Prabu crouched on the cricket pitch, wearing cricket whites, his top button fastened, collar up. The waist of his trousers balanced on his nipples. If he’d had a wallet in the rear pocket of his pants, he would have had to reach over his shoulder to fetch it.

But he had no money. Not even a one-cent coin. So he had no use for a wallet.

If he had money, maybe he’d have used fairness creams for his black skin. That’s the shit in South Asia, no? So if he had money, what would he buy? Fair and Handsome? Fair and Lovely? Fair and Over There? Fair and Nice Pair?

Maybe if he had money, he’d have parents. Maybe they’d have told him to leave more space between his ears and the top of his trousers. And they’d sure as shit have told him not to speak to a cockroach in public.

The cockroach looked out of place on the cricket pitch. On its back, motionless, twig legs pointed up like pupils’ hands in a class where everyone knew everything.

Squatting, his backside millimetres from the red clay wicket, Prabu flicked the cockroach over with the tips of his fingernails.

It didn’t move.

Prabu looked to the skies, searching for any god willing to help. But gods always demanded something in return, and what did Prabu have to sacrifice. But for the damn cockroach.

He blinked. In that moment, the cockroach’s antennae straightened, wings flapped, legs heaved like the oars of a rowing crew. Star-jumping back on to his feet, Prabu guided the cockroach to freedom, his shadow looming over it like the 2004 tsunami.

To his left, the scoreboard hung off a rusty double-decker London bus. Next to that, rolled clay under a corrugated iron sheet. They called it the pavilion. From there, Coach Silva wobbled towards Prabu. Rubbed his rice-belly, stretched his two chins into one. ‘Black boy, get off the bloody wicket.’

Prabu recognized the name on the back of the man’s shirt. ‘Please, Coach, I just make sure cockroach is safe.’

Coach Silva’s crooked smile showcased a set of teeth made crimson by the betel leaf he chewed. He pointed at the cockroach. ‘That one?’

Prabu’s chickpea-head rolled around in a figure of eight. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Poor little bugger.’ Coach Silva leaned over it. ‘Looks so lost out here. Nice of you to want to help it.’

‘He reminds me of a cockroach I knew.’

Coach Silva chuckled. Spat out red juice that looked like blood. ‘Poor bugger probably didn’t see that sign. The one that says stay off the wicket. Even if it did, cockroaches can’t read, no?’

Easy question, even for Prabu. ‘No, sir.’

‘Probably didn’t even see the rope cordoning off the wicket. Must have just slipped under it.’

Prabu giggled. Sweet little innocent cockroach.

‘So it was a wasted journey for me, really.’ Coach Silva lifted his hand up. ‘Was chilled in the pavilion. Under the fan and out of the hot bloody sun. Only came out here ‘cause I thought someone’d ignored my sign. Ignored my barriers. My wishes.’ He mocked a laugh. ‘But now I realize the poor bloody cockroach can’t read.’

Prabu bowed. ‘Correct, sir.’

‘Will just head back to the pavilion then.’ He curled one of the four hairs on his head around his finger. ‘Oh wait, one thing, boy.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Can you read?’

Prabu straightened his back. Hand on chest. ‘Very well, sir.’

‘Clever boy.’ Coach Silva pinched both of Prabu’s cheeks. ‘Maybe you couldn’t read this sign? Can’t read English?’

‘Can read, sir. But the cockroach looked like it is about to become dead and thusfore I decide to make help.’

Coach Silva lifted a hand behind his right ear. The ear like trampled cabbage. Had more hair on it than his head did. ‘Sorry, don’t think I heard you right. So you did read the sign?’

Prabu’s neck locked. ‘Maybe, sir, I—’

‘You did or you didn’t, boy.’

‘Sir, but the cockroach needed—’

‘This cockroach?’ Coach Silva raised his foot above it.

Prabu closed his eyes. Dug his chin into his chest. What he heard could have been a papadum being bitten into. Could have been a leaf being crushed. But even a boy as backward as Prabu knew better.

Coach Silva had stamped the cockroach into a paste, looked like katta sambol. Lips puckered, he made a kissing noise. ‘Shane Warne, come here.’

A spiky-furred dog shuffled towards him, head down, tail as stiff as a blocked hose. Coach Silva peeled a rubber slipper off his bloated foot. Rubbed the remnants of the dead cockroach on the dog’s coat.

