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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Small towns, Big Games


Sporting arenas take off in India’s catchment areas
TSI | Issue Dated: May 19, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : JSCA | HEC | IPL | RCB | PWI | KKR | Dharamsala | BCCI | HPCA Stadium | ODI | Mohali. |

On January 19, the hometown of India’s cricket captain became the country’s 42nd international venue when it hosted England in the 3rd one-day international in the newly built Jharkhand State Cricket Association (JSCA) Stadium. The stadium, built within the premises of the Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC), had been formally inaugurated only a day earlier.

Come May 12, Ranchi will be on the Indian Premier League (IPL) map as well. Title holders Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), who have already been knocked out of IPL Season 6, will be playing Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) at the JSCA Stadium. Two days later, Pune Warriors India (PWI) will travel to the same venue to take on the down and out KKR.

A match involving KKR might no longer be of any significance in the larger context of the upcoming IPL play-offs, but for Ranchi, a city known as much for its star hockey players and archer Deepika Kumari as for Dhoni, the two games are of immense importance. These games will give the city another opportunity to showcase itself to cricket lovers around the country and the world, pretty much like Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, did on April 28 and May 1 by hosting two Delhi Daredevils matches in another spanking new sporting facility, the Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh Stadium.

But it isn’t only cricket that is taking centre-stage. Ranchi gave a great account of itself when, between January 14 and February 10 this year, several matches of the inaugural Hero Hockey India League were played there. Not only did Ranchi Rhinos win the tournament, the team’s home ground, the Astroturf Hockey Stadium located in Morabadi, imprinted itself on the minds of lovers of the game nationwide.

Had geopolitical considerations not got in the way, Ranchi’s hockey stadium, like its cricket areana did a few months ago, would have made history by playing host to India’s arch-rivals Pakistan in April. But that was not to be – the Indo-Pak hockey Test series was called off against the backdrop of mounting tensions between the two constantly sparring neighbours.

Jharkhand has always been a force on the Indian hockey scene. It has given the nation some of its most skilled players. From Jaipal Singh Munda, who was in the Indian team that won the hockey gold at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, to Sylvanus Dungdung, the state has a rich hockey legacy.

Birendra Lakra of Ranchi represented India in men's hockey during the 2012 London Olympics. Manohar Topno is known as ‘The Wall’ of Indian hockey. Asunta Lakra, sister of Birendra and Bimal Lakra, became the Captain of the Indian women’s hockey team in 2011.

Hunger to succeed against all odds obviously drives boys and girl of the smaller cities and as the quality of the sporting infrastructure in these parts of the country begin to improve in leaps and bounds, their prospects will only be strengthened. Ranchi, Raipur, Dharamsala, Shillong, Wayanad – many small towns across the length and breadth of India are making a bid to join the sporting big league. What’s more, they are succeeding. Raipur, as the second home to Delhi Daredevils, pulled off a near-miracle with its clockwork conduct of DD's IPL matches against une Warriors India and Kolkata Knight Riders.

A suitably impressed Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) lauded the Chhattisgarh Cricket Association, which isn’t yet a full member of the BCCI, but the state chief minister Raman Singh made it clear that while the stadium had been built in double quick time, sustaining the facility would take some doing and without the support of the BCCI, all the good work would come to naught. Quite so.

When the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) Stadium in Dharamshala was built some years ago, similar fears had been expressed in certain quarters, but the facility has managed to withstand the challenges. The stadium, which stands at the altitude of nearly 1500 meters on the higher slops of Kangra valley and has the imposing snow-clad Himalayas as its backdrop, has been hosting IPL games involving Kings XI Punjab since 2010. The ground is also home to the Himachal Pradesh Ranji Trophy team.

The HPCA Stadium, Dharamshala, the brainchild of Anurag Thakur, BJP MP from Hamirpur and BCCI joint secretary, has floodlights and its pitch is regarded as one of the fastest in the country. England made the most of the conditions when they defeated India by 7 wickets in the 5th ODI played on Januray 27.

A similar high altitude stadium has been built in Sulthan Bathery in Kerala’s hilly Wayanad district. It is located 900 metres above sea level and is being seen, along with the Dharamshala cricket facility, as an ideal conditioning camp venue for any Indian team undertaking a tour of England, where the ball seams and swings much more than anywhere in India.

