up and greet me with a lot of 'nice' comments. As Javaid runs into bowl the first ball he totally expects me to walk down the pitch and so pitches a pre-emptive short one. I am rooted to my crease as a counter bluff and simply duck under the ball. He patiently walks up to me and tells me what he thinks of me with 10 other people chirping their 2 cents. This is exciting. The kind of last match I wanted to play.
Next over Sriram faces Naseer Jamali, who begins to square him up and bounce him in alternate balls. Sriram has a great technique, solid defense and is very compact. Unlike me in almost every sense of the game. In Naseer's second over, he bowls a perfect inswinger at a speed that feels like 90 mph and gets Sriram LBW. I still haven't faced Naseer but can see that he is bowling really well this match. On the other hand I can instinctively feel that I am trying too hard and not really seeing/timing the ball very well. The voice inside my head is telling me I wont last. It is always a battle with that voice inside your head isn't it? The voice tells me to go for it every ball and temperament is about shutting it down. I usually shut the voice down by focusing on the ball all the time. When it is being passed from keeper to slips, to cover fielder to mid off and then to the bowler. Then I watch the ball all the way through the run up.
The first time I face Naseer, I remember why it is so difficult to bat against him. His long run up with the ball semi hidden both (a) makes it hard to focus on the ball and (b) tests one's patience in waiting for the run up to end. When the first ball is delivered I realize how quick he is as the ball takes an inside edge before my bat has landed fully. Steal couple of runs and am still on strike. The fielders and egging me to have a go at him. Javaid walks up to me and says "if you are really a man, take him on" and I burst out laughing. These guys are dead serious when they say shit like this. Next Javaid over, I take him on the first ball. I walk out during his delivery stride giving him less time to react. But I mistime it and sky the ball. As I run towards the other side resigned to my fate, Javaid is not looking at whether the fielder would take the catch but instead is staring at me and says "I told you I'll fucking get you bitch". The fielder drops the catch. I troll Javaid. Troll the fielder even more. The game gets paused for a while as fielders try to have a word with me and complain to the umpire at the same time. This is fun. I love this.
I face a full Naseer over without losing my mind. The mental patient which is the voice in my head seems caged. Its a struggle every ball. Meanwhile Neeraj, our 1-drop batsman falls to Javaid's classic in-swinger that takes the inside egde to the keeper (Neeraj Bats left). Next over Naseer is bowling to me again. As he is going through this his long run up, I am battling with the voice again - should I walk down the pitch hoping for a short ball. When I want to make the bowler to bowl short, I walk down the pitch when the bowler is a couple of strides away from delivering the ball. This way he gets a chance to see me moving, has the opportunity to do a brain freeze and then bowl short in panic. If done selectively this technique fetches me some easy runs. This time I walk down and Naseer bowls short. However, I realize that he has added a few yards to his pace and my reflexes weren't what it used to be. In 2010 when I did the same thing to him, the ball easily cleared the rather large Magnusson cricket field in a big way. Cleared by so much that my team mates were jibing Naseer to rent a taxi to get the ball. This time the short one is really fast. the ball hits my glove, lobs to no man's land in backward square leg. 2 runs. The next ball, during the agonizing wait for Naseer to finish his run up, I keep telling myself "Behave yourself. See him off.". Naseer bowls a beauty. He cuts one into me at great pace. The ball is through the gate before I can say 'boo'. Naseer is a nice guy. We have had a nice rivalry over the years. He doesn't sledge. He smiles and says 'got you' as he runs past me. I nod saying 'good ball'. Game, Season, Phase of life over for me.
King County thinks at 29/3 they have the match in the bag. Lucky for us Parthu - our newly minted #4 batsman - finishes the game. At the end of the game, in our team huddle. I tell the guys. My voice shakes. It hits me that I will never play with these guys again and will never play in these grounds again. We all walk off the ground much later than usual but I will never forget that day.