HPCA Stadium: Scenic, uncomfortable too

As 20 sixes in 40 overs of extravaganza dazzled the start of the Mahatma Gandhi-Nelson Mandela series in the pretty Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) Stadium in the temperate Dharamsala, a dancing crowd came alive in bursts to greet the big hits, the wickets, and some of the quirky moments of the Twenty20.

Ground securitymen take away a youth who entered the ground during the South African innings in Dharamsala.   -  PTI

The scenic beauty of the HPCA Stadium's environs is very well captured in this picture as M. S. Dhoni returns after a practice session.   -  REUTERS

As 20 sixes in 40 overs of extravaganza dazzled the start of the Mahatma Gandhi-Nelson Mandela series in the pretty Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) Stadium in the temperate Dharamsala, a dancing crowd came alive in bursts to greet the big hits, the wickets, and some of the quirky moments of the Twenty20. They were awed when Rohit Sharma started flowing runs with silky and commanding strokes, and soon settled into a cheering buzz to acknowledge the local team’s seemingly unshakeable position in the game. When JP Duminy conjured a match-winning knock to successfully chase down India’s 199 for South Africa, the dancing ceased a bit and the cheering deflated; they were replaced by silly laughter. The relentless outpouring of vocal energy, at times devoid of context, by a collection obsessed to fulfil their quota of fun akin to binge drinking, were capable of inducing headaches and a slightly numb ear, but all the same this was a Twenty20: it is there to attract a ‘party’.

The fun was aided by the visual of an eye-catching stadium and the gentle climate of the mountains. The impeccably green outfield below imposing tower-like structures serving as a stand was a sight to behold amid gentle breeze that seeks to calm the senses. Staring at the opposite end is the River End, possessing the more ubiquitous stand that resembles a Buddhist monastery. The outline of the Himalayas may have been detectable for spectators seated at the River End, which includes pressmen at the press box and the commentators, but the darkness limited any major sights outside the cricket ground.

Rohit left the first ball he faced, and after growing confident with some typically panache-laden boundaries, developed an impenetrable rhythm. Before his blitz took shape, though, his opening partner Shikhar Dhawan was run out owing to a misjudgment of a second run, in the fourth over. From the stands, the replays for a final decision by the third umpire confused the crowd; from afar it seemed the bat was grounded when the stumps were broken, and there was loud din at the expectance of a ‘not out’ decision. Dhawan’s bat was on the line when the stumps were broken, and when he started walking back, it confused the crowd.

 

Nonetheless, the frenzy built when Rohit and Virat Kohli built a fruitful partnership of 138 runs. Rohit was confident enough to play a few scoop shots that delighted, to complement his normal array of strokes. In the 12{+t}{+h} over off legspinner Imran Tahir, he hit a mighty six beyond deep midwicket with a knee down to get leverage under the shot, and followed this up with two sixes off fast bowler Kagiso Rabada in the next over. The first of the brace was an awe-inspiring lofted shot to the upper tier at long-off, at the River End that had the outline of the mountains behind it. The hit induced people to rise up in their chairs to catch a glimpse of where the ball eventually landed.

Rohit reached his century in the 15th over with another six, his fifth, through long-off. The delirious crowd stood up to joyfully howl and whistle at the landmark. Rohit’s dismissal in the next over brought forth what appeared to be a period of lull, as Suresh Raina and M. S. Dhoni didn’t seem as prolific as the centurion before them. Two quick wickets in the penultimate over made 200, a score taken for granted, seem far away. Dhoni’s six off the last ball of the Indian innings mitigated the scratchy period, and 199 seemed a daunting score

So much so that few were bothered with the prolific and quick opening stand in the opposition chase that had Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers collecting 77 runs in 7.4 overs. A couple of people in the stands laughingly suggested to people seated ahead of them to shift positions to bring a wicket. The resultant? Two valuable batsmen in AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis got out. As it turned out, that was but a minor blip in the innings. The only difficulty the visitors had was keeping up with the required run-rate.

That was done by a game-changing over, the 16th. With the required run-rate touching 13.20 at the start of the over, Duminy hit three sixes off three balls in the over from Axar Patel, two of which were deposited to deep midwicket, providing a significant shift in momentum. The crowd shushed.

Sheepish smiles and laughter took over, also an indication of fatigue in people draining their voices out.

The constant jabbering of Punjabi slangs directed at the match and the players were only ceased intermittently. Inserting comic relief to the drama of the contest unfolding was the presence in the ground of an intruder, who took his place next to Rohit fielding at point and saluted him. The clueless security officials got their act together and took off to chase him down. He was caught near the boundary at mid-on.

The last six of the match, which tied the scores in the third ball of the final over, had the engaged crowd flattened like air was burst out of a balloon. It gave way to a noiseless and peaceful dispersion, in sharp contrast to the chaos at the start. A stampede had to be endured then, including such situations as someone else’s match ticket handed to a clueless ticket-holder, who held two tickets in two hands, by the security volunteers. Duminy’s knock of 68 off 34 balls, studded with seven sixes, proved to be the clincher for South Africa.

The crowd that squeezed its way on to the stands was not a local one. The incessant remarks and the swagger of big town tourists from Himachal Pradesh’s neighbourhood gave it away. Tashi, a local Tibetan and amateur documentary film-maker in Mcleodganj, a popular retreat about six kilometres away from Dharamsala, was understandably indifferent to the prospect of a fixture of this magnitude when the author chatted a couple of hours before the match began. The town was abuzz with cricket-seeking tourists and busy guides and taxis, but Tashi recollected crowd struggling for space and an incident of injury, on a previous cricket occasion at the HPCA ground, and had no palpable interest. “The best way to catch live cricket is on the telly, at your own comfort.”

The match seemed to do well for local businesses, with most hotels pre-booked with tourists on the match day, and the limited number of restaurants in Dharamsala and Mcleodganj full. At 12 am in the night, at the conclusion of the game, there were cars sticking to each other ‘bumper-to-bumper’. People were inconvenienced for food, and for traffic, in the little streets. They were, however, nothing compared to the ordeal of being stacked into the stadium, like hordes of animals amid a nonplussed police staff. The stadium, dubbed as the ‘most beautiful’ cricket ground in the world, had its shortfalls in terms of facilities for the spectators: most of the stands were uncovered, the crowd control by security officials was ineffective, and it seemed, the stadium was overbooked as many people were standing behind the last row of seats of every stand, and in between other rows.

Watching live cricket at Dharamsala, although underwhelming, was a case of marrying the joy of cricket with the joy of a vacation. Plenty of boundaries and a Rohit century gratified the expectant public. The HPCA Stadium is a picturesque but not an entirely convenient venue: if you don’t like the buzzing surrounds that is present in any Twenty20 match in India, trek in the Dauladhar mountains, and catch the action from there. The stadium, and even the pitch, can be prominently seen from the summit valley of Triund.