An eye for an eye, a mole for a mole
Members of the Raigadh cantonment eleven returned to the pavilion, while those of Champaner remained, crowding round for a strategy session.
“Listen, every one. Alacrity! Alacrity is the order of the day. Pounce on the ball as a tiger would on its prey. Let the whites work for their runs. As a gift from us, they should receive none. Remember, there is absolutely nothing to fear. Truth is on our side. Now are we all clear!”
There were affirmations of every kind at the captain’s words of wisdom and exhortation. Enthusiastic ayes, equanimous okays, barely convincing yet positive yeas, and there was one particular nod that was deceitful and devious. None noticed it and even if they had chanced, would not have believed it. At least not yet.
“Victory to us!” roared Gurran, as eleven fists pumped the air together.
The opening pair of batsmen walked in – Smith and Burton they were, as had been decided the day before, during their practice session.
“Deva, you take the responsibility of bowling first, the others spread out uniformly and station yourselves mid-way between the wicket and the boundary. Ishwar kaka, please do not let any ball missed by the batsmen, get past you. We do not want to concede extra runs,” the instructions came rapidly from the captain.
Some people had this knack of directing others with precise instructions, thinking and deciding logically, and quickly.
“Play,” called out umpire Neilson, signaling to Deva to commence bowling.
The first ball of the match was driven by Smith to his left. The fielders converged upon it quickly. The first to reach it picked it up and returned it to Deva. A single had been taken by the batsmen in the meanwhile.
The second ball was faced by Burton who flicked it to his right and sprinted across for another run. The fielders again converged upon it, all nine of them, starting from their respective positions around the ground that they were stationed in, before the ball was bowled.
This was a point of hilarity for those seated in the pavilion and were in the know of the game of cricket. “That’s amusing! It is a new concept in fielding I suppose,” said one, laughing.
“What do they think they are doing?” said another frowning.
Bhuvan who had not intervened the first time, attributing their conduct to the initial excitement and assuming that it would not be repeated, felt that he should get this sorted out immediately. He called the others to himself and administered a chiding.
“Why do you all rush after the ball? Only those towards whose general direction the ball is hit need to go after it. Save your energy. It is going to be a long game. It is not like our practice sessions. This is a real match.”
The others hung their heads down and lumbered back to their positions.
Bhura made a dramatic dive to stop the ball off a drive in the following delivery to deny any further addition to the score.
The next ball from Deva was hit hard by Smith towards Lakha. The venom of hatred still had its hold on his judgment. Enfeebled was its stranglehold, but it retained adequate strength to yet warp thoughts. The fielder bent down feigning an effort to stop the ball and let it through between his palms. The ball sped onwards to the boundary. Lakha put up show of being distraught, ran to the fence to retrieve the ball, and threw it back. His mates looked at him with annoyance, a couple with suspicion too, at which the errant fielder just shrugged his shoulders.
Captain Russell seated in the pavilion watching all this had a devious smile playing on his lips.
To retaliate with spite when bested by an opponent is a common and normal occurrence in any sphere of human activity. Unless well controlled, such a reaction invariably leads to a further setback. Deva felt slighted at being hit for a four and upset at being let down by his fielder. He was all pumped up when he came dashing in to bowl the next delivery. In his state of ferment, he overstepped the bowling crease unnoticed by all but the umpire.
The delivery was faster than usual laden as it was with malevolence and forced its way through the batsman’s defenses to shatter the stumps. There was jubilation all around but abrupt and short lived, as the voice of Neilson rose above the din calling, “No Ball!” his hand signaling the observation.
A normally disciplined Deva realized the blunder of letting his emotions get the better of him as he walked back to recommence his labor. The next ball was a sedate affair in comparison to the two earlier ones with a single being scored and it marked the end of the first over of the match.
The score stood at 8 for no loss.
“That is a rather spirited start I should say!” commented Major Cotton, ever inclined to express his impression.
“Kachra! Here hold it.” Bhuvan threw the ball to his ace spinner.
Unfortunately for the local team, Elizabeth had forgotten to caution them about the fact that a ball will not spin while it retains its shine. How much of a game could be learnt based on advice alone? It is experience that matters more, of which they had not any, in terms of playing real matches.
