“Sunday’s the only day I get some rest, but today you strip me off that respite,” said Ranjit.
“You rest your bum in your computer store all day six days a week. I’d say Sunday’s the only day you have a chance for some action! I invited you over because this is the kind of football game you will never have a chance to witness,” said Vipin, slightly turning his head. The biting morning air pricked his cheeks and ears.
Ranjit was never fond of winters. Even the suffocating, sultry summers of Delhi seemed better to him than the morbid shroud cast on the city in winters. As he sat behind Vipin on his motorcycle, his hands thrust deep inside his pockets, he could only see life coiling into itself from the coldness. There was a lethargy in all things living that surpassed drowsiness and inched towards misery; the dogs sleeping on the roadsides curled inwards desperately, clinging to their lives; the sweepers cleaning the streets seemed wary of being whipped cruelly any minute; the activity in general arrested, as if a curfew was in effect. It made the zip of the motorcycle sound like the harbinger of something nefarious. When they reached the community centre’s football field, even the grass appeared to be crying.
“Why are you playing a non-league game?” asked Ranjit.
“A friend asked me to. They didn’t have a goalie,” said Vipin, unzipping his bag.
“It still surprises me that you play as a goalkeeper, especially with your skilful feet,” said Ranjit as he watched Vipin put on his boots.
“I like stopping smug bastards,” said Vipin with a smirk.
“Not all strikers are smug, Vipin,” said Ranjit.
“Until they score,” he said, waving to his friend as he came running up to the two of them.
“It’s good that you brought another player, Vipin. Our opponents are one player short,” he said, huffing and puffing. Looking at him, Ranjit wondered how long he would last in the game. The meaning of his statement only struck him a minute later.
“Wait, what?” he said. Vipin looked at his friend, who shrugged in response. The two of them turned towards Ranjit. Plea and decisiveness coalesced into command in their combined stare. His silence served as the answer. The two of them nodded, while Ranjit gazed downward.
He tottered towards the field. He didn’t have to ask what position he would have to play. As opposed to Vipin, his was determined by his size.
“In case you find yourself one on one with the striker, make yourself as big as possible,” advised Vipin.
“Nature has done that already,” murmured Ranjit.
“You’re not that big. Look around, there’s at least four others bulkier than you!”
“I don’t see any of them in the goal.”
“That’s because they’re all on my team. I can’t help it that your team is full of skinny guys. Anyway, remember what I said, and don’t get distracted by him!” said Vipin before giving him a pat and running off.
“What do you mean?” asked Ranjit.
“You’ll know soon enough!” yelled Vipin. Ranjit knew he was in for a surprise, and he also knew it would most definitely be an unpleasant one.
“And it’s time for the kick-off for the long-awaited match. Both teams are on a good run, and with their respective playing styles, this has all the makings of a feisty contest!” Ranjit squinted his eyes to spot the source of the rasping voice echoing through the still air. It woke a couple of dogs on the fringes of goalpost’s by-line. They were not happy about it.
It was a player who took on the role of commentator, and Ranjit knew what Vipin had meant. The voice grew louder as the striker pranced through the half-sleeping defence. He was past them before they finished yawning.
“The opposition melts away as Ronak charges forward with menacing intent. The star forward just has the keeper to beat!” he yelled with as little effort as he had dribbled past players with. Ranjit tried moving but his knees wobbled. He stared at them helplessly, imploring them to budge. When he looked up, the striker was inside the penalty box. Despite his short frame, Ranjit felt overwhelmed. He finally managed to take a step forward but fell on his behind as the striker chipped the ball over him. The swish of the net was thunderous.
“What a start! Less than a minute on the clock and we have our first goal of the morning! Such composure by the striker! We have heard about ankle breakers, but Ronak has just shown the first cankle breaker!” Ronak continued running jubilantly with arms stretched to his sides. A few of his teammates slapped him on the back.
“I hate that bastard,” said one of his teammates as he helped Ranjit up. “Next time, I’m going to show him morning stars,” he said, shaking his fist. There was anger in the eyes of everyone on the team trailing. Ranjit had never felt so out of place.
When play resumed, the ball went to the other side of the pitch. The striker played a neat one-two with his partner before firing a shot towards the top corner.
“The opposition looks to respond quickly; clever passage of play between the two strikers. He lets fly! But oh, what a splendid stop by Vipin! That looked destined for the top corner, but Vipin got a strong hand to it. Had it been Ronak things would have been different!” The fact that his voice was so loud and nasally almost ruined the moment, but everyone appreciated Vipin’s effort. It wasn’t something they were used to seeing.
The ball next came to Ronak’s feet and he started weaving through defenders. Some flew into tackles but he jumped and sidestepped almost playfully. The last defender flew into a tackle but to no avail. He kicked the ball, and this time, everyone saw what they were used to seeing. Ranjit could only fall to his side as an attempt to stop the ball. It was even more embarrassing since the ball had rolled slowly through the gaping hole between his legs.
“The king of nutmegs has done it again!” he shrieked. It hurt Ranjit’s heart more than his ears. He was beginning to feel the anger his teammates felt, even understand Vipin’s take on all strikers.
A few minutes later, Ronak was on the move again. Ranjit could feel the blood pumping through his veins. The last defender threw a punch at him but Ronak spun around and continued. The sun was now up, and Ranjit could feel its rays powering his body.
For the second time that morning, everyone saw something they weren’t used to. Ranjit yelled beastly and charged forward. His deafening roar overpowered the whiny, pompous commenting. Even Ronak was taken aback. When he saw Ranjit committing recklessly, he tried a crossover. Ranjit wanted to leap in the air and knock the wind out of him. He did manage to do one of those things.
As he ran faster than he had in years, he slipped on the wet grass. He went sliding into Ronak, his round face driving into the striker’s stomach like a steaming engine. Such was the force that he remained fixed on Ranjit’s head mid-air as his body slid for another few yards.
“Always interesting to see people coming out of their shells,” said Vipin, laughing with the all the other players.