At home in the Punjab, in India's north-west, Kuljit Singh would play cricket in the streets. Because he had to.
“That's all there was,” he explains. “A tennis ball, on the dirt with your mates in any space you could find. It was crap.”
And if they found a grass wicket to play on, they would get up at 5am and seize control and occupy it.
“Then we would tell people it was ours today.”
Now his gaze sweeps the green oasis that is Te Puke Domain, with its centerpiece, manicured wicket and tall perimeter of trees offering shade and whispering in the breeze. It is cricket bliss.
“In the Punjab, we would dream about this. But down here, we are living the dream,” says the young Sikh. “We love this country.”
He loves it because it gave him opportunity – he studied IT and business and is now store manager with
Restaurant Brands at KFC Gate Pa. He also loves it because he met registered nurse Daljeet Kaur here, married her and is now planning a family. And he loves it because he can play cricket every day, on a grass wicket or in the nets, with 5.7 ounces of real red cricket ball.
“If you see or meet an Indian, he will want to play cricket or talk about cricket.”
All of this goes part-way towards an understanding of the Singh XI – a local cricket team branded by a faith. A bunch of guys from the Punjab who share a culture, a language, and are inseparable buddies.
And like 54,593,224 other Indians, who according to a government study play cricket and are cricket crazy, if they are not at work, studying, with their wives or girlfriends or asleep, they are playing or practicing cricket.
The numbers might not be strictly accurate, but they're not absurd either. India is a nation of 160 million TVs and 400 million people will watch a big game. They're passionate about cricket and passionate about winning.
“When we win, we sit around and drink beer,” says Kuljit Singh, “but if we lose we go straight home. We don't even talk to each other.” The sulking lasts until the next day when they turn out to practice to figure why they lost, and to put things right. The Singh XI takes its cricket seriously - they like to be taken seriously and they like to be competitive.
Take a squiz in the Singh XI scorebook. The openers are Singh and Singh. First drop is also a Singh and its Singh, Singh, Singh all the way down the batting order. A Singh also opens the bowling. “Not all are Singhs, but most are,” says Kiljit.
In egalitarian Sikhism, it's part of Sikh baptism to take the name Singh – it eliminates any discrimination based on a family name which would give away someone's caste of social hierarchy.
Kiljit, another Singh, was just 22 when he arrived in New Zealand from the Punjab in 2010 with a mate.
He was a young man with oodles of charm, a ready smile, Bollywood good looks and a yearning for the game.
“We saw these guys playing cricket on the domain in Te Puke. We asked if we could join in and how we could get involved in cricket in New Zealand. They asked us along to practice.”
That's when they were delivered a few doosras - a few wrong-uns - some of life's unplayable deliveries.
“They selected me to play in their team but not my mate. He was very disappointed.” But this was a package deal, take one Singh, take both Singhs.
So the cricket bug lay dormant for a couple of years while they studied.
It was awakened by Tuesday night twilight cricket – 16-over, eight ball cricket on a Tuesday night in Te Puke. Cricketers everywhere. They summoned some more Singhs, got a team together, got some gear and raised the fees.
But it didn't satisfy the lust. “We played with an orange ball – not a white or red one – and it didn't feel like real cricket,” says Kiljit. “It wasn't taking us anywhere, it wasn't developing our game.”
But then more cracks appeared in the wicket. Being assimilated into New Zealand cricket would be a difficult journey - more of a test match than a T20. “We asked another Indian team, a reserve grade side, if we could practice with them. They were out on the field and we were barefoot in the nets and playing with a tennis ball.”
They weren't impressed, so Kuljit and his mates challenged them to a duel. “Let's see what you guys are made of,” said Kuljit. “We lost, but the game went to the last over. It was a bunch of nobodies against a club reserve.”
There was a lesson in the loss. “It told us we could play cricket.”
So the boys held a meeting, collected some money and bought some gear. “Just two of everything.”
They were getting serious. They wanted to play regular competitive club cricket.
“We also had to learn how to run a scorebook.” Daunting, because a cricket scorebook is like a complex spreadsheet. Every aspect of a game is recorded. “We didn't have scorebooks in India – we just counted runs on our hands and remembered it.”
The Singh XI made the B grade final that year but wasn't allowed promotion to reserve grade because they weren't champions. The goalposts started moving.
“When we won the championship the following season, a meeting of clubs decided we couldn't play reserve grade because we weren't affiliated to a club.” To overcome that obstacle they formed a club, registered with the association, elected a chairman and secretary and ticked off all the formalities.
“But they decided we still couldn't play reserve grade because we needed two teams in the club – if we were to play reserve grade, we needed a B grade team as well.” It seems every time the Singh XI met one criteria, they were confronted with another.
“We felt they were being unnecessary, they were being mean,” says Kiljit. “It made us feel really bad.” But the boys from the Punjab have a certain resilience, a will to overcome. They weren't about to let rejection affect them.
They just went out and formed another team. It couldn't play competition games but it could fill in the bye games in the five team B grade competition when another team withdrew. So there would be cricket every weekend. And it was enough to be playing.
The Albion Cricket Club had played alongside the Singh XI in B grade, was aware of the team's potential and offered to take it in. “Albion's an affiliated club, and they said if you really wanted to play reserve grade and grow your game, come play for us,” says Kuljit. “They've been playing for a long time and no-one could say no to them.” And no-one did.
Albion wrote a letter to the association on the Singh XI's behalf saying there was every good reason the team should be playing at reserve grade. “The team decided that because Albion backed us, we will back them. We will make your club get up and go.”
And they're doing that, on the field each week. Last weekend they tipped up Katikati, and the Singh XI's around fourth or fifth in a table of 11 teams and could have been higher had a couple of close games gone their way.
That's a work in progress – a work being refined every single night at practice.
“No, we're neither elitist nor exclusive,” says Kuljit. “Understand that we're just a bunch of guys who speak the same language, a bunch of friends who are very attached to each other and love cricket.
Anyone can practice and play with the Singh XI.”
The name says it all – a bunch of Sikh guys from the Punjab who play cricket, and play it very well. “We just enjoy playing cricket in New Zealand so much.”
And they wouldn't mind playing under the new lights at Bay Oval one day.