The captain positioned a few close in fielders urging them to be alert for catches that may ensue from the batsman being caught unawares by Kachra’s spinning ball. That was however not to be. Not only was there no spin, the boundary also being inadequately guarded gave the batsmen the dual advantage of slow straight balls to be hit into the wide gaps for easy and unchallenged fours.
It was almost a massacre of the bowling with 19 runs being score of the hapless man’s over. Bhuvan was aghast. So was Elizabeth. She wanted to run across to the play area to acquaint Bhuvan of his folly or rather her own, for she should have apprised them about the idiosyncrasies of the cricket ball long back. But she realized that the umpires would not allow it. The captain asked the clueless bowler why he failed at it, and got only a bewildered look for an answer.
The scored had raced to 27 without loss at the end of the second over.
Deva who continued from the other end bowled a much tighter line and length giving the batsmen no room to play their strokes. He came close to taking a wicket again in his second over, this time thwarted by the treachery of Lakha who intentionally dropped an easy catch.
The bowler was livid, the others no less. It seemed strange that a man who fielded well and hardly let go anything past or through his hands during the practice sessions, should suddenly develop butter fingers. Suspicions began to germinate.
The third over yielded only two runs and the score was pegged at 29 for no loss.
Bhuvan decided to persist with Kachra one more time. Perhaps it was fright that made him lose control of his ability. May be the little time that they had been in the field had acclimatized him and eased his anxiety. He may possibly bowl more effectively this over. But his hopes were misplaced as they were bound to be.
It was another disaster of an over – 21 runs being scored of it and the total leaping to 50.
“I have not seen a more one sided match,” put in Cotton. Others around found truth in what he said this time and had to agree.
Deva continued with his spell. He was yet again a victim of Lakha’s disloyalty. Smith, who knew about the mole, was aiming his shots in his direction, certain of the fact that the ball would not be stopped from reaching the boundary. Every time this happened, Russell would sport a perverse smile and look at Colonel Boyer. Here he was – directing one team and pulling the strings of the other, while the rest thought it was a great match. His mole was playing the part to perfection. He would teach a thing or two to these senile men in uniform about strategy and tactics.
12 runs came of the over and the score had run away to 62.
“A deer hunt in the forest would have been more exciting,” remarked Cotton much to the consternation of a tensed Elizabeth.
The fielding team members gathered around to discuss a change in the line of attack in the face of such an onslaught from the opposition.
“Remove, Kachra!” cried Lakha hoping to direct all ire upon the poor bowler.
“You were no better!” countered Deva, who had been the primary victim of his deliberate lapses.
“We will play the blame game later,” interjected Bhuvan, “Kachra cannot continue. We need to replace him with some one else. Who should it be?”
The players looked at each other, not wanting to be the one to bell the cat.
“You bowl, Bhuvan,” said Ismail, “You are our next best after Deva and Kachra. It is only logical that you take over.”
The dour faced captain consented and prepared to send down his first over of the match. Smith looked around to mark the position of his favorite fielder.
Bhuvan bowled and the batsman swiped at it. The ball had not come at the anticipated speed and angle. It was different bowler, a dissimilar grip, a distinct slant, and the ball veered a little from its intended direction. Bhura whose diving skills had been well honed by his fowl baiting procedures lunged to his left.
An unaware Smith was almost half-way down the pitch seeking a run. Burton on the other hand had sensed danger and was shouting frantically at his partner to get back. But the die was cast and the deed was done.
Bhura’s unerring throw hit the stumps catching the astonished batsman well short of the line of safety. Umpire Doherty had no qualms about arriving at his decision, and his finger was up even as the fielders were in the process of appealing.
The batting team had lost their first wicket.
The seemingly invincible, suddenly appeared vulnerable. The champion of the episode, Bhura was riding on the shoulders of two of his mates. Grins were suddenly in abundance where grimness had ruled until moments ago.
Russell strode in.
The fall of one wicket was no bother. The rival captains passed each other on their way to their respective positions. They paused briefly, as the furious eyes of each endeavored to shower infinite ire on the other.
“That enlivens things! This is more like a hunt that I would have preferred.” It couldn’t have been anyone but Cotton.
Boyer looked at his deputy quizzically. He knew he was not a prejudiced man. The problem with him was more pseudo-anatomical – that of the mouth being in too close a proximity to the mind, giving thoughts a free and ready outlet.
