Raipur joins the carnival
The signs of the great Indian cricketing circus greet you in Raipur, Chhattisgarh.
Mostly there are large hoardings of Delhi Daredevils stars, and a few also feature Chhattisgarh's chief minister Raman Singh. Some Pune Warriors cricketers attended a showroom inauguration in the city, which was enough to gridlock some of the roads as fans waited outside with mobile phones in their hands. In between commenting on how good-looking a few of the Warriors' foreign players were, a group of young girls discussed whether Shah Rukh Khan would make it here for the Kolkata Knight Riders' match on May 1.
Raipur was allotted two IPL games in January after the chief minister invited GMR, the owners of the Daredevils franchise, to host some of their home matches here. Following inspections and a few meetings, the approvals came in, and in February the state's public works department swung into action to spruce up the ground in time; they completed work on the interior in less than two months.
"We decided to play here to honour an invitation from the government of Chhattisgarh, which wanted to showcase their stadium and its facilities to the world, and this is a great platform to do that," a Daredevils spokesperson said.
There is talk also about a power plant that GMR is supposedly setting up in the state, near Raipur, but the connections between the business and cricket are for now mostly tenuous.
The long road that separates the Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh Stadium from the city of Raipur is flanked by vast stretches of farms, grazing pastures, and the odd concrete structure. This road connects Raipur to its new twin city, Naya Raipur, the planned administrative capital of Chhattisgarh, where the state government's functionaries will be housed.
Two structures stand out: the stadium and the Swami Vivekananda Airport, a swanky structure of glass and chrome, both gleaming edifices of modernity.
The stadium is a hive of activity as the local association's officials prepare for their first big show - the Sunday game between Daredevils and Warriors.
Raipur's first IPL match is as much a testimony to political will as it is to cricket's mass following. Much of Chhattisgarh's cricket history is shared with Madhya Pradesh, the state from which it was carved in 2000. Raipur's selection as an IPL venue may have been baffling - the city is more than 1000km from Delhi, and was not seen as a catchment area or a cricketing outpost for the Daredevils franchise - but now, a few days before the game, the doubts are dispelled. The stadium looks every bit the picture of the modern sports arena it was intended to be. The media facilities have been redone, the corporate boxes are plush, and roofs cover the rest of the ground, giving the ordinary spectator enough comfort from the stifling heat.
This is a big test for the Chhattisgarh State Cricket Association, which has been an associate member of the BCCI for the last five years. A couple of smoothly organised games will strengthen their case for full-time membership. In the five years that it has been a member, the association has organised age-group tournaments and inter-district tournaments, but this is its first brush with the real big time.
In an interview with a local newspaper, the chief minister spoke about how the IPL would pave the way for Raipur to host Ranji games, ODIs, and perhaps even a Test match, a sentiment echoed by Rajesh Dave, secretary of the cricket association. "This is the first time a match of this magnitude is taking place in Raipur and we have had a great response from the crowd. It is an important match for us," he said.
And yet, in the midst of all this modernity and talk of planning, there are quaint reminders of the recent past. Open fields near the stadium have been converted into parking lots; match day brings the promise of unrivalled chaos on the road.
The ordinary fans are more concerned about things like getting into the stadium rather than the association's ambitions. Tickets for both matches are nearly sold out but people are still lining up in the hope that they may get lucky.
Umesh Marwah, a salesman at a local store, was one such, keen to take his children to the game. "I'm definitely going to try and buy some tickets for the Kolkata game [on May 1]. I may even get to see Shah Rukh Khan," he said.
At a local ice-cream parlour, 20-year-old Dinesh Mishra was thrilled when asked about his plans for the match, for which he booked tickets as soon as they were available online. "A group of us are going to cheer for Delhi at the ground. We are planning to visit the team hotels so we get to see some cricketers up close."
Close to the ground, a couple of men were waiting at a safe distance from the lathi-bearing policemen and traffic barricades to see the team bus. One of them said he was there to catch a glimpse of Irfan Pathan and Yuvraj Singh. The tickets, starting at around Rs 850, were too expensive for him, he said.
At the ground, which is cordoned off with tight security, a group of policemen craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the cricketers arriving or leaving the ground, awestruck and momentarily oblivious of their law-and-order duties.
If you leave the politics and the business aspects of it aside, Raipur presents solid reasons why the IPL can think of moving a couple of games every season away from the big cities and into the smaller towns. Matches can be used as incentives to spur local associations to bring their cricketing infrastructure up to the mark and to maintain these facilities and conduct local matches. For the franchises, it opens up new fan bases, and in terms of cricketing investment, helps create a pool of local players. And there is, of course, the bigger cricketing reason: of just taking the game to places where it is loved and appreciated.
Rachna Shetty is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo