Sunil Kumar Lakra is preparing to face a new fast bowler.

He takes careful guard in his white flannels, a baseball cap firmly stuck on his head to block the sun. He takes a hefty swing, putting his sizeable bulk behind the shot and connects with a crack that sounds like a gunshot. The scattered guards around the small cricket field look towards the pitch and then look away again in disinterest. The ball loops over the 40-yard boundary and travels another 15 yards over the tree-lined path surrounding the field before sailing over a 20ft-high wall.

A ripple of applause runs around the ground, with some whistled encouragement and a few wisecracks.

If it wasn’t for that wall, it would be hard to imagine this was a prison.

Men on the field: (clockwise from above) Mahinder Bisht strikes a pose in front of the scoreboard; Nazir Khan takes a catch; Sunil Lakra tosses the ball up; coach Rajinder Pal gets his wards to warm up; and a match in progress at the Central Jail No. 1 ground. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint

On one side of the field run a series of walled compounds with cells.

Lakra, 25, is an undertrial charged with murder and has been in Tihar since December 2009. Before his arrest, he ran a water packaging plant and was busy bringing up his first child, a girl, with his wife. Now, his business has folded and he meets his children (a son was born when he was in prison) and his wife twice a week for half an hour.

His first year inside Tihar was one of utter despair.

“I was in severe depression," Lakra says. “Undertrials have no work, so you have the whole day and the whole night to think of your family, obsess about the case and kill yourself from the inside with anger and frustration. I was numb with pain."

In February, while the Indian cricket team was en route to winning the World Cup, Lakra found a way to break this cycle of despondency. The Tihar jail authorities, in collaboration with Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan, an NGO that works on prison reform and post-release rehabilitation, began an ambitious cricket training programme inside the jail. Some 200 inmates went through a rigorous selection procedure that included bowling at the nets, batting, fielding, throwing, catching and running.

The original list was pared to 134, and after another week’s training and trials, to 64.

Now, after almost three months of practice, Lakra captains the Central Jail No. 1 team, leading his ragtag squad with a quiet, commanding presence.

“I spend all my energy and focus on training now," he says. “Instead of rotting all day in a cramped cell, we come here and play, get tired, go back and eat and sleep. I get to know the other inmates according to their cricket skills and not their crime; it’s easier to make friends."

It’s ironic that cricket is Lakra’s lifeline now—he even dreams of rebuilding his life around it after his release, pushing for a corporate job on a sports quota or even a stint with a club—because he had set his mind on being a cricketer while in school, but got no support from his parents. “They stopped me from playing. I would be beaten if they found me practising even though I was in the school team. They wanted me to focus on my education."

22 yards of reform

The cricketers in Tihar cover every possible crime between them—murder, kidnapping, rape, honour killing, robbery, peddling or smuggling drugs, embezzlement, even terrorism. There’s Manu Sharma, Jessica Lal’s killer; and Santosh Singh, who raped and murdered his fellow law student Priyadarshini Mattoo. But many are also undertrials, and some, even though they have spent more than a decade behind bars, still vociferously proclaim their innocence.

On the field though, they are bowlers, batsmen or wicketkeepers, listening attentively to their 74-year-old coach Rajinder Pal’s instructions, padding up in anticipation, shadow-practising under the shade of a tree, running into the field with water bottles when needed, helping each other stretch or warm-up.

It’s the power of India’s most popular sport.

Bat behind bars: Shishir Mishra is serving a life sentence for kidnapping.

“I was warned, and I still am—‘be careful of these men’—but I don’t care, I treat them like I treat any other student," says Pal, who has been a coach for over 30 years, and runs an academy in Dehradun. As Delhi and North Zone captain in the 1970s, Pal is credited with turning Kapil Dev from a tearaway pacer into a well-rounded swing bowler.

When Pal first met the prisoners, he told them he wasn’t interested in knowing about their crimes. “My concern is only with their present and their future," Pal says. “What they have done can’t be undone, but what they do next is at least partly in their hands."

The 64 players are now divided into four teams and Pal says he is confident that at least one of these teams will be able to compete in the Delhi and District Cricket Authority (DDCA) leagues and corporate tournaments.

There are no other examples in the world of a sports team made up entirely of inmates competing in a professional league, so if Pal’s prediction comes true, it will be a huge leap in the field of prison reform.

Shishir Mishra, 34, serving a life term for kidnapping since 2004, says cricket will also help the prisoners reintegrate into society after release.

“This way, we stay better connected to what normal life is like," says Mishra. “Otherwise spending 10, 12, 15 years inside, you lose all touch of living in normal society."

Inside Tihar, it’s a rare privilege to be part of the cricket team. Only 15 out of the approximately 1,200 prisoners in each of the six jails that the programme now covers get to train.

Raju Chakraborty, a 24-year-old serving a life term for murder, uses sport to fight the urge to do drugs. “Cricket is my addiction," he says, “and keeps me away from more dangerous addictions."

Swami Vishalanand, project coordinator for Divya Jyoti at Tihar, points out that cricket is the perfect medium for reform and rehabilitation because of its potential to inculcate a wide range of positive behavioural patterns—dedication, discipline, decision making, concentration, crisis management, man management and, of course, physical well-being.