But doubts will continue to persist as India, which has 27 teams playing in its domestic cricket tournament, is today home to as many as 42 international stadiums. Several cities in the country, including Nagpur, have two stadiums. The new Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium in Jamtha on the outskirts of Nagpur may have established itself as an international venue but the question is: how accessible is the facility to aspiring young cricketers?

Former India opener Akash Chopra, in a column authored after Ranchi’s debut as an international cricket venue, had written: “While there is no denying that, if put to good use, these stadiums can be breeding grounds for the Dhonis and Pujaras of the future, it is important to find out if the investments involved, usually in excess of Rs 100 crore, are yielding the right results. These stadiums must make both financial sense, with regard to the revenues they generate by hosting international and IPL games, and practical sense, in terms of access players enjoy to the facilities at these grounds through the year.”

The most striking thing about these newly built stadiums is that they are all state of the art. Take the one in Ranchi as a case in point. It isn’t what a small-town stadium would have been only a decade ago. It has the best possible practice facilities, spacious change rooms, and bathrooms that provide for steam and ice baths. It also has residential suites and an indoor cricket academy. The stadiums in Nagpur and Raipur are just as good and are being talked about in the same breath as Eden Gardens and the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium in Mohali.                          

If the new facilities are tapped right, there is every chance that towns that were once on the fringes of India’s sporting culture will increasingly find the spotlight turning on them. If one little initiative by a Sports Authority of India (SAI) coach and former heavyweight boxer Jawa Singh could turn nondescript Bhiwani into a nursery for champion pugilists, there is every reason to believe that a concerted effort on the part of sports administrators could alter the country’s sporting landscape for good.

Bhiwani, called the ‘Cuba of India’, came into the limelight in 2008 when four of the five Indian boxers who made it to the Olympic contingent were from the small town in Haryana. Of them, Jitender Kumar (51 kg) and Akhil Kumar (54 kg) went on to qualify for the quarter finals, while Vijender Kumar (75 kg) won a bronze medal. Also, Bhiwani’s Vikas Krishan Yadav won a gold medal in the 2010 Asian Games in the Lilhtweight category. In the last Asian Games in China, another Bhiwani boy, Vijender Singh, claimed gold.  
The continuing successes of the small town could be traced back to the setting up of the Bhiwani Boxing Club, called BBC by locals, by Hawa Singh, two-time Asian Games gold medalist and 11-time national champion. The spirit of the late boxing guru, who passed away in 2000, continues to inspire the young boys of Bhiwani to don boxing gloves and jump into the ring. Bhiwani is to Indian boxing what Soenpat is to Indian wrestling. Both are small towns with unstoppable ambitions.

Shillong, the salubrious hill resort in Meghalaya, is another small town that wants to claim its place among the big guns. It has always had a rich football tradition but its position on the Indian map was under threat until Lajong FC joined the I-League in the 2009-2010 season. From its home base in Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Shillong, the club, which was set up in 1983, has made rapid strides although in the current season, it is languishing near the bottom of the table.

One state that has made a mark in Indian football in recent years is Manipur, which is traditionally a sporting powerhouse, especially in boxing and women’s weightlifting. Many Manipuri boys, small built but physically sturdy, are stars at the national level today, notably Gouramangi Singh.   

Similarly, there is more to Allahabad than the Kumbh Mela, which itself is big enough to assure the UP city perpetual global fame. Who would have ever imagined that Allahabad would one day emerge as a nursery for gymnasts? The recently held 53rd Junior National Gymnastics Championship is a testimony to the success story of this city that is otherwise rarely heard of in sporting news dispatches.

In 2010, Ashish Kumar was the toast of the nation. This Allahabad gymnast made history by clinching a silver (men’s vault) and a bronze (men’s floor) at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Later, Ashish won a bronze at the Asian Games in Guangzhou.

Allahabad is the only city in the country which has two indoor gymnastics halls, where about 300 gymnasts are being trained free every day. The city has won 1,469 international and national gymnastcis medals in the past 15 years. In another decade and a half, the gymnasts of Allahabad could well be vying with cricketers of Ranchi for global attention. And that is when this story will reach its logical end.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017