Bhuvan’s next four deliveries were well-bowled. The prudence of Russell and the intensity of Bhuvan kept the score from moving ahead. But the infidelity of Lakha in letting a drive through to the boundary deprived the bowling captain of what could have been a wicket maiden.
The score read 66 for 1.
“It is time you got a bit of rest, Deva,” said the captain to his ace bowler, “Let Goli take your place now.”
The farmer turned cricketer swung his arms around a few times to ease his muscles. The batsmen watched him. The bowler came hurrying in swinging his right arm continuously around like a speeding cartwheel. The batsmen weren’t sure whether he continued to ease his muscles or whether this was part of the bowling action. The bowler came to a standstill next to the umpire with the speed of his cartwheeling arm increasing.
The batsmen were beginning to be mesmerized. The striker’s head in particular started to swing laterally in tandem with the undulating arm, in a bid to spot the moment of release of the ball. Despite this concerted exertion, he failed to glimpse the discharge and its flight past him to the wicket keeper.
A perplexed Burton complained to his captain, “Did you watch that, Sir? This is ridiculous.”
“I know,” said the captain, himself mystified, and walking over to umpire Doherty, said, “Sir, this is not bowling. He cannot be allowed to swing his arm so many times.”
The fielding side realized from Russell’s tone and manner that he was protesting Goli’s action and gathered around the umpire with their own counter protests. Doherty signaled to Neilson and the two got together.
Sensing trouble brewing, Elizabeth could not contain herself and hurried out to the field.
“Is there any problem?” she asked panting from the rushed walk.
“Yes, there is,” interceded her brother, “this man cannot bowl the way he does.”
Without looking at Russell, the girl addressed the umpires “Sir, Is there anything written in the rule book that this cannot be done?”
The arbitrators conferred again and Doherty declared, “There is nothing written in the rule book to this effect and it is time that something was.”
A smirk began to form on Russell’s face but was immediately arrested when the umpire continued, “That I suppose can be done only after this game. So for now, we proceed with the match.”
The siblings stood staring at each other. Within the span of an over, yet another war of incensed sights was waged on the field.
Cotton was ecstatic. “Oh! What fare! What fare!” he exclaimed in sincere delight.
Burton’s concentration had been broken. He had decided that Goli’s bowling was unplayable. He had got himself out even before he was. The next ball from the controversial bowler only completed the formality by uprooting his stumps.
The score was 66 for 2 and disquiet began to cloud Russell’s mind.
However, while Burton had been fretting, he had been watching the bowler from close quarters and noticed that just before he released the ball he grunted loudly. He communicated his observation to the next batsman - Brooks. The new batsmen did show a bit of nervousness initially, but following his captain’s advice and encouragement, soon mastered the technique of negotiating the baffling bowling action. From then on, it was a glorious batting display by the two men.
Russell played brilliantly. Fluent in his drives; Graceful in his sweeps; Awesome in his hooks; Flowing in his lofts; Elegant in his blocks; Both generous and tactical in his rotation of strike.
His talent invoked a rare praise from Colonel Boyer himself, who remarked, “Even W.G.Grace couldn’t have played better.”
Cotton, needless to mention was an incoherent bundle of superlative approbation.
The score zoomed to 182 for 2 at the end of the day’s play. Russell was on 62 and Brooks who had ably supported his captain was on 52.
The fielding side had their chances too. One was a certain success that Lakha spilled as fealty to his newfound master. Another was a possible attainment that was never expected.
The guiltless culprit was Baga whose ability to catch a ball was next to nothing. No one had expected him to hold on to it when it came his way and he obliged them. The bruised and battered fielding team gathered in the tent to tend to their wounds.
“You were the culprit of the day, Lakha,” began Ismail in a bid to analyze the happenings of the day.
The mole panicked. It tried to redirect the culpability as before on the weakest member of the team.
“What did this Kachra do? I cautioned you all about not including a cripple in the team, but in vain. He caused much more damage.”
“Yes,” retorted Ismail, “the man is lame and crippled, yet he tried. You with your two good arms and legs did not bother to do even that.”
Bhuvan intervened once again to prevent the fracas from getting out of hand, “We will concentrate on the plan of action for tomorrow rather than washing linen in public.”
