The monsoon is perhaps the most evocative of India’s seasons; it draws out different senses in different people, whether memories of Bollywood’s most romantic scenes, of hot tea and bhajiyas, or hilsa and khichri, of singing in the rain, of school being shut because of flooding. For me monsoon memories are all (okay, largely) about the sport of my boyhood: three sports, to be precise. I’m a sports journalist but nothing I do now can match the near-organic bonds I had with sport in those days.

The first, and most important, was football. If winter was the cricket season and spring was hockey, the rains were all about shunning those relatively effete sports and getting muddy—sliding tackles, grazed knees, a mouthful of mud and grass after being upended, and the endorphin rush that only football could give. All we needed was the ball—I’d usually get a football for my birthday, which fell during the monsoon—and a couple of bricks for goalposts, a half-dozen willing conscripts, and we were set. I’d call football the king of sports but that would undermine its joyously plebeian simplicity. No need to figure out the complexity of the LBW rule, no need for bat and stumps, no need for a hockey stick or to argue over whether the ball had hit the foot. No need to figure out how many overs per side; just start playing and stop when you want, the team ahead on goals has won.

I’ve played football in all seasons and all sorts of weather, I’ve played on baked earth and on a rooftop paved with tiny pebbles (my knees bear the scars of several slides along that pebble-encrusted surface), on lush grass and on tarmac, but nothing beats playing in the mud on a rainy day. This is as atavistic as sport can get—along with track and field events, swimming, wrestling and horseracing.

It wasn’t just the football we played; it was the football we listened to, on the radio. This was in the days when the Calcutta Football League was without equals and had the most celebrated, if not all the best, players in the country. Matches were held in the afternoon,with live commentary on AIR (All India Radio); I can recall the dry, crisp tones of Ajoy Bose and the more excitable Sukumar Samajpati, their mastery of their craft revealing a bias only in the Brazilian “gooooaaal" they chanted when a big-team player scored and the half-syllable, almost embarrassed “gol" they spat out when one of the minnows dared to score.

Even football, though, paled in machismo against the bloodlust and body tackles of rugby; our house overlooked the local rugby ground and I had a grandstand view of this faintly mysterious sport which, in those days, rarely ventured beyond its tiny circles in Bombay and Calcutta. It wasn’t just the physicality that made it different, and therefore attractive to a teenager; rugby had its own set of rituals and traditions that made it almost like a Freemasons cult. For one, it was a motley crew of players—Armenians, Jews, Chinese; boxwallahs, schoolboys and ordinary policemen—found in no other sport. And then there were the songs, sung loudly and lustily after every season final, the revelry going on till fairly late into the night—and the songs turning bluer, and my young ears turning redder, with each successive round of drinks.

That was probably the dirtiest rugby got; they played hard but fair and what to the outside seemed like a brutal sport actually had a strict and clear code of dos and don’ts. The rivalries were clear—CCFC (Calcutta Cricket & Football Club) against Bombay Gym, Armenians against LMOB (La Martiniere Old Boys)—and there was some fairly-spirited barracking from the crowds, but once the match was over the losers formed a guard of honour to applaud the winners off the field.

There was muck, of course, of the literal kind, for rugby was played in the high monsoon, July-September, under perpetually grey skies and on a surface little better than a bog. I never played rugby (I hid behind my high-powered glasses) but my friend Sheel, who did, says this was the best time to play. Hard, dry pitches made for scabs and cuts that never healed; over-muddy boots and rugby balls simply had to be washed down to be usable.

A world away from the mud and mayhem of rugby was the summer’s third sport, Wimbledon. I played football, I watched rugby at the rugby ground; Wimbledon came to me via grainy and flickering black-and-white television images, that too only the singles finals. Yet those images are clear in my mind. I wasn’t much of a tennis fan but others in my family were and watching the men’s singles final became almost a ceremonial occasion. The match would be on a Saturday evening, starting at 6.30pm sharp and usually, in those serve-and-volley days, ending in time for dinner. The family would gather around the TV and, though not all of us were paying attention (or, dare I say it, even understanding what was going on), there would be much chatter and comment. These were the Borg years and the comments were inevitably aimed at his appearance. “Why can’t he shave?" “He needs a haircut." But if Björn Borg didn’t match up to the gentlemanly Arthur Ashe, he was positively saintly compared to his successor, the all-swearing, all-shouting John McEnroe. “What an awful, badly-behaved man."

Things changed even more drastically soon after. School and growing up got in the way of the leisurely radio afternoons and rugby evenings; they were spent in studying for the boards and, when the teens turned to majority, more diverse interests.

Calcutta’s football lost its hold on me and within years we’d left our house overlooking the rugby ground (but still within earshot on exceptionally noisy finals nights). Tennis too wasn’t the same once I left home—and, in a funny way, I find it hard now to relate to the saturation HD telecast, the many camera angles, the Vijay Amritraj commentary. There aren’t even monsoons where I now live. But come June I know it’s raining in Calcutta; I know the football, now dressed up in corporate gear, will be in full swing; I know the rugby players, though representing teams that didn’t exist back then, will be assembling for the line-outs. And I’ll still push myself to watch the Wimbledon men’s singles final—unless life gets in the way.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.

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