Boys will be boys. Put an idle bunch together — any place in the world, any time in history — and chances are they will either get up to no good or start playing an improvised game. Sometimes they will do both at the same time.
Dial back to a school corridor on a Monday afternoon in 1984. Three 17-year-old boys were leaning against a wall, bored senseless. One of them was ricocheting a tennis ball off the opposite wall. Another was playing one-handed catch with a bottle of Zippo lighter fluid. The third (me) was staring into space.
What we did next involved no planning or conversation. Seventeen-year-old boys are blessed with a kind of telepathy that tacitly prompts them into unified action. What did we have at our disposal? A ball, lighter fluid and a corridor. We soused the ball with the fluid, lit it and converted the corridor into a field of play. Fireball was born.
Imagine a similar trio of boys in the plains of rural India on a Monday afternoon centuries ago. They are leaning against a banyan tree in a dusty clearing, bored senseless. One is swishing a two-foot-long rounded stick. Another is absently whittling a three-inch-long stick so that it is slightly tapered at each end. The third — by far the best looking of the trio — is staring into space.
Two sticks and a dusty clearing. They draw a circle on the ground, roughly four feet in diameter. The small stick (call it a gilli) is placed in the circle. The first boy hits one end of the gilli with his bat-like stick (call it a danda), propelling the smaller stick into the air. He then thwacks the spinning gilli as far as he can. The other two boys try to catch it. Gilli-danda is born.
It is equally possible that the story was played out in the foothills of the Himalayas or in a village in Cambodia or beside a Venetian canal in the time of Marco Polo. Boys are boys, and sticks are easy to find. Variations of the stick-on-stick game have emerged throughout the world, including the United States, where it is known as pee-wee.
But the modern heartland of the sport is India. In some places it is played interchangeably with cricket, and at first glimpse from a distance it is often difficult to work out if the game in progress is cricket or gilli-danda.
Some Indian nationalists have asserted that gilli-danda is the forerunner of cricket, though it is more likely that the widespread passion for the bat-and-ball game on the subcontinent altered the game play of the traditional pastime, which in turn fed back into cricket.
Indian cricketers are renowned for the wristy way they wield the bat to strike the ball. When you watch a boy using the danda to strike a gilli, you can see the prototype for that distinctive action. Similarly, the catchers in gilli-danda develop unique hand-eye coordination that they take onto the cricket field, leading to success and adulation.
A quarter of a century after my participation in the invention of fireball, I was walking along a street in the Spanish city of Valencia when a firecracker landed in front of me, spewing angry sparks. Instinctively I drew on my experience of kicking a tennis ball wrapped in flames. With a deft flick of my foot, I volleyed the firecracker into the empty road, where it exploded harmlessly.
The games an idle boy plays make the man.
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