“Imprisonment is a big shock for anyone," says Vishalanand, “and all the inmates who come in spiral down a path of negative thought processes. With cricket, we want to break through that and make them focus on learning life skills."

More coaches are being brought in from Pal’s cricket academy in Dehradun and plans are on to teach prisoners umpiring, as well as how to make grass and concrete pitches.

“All these things can help them find a profession," says Vishalanand. “They can work with sports equipment manufacturers, where knowledge and experience of the sport is essential, or as groundskeepers or pitch builders for other academies."

Tihar introduced sports as one of its many prison reform initiatives in 2004 when the first annual “Tihar Olympics" was held. Prisoners got a month to prepare for the multidisciplinary event that includes chess, carom, cricket, badminton, volleyball, kabaddi and kho kho. Inmates trained each other and basic equipment was provided by the jail authorities.

“This is the first time we have introduced a structured sports training programme that will run year-round under the supervision of accredited coaches," says Tihar Prisons public relations officer (PRO) Sunil Gupta.

The equipment and infrastructure costs come from the prison welfare fund.

Nazir Khan, a 40-year-old Pakistani national serving a life term for his involvement in the kidnapping of an American in New Delhi, says that till the cricket training programme was introduced, sports was just paid lip service because “even Tendulkar will not be able to put bat to ball if he played only for one month a year".

Khan, who has spent 17 years in Tihar, looks like he could fit right into any cricket team in the world. Standing at a shade over 6ft, he is built like an athlete and plays with the straightest of bats, a skill he acquired facing seriously fast bowlers in the streets of Karachi, where he grew up immersed in sports and martial arts.

“Before 1994, when Kiran Bedi started changing things, you couldn’t step out of your wards," Khan says. “If they called your name on the loudspeaker and asked you to come to this ground here, which was just a dirt patch, you would be trembling and stuttering in fear. Prisoners assembled here for punishments."

Bedi, who was originally responsible for making Tihar the first prison facility in India based on reform instead of punishment when she was appointed inspector general of prisons, turned the punishment ground into a meditation area and an open school.

Khan built the current ground, now covered in grass, with his own hands, along with other inmates.

Crime and rehabilitation

Tihar’s reform-based system of incarceration includes meditation and spiritual classes, yoga, vocational training in carpentry, electrical repair, baking, a paper-making unit, a unit making herbal colours and recycled bags, and a job-placement programme introduced in 2010 that found post-release work for all 43 prisoners who posted their CVs.

“We measure the success of our rehabilitation programmes by looking at the number of repeaters," says Gupta. “It used to be as high as 30% around six years back. It has been steadily dropping since then and now stands at 19%. The jail population is reducing every day as well. We had around 14,000 inmates in 2007, and now we have around 11,500" (the sanctioned capacity for Tihar is 6,250).

There is proof too in the effusive environment of the cricket ground and the tireless work inmates put into the training.

“We still need to complete our mushakkat (daily labour) before we can come on to the cricket ground," says Mahinder Bisht, a 31-year-old serving a life term for murder. “I have to produce 1.5 quintals of mustard oil a day, which usually takes about 8 hours. Now, I finish my work in 4 and I’m exhausted, but I make sure I get to training every day. When I come here, the exhaustion melts away.

“I’ve got two-three years left in my sentence and I’m holding on to cricket for dear life," says Bisht. “The time will pass quickly and I’ll be free."

Not likely. Bisht is also under trial for a double homicide in Uttarakhand.

Scepticism about the reform method though remains widespread among the guards and officers in Tihar. Most prisoners say they have a hard time convincing the guards to let them play. “They want us to live like slaves."

The kind of empowerment sports gives you, they point out, undermines the iron control of the warders and the police.

“The top officers are supportive of this system," says Pal, “but still we find it hard to get all 64 prisoners to come for training every day because the authorities stop them."

Sometimes, in quiet moments, the strained veneer of optimism among the inmates starts cracking. A certain melancholy drapes the players towards the end of training. The undertrials are the worst affected and they comprise almost 88% of Tihar’s population.

“You can spend six years inside this jail as an undertrial and then get acquitted," says Khan. “What kind of a system is that? What’s left of your earlier life after so many years in prison for a crime you didn’t even commit?"

At the end of the day, the talk inevitably turns to crime and punishment, corruption in the judiciary and police, the plight of the poor in finding justice, and the hopelessness of being behind bars.

Most prisoners claim they have been framed, except for a thin young man who is introduced as an honour killer. He smiles widely and says, “There’s a lot of bad press about honour killing isn’t it?" And then in a whisper: “But it’s necessary, right? Otherwise all the girls will turn into whores."

Bisht proudly volunteers that Khan’s name was on the list of prisoners the Kandahar hijackers wanted in exchange for the hostages in 1999, and Khan calmly denies it.

Others speak of the murder of a police officer in Meerut which led to the residents of the town distributing sweets in celebration.

“You know, I came here when I was 26," says Mishra, who claims he was framed in the kidnapping case. “My life was just starting, business was going well, I was going to get married, have children…"

“Can the poor survive without crime?" he says suddenly, “Can you survive in Delhi with a family earning 3,000-4,000 a month?"

Only so much despair, it seems, can be swallowed up by a cricket pitch.