Though the upsurge was contained for the time being, the general animosity towards Lakha was getting more intense and widespread.
Unmindful of the night breeze whipping her hair, Elizabeth paced around the balcony adjoining her room. It was a beautiful, circular area with a dome shaped canopy. She had always liked to sit under the high ceiling and observe the carvings on the wall and the roof. That day, though, her thoughts were far away from the architectural beauty of the place.
The day’s play hadn’t gone the home team’s way. It had been a very good batting performance by the officers of the cantonment. Elizabeth wondered whether her faith in the abilities of the villagers was justified. None of them seemed to be able to contain the assault of her brother and his men. There had been some moments of brilliance on the part of the home team – Bhura’s fielding had been good. Deva had bowled well in patches.
Bhuvan... and as she thought of Bhuvan, her reflections veered away from the reality of the game and took her into the dream world she had constructed for herself. But the gravity of the situation brought her back. If they had to make a match of it, the villagers would have to do better. They would be smothered by the opposition if things continued to go the same way.
As one incoherent thought raced the other, her mind called up disjointed images that flashed so rapidly one after the other that she didn’t know which were real and which were not.
She saw the stumps behind Smith being uprooted by one of Deva’s deliveries, the elation of the players, and then the no ball signaled by the umpire… And then Bhura’s brilliant aim dislodging the stumps and catching Smith outside his crease. It had been on Bhuvan’s bowling. Of course, he hadn’t done anything much in the dismissal except sweep Bhura of his feet, but at least, it had been on his bowling... Bhuvan was calling her, but she could not locate him in the dense fog and just as she thought she should call back, someone caught her hand. She turned, thankful that he had come, only to look into the feeling-less eyes of her brother… She remembered one particular shot that her brother had hit of Ismail – the ball had soared over the boundary line and the striker had looked at her seated in the pavilion and smiled as if to say, ‘Take that, Eliza. Your helping hand isn’t going to save them.’ What she had done when she had intervened in Goli’s favor during the midfield altercation about his bowling action had incensed him, no doubt, but it was necessary. The villagers needed Goli to continue to bowl the same way. And it had paid off. He had Burton packed off to the pavilion. She knew she would have to face some more of his angry rebukes but she was not too concerned. She had done it for Bhuvan… She was riding the bullock-cart with Bhuvan, dressed in the clothes of a village lass. Bhuvan exclaimed how beautiful she was and she felt herself soar away... away...
It was in this state of delirium that Elizabeth noticed a shadow passing through the gates of the cantonment. It was there, and then suddenly it wasn’t. She shook her head to steady herself and peered again into the gloom to confirm what she had seen moments ago.
And then she saw it again, as it passed under the glaring light of a lamp–the shadow, looking around furtively before moving again. Elizabeth made herself obscure behind a pillar and tried to discern the shrouded silhouette. It seemed to be a man, covered in a mantle, bent a little in an effort to mask himself completely.
Though Elizabeth couldn’t make out anything regarding him, what she did notice, as the shadow moved through the light thrown by another lamp were the hands that closely cloaked the body. She recognized them to be the hands of a native, and Elizabeth wondered who would be making a detour to the cantonment thus shrouded.
She watched until the shadow moved into the mansion. It seemed to be heading towards Andrew’s private quarters. What really surprised Elizabeth was the willingness of the guard to allow entrance to the veiled man. A native, who didn’t look like a servant, being admitted into her brother’s quarters?
‘Funny,’ thought the girl, not having the right feeling about what she was seeing.
She needed to investigate. Heart racing, mind working out possibilities, each one more improbable than the other, she rushed into her room, donned her cloak and sprinted down the stairs, not bothering to return the greetings of the stunned servants. She saw two women put their heads together and whisper and stopped abruptly in her dash to Andrew’s study, for that is where she decided to start from.
No, she would have to be more prudent in her moves. Such an obvious attempt would arouse suspicion and Elizabeth had no illusion about who most of the servants at the mansion were loyal to – word of her behavior would reach her brother very soon. She smiled at the two women who were now staring at her open-mouthed, and walked slowly and purposefully towards Andrew’s bedroom, exclaiming loudly to an orderly who was stationed outside. “Seva, I know that the Captain is currently in his study but I am going to wait for him in his room. I don’t suppose that would be problem?”
