ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
South Africa v West Indies, World Cup 2011, Delhi
Kotla's acid test
Thursday's World Cup game between South Africa and West Indies will be the first international game at the Feroz Shah Kotla after the India-Sri Lanka ODI was abandoned in December 2009
Sharda Ugra in Delhi
February 23, 2011
When West Indies meets South Africa at the Feroz Shah Kotla on Thursday, it won't merely be Graeme Smith and Darren Sammy's men who will be tested. The Feroz Shah Kotla itself is on trial. The first World Cup match between two non-hosting frontline teams is Kotla's first international match after the India-Sri Lanka ODI was abandoned on December 29, 2009.
For a cricket ground that nestles close to the oldest medieval parts of India's extremely status-conscious capital, Thursday will about more than just cricket. It will be about Kotla saving face; restoring not merely pride, but that very Delhi essential, appearance.
At the moment though, all is looking good. For the last six years since the Kotla's makeover, usually every inch of the frontage of the large, unnamed North Stand at its Delhi Gate end is usually festooned with advertising hoardings whose intentions are not merely to sell products, but also to hurt the human eye. On the eve of its first World Cup game, though, all the stands actually appear almost dignified, covered by the ICC's uniform signage, making the architect's unspoilt image, somewhat visible.
Yet tomorrow, neither signage nor stands will matter. They are but the window dressing to what will actually count: what happens on its wicket. The Kotla track has spent a good portion of its life being a paata, the Indian cricketing colloquialism for a flat track, before it morphed into a pit viper as 2009 drew to an end. Abandoned and deemed dangerous by international cricket, the team in charge of the Kotla wicket will spend Wednesday night hoping that they have shape-shifted the serpent into a batting-friendly lamb.
West Indian Dwayne Bravo left all that in the hands of the ICC saying that had the ground had not been fit to stage an ODI, the governing body wouldn't have approved it. South Africa captain Graeme Smith was a bit more cautious, calling the wicket an "unknown factor" before Thursday's game. There is a good chance that the anxious officials of the Delhi & District Cricket Association (DDCA) think of it in the same manner.
The last game staged at the Kotla was four months ago, when Delhi hosted two Ranji Trophy matches against Bengal and Gujarat in November to test out the wicket laid out after the December 2009 disaster. Scores at the Kotla from that November read: 473, 459, 92 for 3 followed by 71, 437 and 289. The World Cup match will be played not on the "abandoned" patch of land but on the same wicket that staged the Delhi v Bengal game.
After the match with Gujarat, Delhi moved all its home games to its other ground at the Roshanara Club, which is what they turn to when "outrights" (victories that carry five points) are needed. The Kotla is the ground where the home team turns up to give its batsmen enough time in the middle. The DDCA officials maintain that once the ICC's pitch advisor Andy Atkinson had approved the wicket and asked them to give it some 'rest' to let the grass grow, they decided to put it into its winter hibernation.
Nothing would make the DDCA's officials happier than if the Kotla awakes on Thursday with the paata back in its soul with plenty of runs for the taking. The DDCA's much-maligned officials want their fortress to stand up for their reputations and not become the cricket World Cup's second disaster zone, following Eden Gardens. Which is probably why there were two policemen wielding rifles found standing around the pitch all day as organisers practiced their pre- and post-match ceremonies and tried out the sound system. (A marvellously powerful rendition of Nkosi Sikele Africa left the South African journalists working in the press box undecided over what was to be shown more respect - their anthem or their deadline.)
The unmistakeable figure of Atkinson wandered over to the pitch at regular intervals and even made for a great photo op as he sat on one of Kotla's light rollers. Match referee Jeff Crowe began his perambulation of the ground as everyone fussed over the wicket: men with guns, Atkinson, ICC officials testing the firmness of its mid-section, groundsmen. Maybe the Kotla will surprise us all tomorrow - neither paata nor pit viper, but just the ideal venue for an entertaining 100 overs.
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