Samir Chopra October 28, 2008

Memories of Kotla

A friend of mine had secured what were supposed to be very good tickets but the sight lines still weren't great

The Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi is an odd place. I first noticed it when watching John Lever rip the guts out of India's batting in the 1976 Test. Delhi's bright winter sunshine lit up the Kotla that day and emphasized several things which I would come to associate with the ground over the years: it was small, most of it was uncovered, and it had a slightly ramshackle feel to it.

That feeling only grew when I visited it for the first time to watch Clive Lloyd's West Indians in the 1983-84 series. It was the first and only day of Test cricket that I observed in India. The approach to the ground was over an unpaved road, the parking lot was a dusty, disused field, and the entrances to the ground similarly nondescript. A friend of mine had secured what were supposed to be very good tickets but the sight lines still weren't great. The crowds were raucous; their hardest hitting lines were reserved for the Indian players. I still blush when I think of some of the lines directed at Shastri, then often fielding close to the boundary line.

The Kotla already had a reputation as a dead pitch by then. One that had, in Lala Amarnath's immortal phrase, "taken an overdose of sleeping pills". But that day's cricket turned out to be surprisingly competitive. Richards did hit a brilliant 67, including a first ball four that sped to the fence before I had processed his entry and taking guard. But otherwise the West Indians stuttered before Lloyd and Logie put together a fightback. That Test, like many other Kotla Tests seemed to, ended in a draw.

Later, I went on to watch more cricket at the Kotla, but almost always domestic fare. Something about the ground was discordant and didn't mesh with my imagined visions of what Test cricket grounds should look like. The Delhi team won many Ranji Trophy games there, and so it acquired some lustre by virtue of being home to a champion team. But it remained a small ground: legend was that some of Tom Moody's sixes, hit during his tour with the Aussie U-19 team in the mid-80s, had actually landed outside the ground next to the bus stops.

It was while watching a Wills Trophy game at the Kotla that I enjoyed one of my most pleasant Indian cricketing experiences. A bunch of us lads from the University had gone down to see a match-up between the Challengers and the Indian side in a one-day game. We showed up with little money in our pockets other than the odd rupee that would aid in the buying of cheap cigarettes and possibly a cup of tea later in the day. Food seemed like a minor detail at the time. The sun was out, cricket was on, what more could we need?

An elderly gentleman sat in front of us, and at lunchtime, proceeded to unpack what seemed like a gigantic lunch box. We looked on hungrily, our appetites suddenly aroused by this sight. Our friend, who had chatted gaily with us about matters cricketing before, proceeded to share his lunch with us, handing out delicious parathas left right and centre, all gratefully and ravenously consumed by us. He was generous to a fault, and he knew his cricket. It was a uniquely Indian moment.

The Kotla has improved over the years though some parts of it still look ugly. Its pitch has gone from being a dodo to a spinner's delight (or so people say). But my relationship with it is unique: looking at images of the Kotla from thousands of miles away is guaranteed to make me homesick, bringing back memories of radiant Delhi winters, bus rides to Delhi Gate, but most of all, memories of the university, chatting about cricket with mates, and deciding impromptu, to head down to the local ground to catch the cricket action.

As I watch the match, I'll be straining to catch glimpses of the city outside. More than any other ground in India, this one is "home", for better or worse.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here