The dog, Shane Warne, snarled, backed into the gap between Prabu’s legs.

‘Who the hell are you?’ Coach Silva asked.

Prabu pointed a finger at his own chest. ‘You talk to me?’

Coach Silva sat on a plastic chair, the legs of which spread under his weight. ‘No, I’m talking to the bloody dog.’

Looking down at the dog, Prabu wondered how it would respond.

Coach Silva hurled his slipper at Prabu’s face. ‘I’m talking to you, idiot retard. Kneel down in front of me.’

Prabu dug a cockroach’s wing out of his moustache. Brushed clay off his elbows. On his knees, he turned to the row of palm trees on the boundary under which Mr Carter smoked a rolled-up cigarette. ‘Sir,’ he called out. ‘Carter sir, please help.’

Mr Carter glided over the sandy outfield, more like a beach than a lawn. His hair, the colour of a Buddhist monk’s robes, pasted down with sweat. ‘What’s eating you, little man?’ He strode past Prabu. Extended his hand out to Coach Silva. ‘I wonder if you remember me.’

Coach Silva squeezed out of his chair. Grabbed Mr Carter’s hand in both of his. ‘Yes. Yes. Mr Carter, the Brit.’

‘Australian, mate.’

‘Ah.’ Coach Silva adopted an accent more Chinese than Australian. ‘Put another sheila on the barbie.’

‘Shrimp,’ Mr Carter said. ‘Never mind. Look, we have to make a change to the playing eleven.’

‘Too late, boss.’ Coach Silva caught the breath he appeared to have lost when lifting his jumbo ass off the chair. ‘Team sheet in the hands of the umpire already.’

‘Look, simply no option.’ Mr Carter shook his head, sprinkling sweat on Prabu. ‘The team changes. This champ’s a new player sent to us by the defence ministry. Freed from an IDP camp yesterday. Signed up by our school this morning.’

Coach Silva’s nose pinched towards Prabu. ‘This Tamil boy?’

‘Hang on there, chief.’ Mr Carter raised his palm. ‘Have some respect. He’s a flag bearer for internally displaced people being integrated back into society. Principal Uncle signed up for this.’

‘Team sheet’s in, tactics down,’ Coach Silva said. ‘Not a bugger’s going to tell me to change the team.’

‘BBC’s on its way to film him for the news, shown around Asia. Around the world. The boy plays. Simple as.’

Placing the back of his hand against his forehead, Coach Silva rolled his neck. ‘Once you give the team sheet to the umpire, that’s it. They’re not allowed to return it.’

‘I’ve been in this country long enough to know that money talks many languages.’ Mr Carter took out a thousand-rupee note. ‘One of them is Sinhalese.’

‘Normal times, I can make an umpire dance for a thousand. Not this one. Bugger’s so honest, even turned down a bribe from the minister of bribery.’

‘Ah jeez.’ Mr Carter took his phone out. ‘Hell can we do then?’

‘Give him two thousand.’

‘Done.’ Mr Carter turned towards the umpire.

‘No, no.’ Coach Silva shook his fists. ‘You mad? White bugger like you’ll get charged five times the going rate.’ He snatched the money out of Mr Carter’s hand. ‘The Tamil boy, what is his name?’

Prabu rose on to his tiptoes, his head level with Mr Carter’s sweaty nipples. ‘The Prabu.’

‘How was it, boy?’ Coach Silva asked. ‘The camp?’

Prabu knew his lines. ‘Very nice. Better than my house.’

‘You were there since the war ended in September 2009?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘But the war ended in May 2009.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Facing Mr Carter, his eyelids drooping like sleeping bats, Coach Silva said, ‘Bugger’s too spaced out for my team. Need to win this bloody game.’

‘Look, he’s no charity case, mate. Class act. Colonel Thisara told me he’s good enough for the Sri Lanka Underseventeens.’

‘Colonel Thisara ... I know that name.’ Coach Silva cocked his head to one side. ‘Commander of his camp?’

‘Yep.’ Carter handed him a file. ‘Prabu’s rules. Sign the card after each session.’

Prabu caught a whiff of something exotic that the other boys sprayed under their arms as they finished their warm-ups.

Back in the north, he’d only had talcum powder for sweat and even that only for special occasions like funerals – until there were too many of them.