She smiled at the man as he bowed low and said, “As madam wishes.”
“I would also like no one to be in the vicinity of the place while I wait and then talk to the Captain.”
The man bowed again, not too convincingly this time.
“It is all right, Seva. I hope you don’t think me capable of stealing anything from the Captain’s room?”
The man inclined his head again and scurried off, looking scandalized.
Elizabeth smiled to herself as she thought, ‘Good work, sister. You played it like your brother would have.’
Looking around to make sure that the servant had obeyed and that no one else was watching, she carefully made her way to Russell’s study.
To her luck, the curtain across the door was not pulled over to cover the entrance and though the glass-paned door was shut, she could make out the faint outline of three men in the room. She narrowed her eyes and moved closer for further scrutiny. She discerned her brother sitting in the chair behind his desk and Lieutenant Smith lounging carelessly on another.
She had difficulty in making out who the third person was, but she dared not move any closer to the door. It was this unknown person who was talking in the native tongue. She could just catch snatches of the conversation. “I hope I was of use…” “You will continue doing the work...”
The man then turned to face the door and Elizabeth almost let out a scream. She recognised him. He was from Champaner and was in the cricket team. “Lakha! Oh, no!” she whispered in shock.
But everything seemed to fit in perfectly with this piece of the puzzle solved. Andrew discovering about her regular trips to the village, Lakha joining in, despite his initial abhorrence to the idea of the match, his sloppy fielding that day on field. It all made sense to Elizabeth now.
Her mind was in a whirl. She needed to inform the villagers immediately about the mole in their ranks.
But would they believe her or would they trust one of their own, if Lakha denounced the allegations?
What would Bhuvan think of her then?
But she couldn’t even rest without doing anything about this.
She looked back into the room and saw Lakha bowing to her brother and the Captain bestowing upon him a sinister smile. Elizabeth’s mind was made up immediately. She would go to the village.
She ran back to her apartments, not bothering to be discreet, calling as she went, “Ram Singh! Come to my room at once.”
The gathering was a very somber one. Though there were scores of people seated in the village square, not a voice could be heard. Each man, woman, and child was contemplating the first day’s events and praying silently for the next day to be better for the village team.
The heavy silence was shattered by the sound of a carriage approaching from the direction of the cantonment. All heads turned to watch as the carriage stopped a little distance away, and Ram Singh jumped down to open the door.
Elizabeth got off only to find the villagers regarding her with surprise. Her step faltered. Did they already know something? Bhuvan got up and came up to her. “Memsahib? You here at this hour?” he enquired. “Anything wrong?”
Lakha was observing her countenance with some apprehension. He had heard her call for Ram Singh as he was leaving the cantonment and she had sounded quite hysterical.
“Yes,” replied the white lady. “Bhuvan, there is something that I have to tell you. Something you all need to know.”
Bhuvan wondered whether it was that which she had tried to tell him some days ago. He dismissed the idea, though. He didn’t think she would have hesitated so much that day if it had been something that she wanted to tell the whole village. He realized he would have to wait for that to come out and in words that he could understand.
The Mukhiya approached the pair and asked, “What is it, child?”
“It is about someone in the team, Sir.”
Lakha’s head jerked up.
“I don’t know whether you will believe me or not, but I felt it was my duty to inform you...” She looked around uncomfortably.
Gauri smiled at Elizabeth encouragingly. She felt a lot friendlier towards the woman after Bhuvan’s confession of love.
“What is it, Memsahib?” Taking a deep breath, Elizabeth said, “I know this might come as a shock to you all but…” And she went on to relate all that she had seen and overheard from outside the door of Russell’s study.
Lakha sat there, listening to himself being unmasked, not being able to move a muscle as hundreds of pairs of burning eyes turned to regard him. When Elizabeth finished her account, there was complete silence, a silence that Lakha found very suffocating. He did not have the courage to look into the eyes of the villagers.
“Lakha!” It was the Mukhiya’s outburst. “Is this true? Is what the lady saying true?”
Lakha knew he had a very slim chance of escape but stood up nonetheless. The cornered man looked heavenward and prayed, ‘God save me.’
End of Chapter 8