New venues, new avenues

The Indian Premier League has consistently made an effort to take the tournament to venues outside the traditional centres of the big metropolises. And in the process, the tournament has put places like Raipur and Ranchi on the map of the cricket world, writes Shreedutta Chidananda.

Adil Hussain fondly remembers Ranchi’s first ever ODI. The former Bihar captain was at the Jharkhand State Cricket Association Stadium in January 2013 when India played England. “That atmosphere was something else,” he recalls. “It was as if the whole town was there.”

Ranchi had been swept up in the euphoria of M. S. Dhoni’s homecoming, an event locally unprecedented in magnitude. “It means a lot. It’s a very special feeling. I have grown up here, played a lot of cricket here and of the 40,000 people here, I must have played tennis-ball cricket with at least 15,000,” Dhoni said at the toss that day.

With all major cricket in Jharkhand played in Jamshedpur — not a popular venue itself — the idea of watching the game’s superstars in Ranchi was perhaps a dream till that point. “For the local kids it was just so thrilling to watch their hero,” says Hussain, Dhoni’s first captain in the Central Coal Limited team.

The JSCA Stadium has since hosted two more international matches, but high-profile cricket, otherwise such an infrequent visitor to these parts, has regularly arrived in the form of the IPL and the CLT20. Two IPL games were played here in 2013 and four the next year, while five CLT20 fixtures were hosted here two years ago. Chennai Super Kings played four ‘home’ matches here last year, with complications relating to the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai. As CSK prepared for the second qualifier match with Royal Challengers Bangalore here recently, excitement ran high. According to Hussain, “This will give a real fillip to local cricket.”

The IPL has consistently made an effort to take the tournament to venues outside the traditional centres of the big metropolises. Dharamsala, Ranchi, Raipur, Cuttack and Indore have all welcomed the IPL caravan at one point or another. Some of these stadiums have witnessed international cricket but the IPL has offered them far more than one fixture every two or three years.

Enthusiasm, understandably, brims over. Raipur’s Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh Stadium, which has the highest capacity of any cricket ground in India after Calcutta’s Eden Gardens, frequently draws sell-out crowds.

“We had eight CLT20 matches in 2014, including qualifiers. Usually in India people don’t come to watch qualifiers, but here even those matches were fully sold out,” says Rajesh Dave, Secretary of the Chhattisgarh State Cricket Sangh (CSCS). “Our second IPL match this year drew 46,000 people. People may not have known much about Chhattisgarh earlier but cricket has put Raipur on the map.”

This expansion of the IPL has been made possible due in no small part to the improvement of infrastructure. “We have huge boundaries of up to 90m, which is a rarity in India,” says Dave. “The facilities have been praised by all the players that have come here; they have said it is among the best in India. These positive reports have gone to the ICC as well, so I’m sure that pretty soon we will be hosting an international match.”

The impact this will have is not lost on Dave. “It is very big exposure to our boys. We hope to start getting ODI matches soon although hosting Tests may still be some distance away. It will open the floodgates.”

Other than serving as inspiration for local children, the results of which will only be known in a few years’ time, the IPL’s tour around the country is a way of thanking India’s millions of fans, whose patronage only has elevated cricket to its present stature.

The IPL has put places like Raipur and Ranchi on the map of the cricket world. “When I first joined the team, people were asking me the place I belonged to,” Dhoni said when the JSCA Stadium was inaugurated back in 2013. “I used to say I’m from a place called Ranchi in Jharkhand. Then I used to explain Ranchi, giving various routes like it is a place close to Kolkata, near Jamshedpur. But, after the stadium was built it has now become an international venue. At least now we need not have to explain further about Ranchi in the cricket playing nations.”

This increased exposure to cricket, it may be hoped, will bear fruit in mofussil India. But prevailing issues need to be sorted out first. The CSCS is still only an affiliate member of the BCCI, meaning that Chhattisgarh cannot field a side in the Ranji Trophy. Dave has been striving for full membership for a number of years and is hopeful the BCCI will acquiesce soon. “I hope it will happen in the next couple of months,” he says. “Our players have not been able to play Ranji Trophy cricket. If that happens, the rest will fall in place.

That is the most important factor for development of cricket in Chhattisgarh. Our U-19 and U-23 players are not getting opportunities when they come to the senior level. Around 10 players from Chhattisgarh are playing for other states. We invest so much time and money in these players but when they come to the senior level they either quit the sport or migrate to other states. This is not helping anybody.”