The other boys dropped to their knees, one by one, bowed their heads and touched Coach Silva’s bushy feet, took his blessing, sprinted back to the pavilion.

Prabu jogged after them.

He ambled into the men’s room, standing outside two cubicles, both of which had doors. Behind them was a sink with running water, and to top it all off, on either side of the squatting pans, there were raised levels for his feet.

Lowering his trousers, he squatted so he could clutch his knees while he relieved himself. To save time, he had breakfast, dipping a toothpick into a bag of peppered pineapple slices.

‘Ping pang pong, it stinks in here,’ a boy said in refined English. ‘Wouldn’t come in here, lads. Floating turds. All. Over. The. Place.’

The boy kicked open the door to Prabu’s cubicle, forcing one of the hinges out of its slot. Prabu recognized him, didn’t know how. Indika Jayanetti, the school’s cricket captain. The superstar player.

‘So sorry, machan.’ Indika blew hair out of his face. ‘Didn’t know anyone was in there.’

Prabu finished what he was doing, rose to his feet, washed his backside from a burst tap. When he exited the cubicle, he found Indika balanced on one foot, peeing into the neighbouring squatting pan.

Mr Carter had already told Prabu off for staring too much, but now he couldn’t help it. Indika had skin the colour of milk tea, a European nose, not just a pair of rocket-launching nostrils. Man, the dude shone like the girls in those fairness cream ads Appa used to watch with his hands in his pockets.

‘What the hell are you staring at?’ Indika asked.

‘You have the white paint on your nose.’ Prabu reached for Indika’s face. ‘Shall I wipe it off for you?’

‘No, no. It’s sunblock. So I don’t get too black.’ He looked Prabu up and down. ‘Not that being black is bad.’

‘I know.’ Prabu tried to turn a tap on but it came loose in his hands.

‘Read that, machan.’ Indika pointed at a sign above the cracked mirror.

It said: ‘By order of the sports ministry, vandals will be subject to prostitution.’

This was meant to be funny. Prabu could tell by the look on Indika’s face.

Indika looked at the tap. ‘Are you a vandal?’

‘No, I’m a Tamil.’ Prabu’s gaze lost itself in Indika’s hair, lighter both in shade and weight than his own. Certainly less greasy. ‘Your name is called Indika Jayanetti?’ Prabu raised his palms together, as if in prayer. ‘Honour to meet you.’

Indika turned his lower body to face away from Prabu. ‘Dude, keep your eyes above my waist.’

Prabu didn’t understand that comment. He’d never looked below Indika’s cushion lips. His slanted eyes. To overcompensate, he stared up at the ceiling, getting hit on the mouth by a drop of gooey liquid from the mildewed roof. ‘I am your new opening batting partner. My name

is called the Prabu Ramanathan.’

Coach Silva limped into the bathroom and slapped away Prabu’s extended hand. ‘Make yourself scarce,’ he said to Indika. Prabu flicked his tongue back and forth in the gap where his front tooth should have been. ‘I read your rules,’ Coach Silva said.

‘Thank a lots.’

‘When did you last attend school?’

Prabu rubbed his forehead. ‘Sir, maybe I was eleven at that time.’

‘Six years ago?’ Prabu counted on his hands without giving an answer. ‘Take your time.’ Coach Silva looked down at his Casio watch.

‘Yes, what you said.’

‘According to your rules, you have to pass the end-of-term exams in December for Grade Eleven. This is A Level studies.’

‘Yes, they tell to me this.’

‘Or your scholarship and sponsorship are removed, and you get sent back to the camp.’

Prabu nodded. ‘Correct.’

‘I have many players who’ve been at school all their lives. Fail those bloody exams.’

‘I work hard, sir,’ Prabu said. ‘Very hard. Anything’s possible.’

‘Be a big change of life if you fail. From an elite school in Colombo’s Cinnamon Gardens, back to an overcrowded camp?’

‘I do everything not to fail, sir.’

‘Guess you better.’ Coach Silva held Prabu’s shoulders.

‘You said your IDP camp leader was Colonel Thisara.’

Prabu looked down at Coach Silva’s feet. Knew what was coming. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Colonel Thisara may be the officer in charge of a camp, but you and I both know it’s not for IDPs. So tell me, boy, where the hell are you really from?’

Excerpted with permission from Panther, Chhimi Tenduf-La, HarperCollins India.