Once upon a time in Delhi

Amrit Mathur
Back in the day, inter-college cricket ruled the roost and captured hearts, but now much of the city's cricket has lost its sheen

College cricket in Delhi is on a decline but the game thrives on the streets and in the parks of the historical city © AFP

Till the early-1970s, inter-college cricket in Delhi was on a play-to-finish basis, and on occasions single matches even lasted seven days. Since then, cricket has shrunk to 20 overs, attention spans have reduced, and changed lifestyles mean everyone is in a mad rush. It seems bizarre now that a cricket match, of any kind, could span an entire week.

The final, inevitably played between Hindu College and St Stephen's, at the university grounds, was the marquee event in Delhi's cricket calendar. This grand affair had live ball-by-ball commentary on All India Radio, and the ground would be packed to capacity with thousands of cheering students. The university stamped its approval on this annual cricket festival by officially suspending classes during the match, and the faculty, other staff and principals of the two colleges would sit near the boundary to watch the action.

Winning inter-college was the ultimate cricket achievement, next only to playing for India. Players were judged on the basis of their performance in the final. Other scores were irrelevant, and the route to the Ranji Trophy those days was through inter-college and university cricket.

Other rewards - for instance, social standing in college - came automatically with good scores in the finals. Success ensured enduring celebrity status (exemption from submitting tutorials and free attendance) but failure attracted extreme displeasure, including waiters in the café (who had placed bets on the game) refusing service. The biggest star of inter-college cricket in my time was Hindu's Vinay Lamba, who hit hundreds in each of the four finals he played.

The equipment used in those days was equally medieval. Bowling spikes were difficult to find, so fast bowlers wore keds. Thigh pads had not made an appearance, so players sought protection by stuffing batting gloves into the trouser pocket of their leading leg

Besides inter-college, the rest of cricket in Delhi seemed incidental. Nobody took notice of the Delhi and Districts Cricket Association (DDCA) league, whose matches were played at the Kotla, the Central Secretariat ground (now not in use), and other venues that had primitive facilities - which has not changed much in the last 50 years. There were no sightscreens, players dumped their kitbags next to the boundary, and the pavilion itself was no more than a shack. Drinking water, though, was available in a clay matka - you had to dip a yellow plastic glass into it after carefully negotiating the thin film of mud on top.

The equipment used in those days was equally medieval. Bowling spikes were difficult to find, so fast bowlers wore keds. Bats (Slazenger and Vijay Manjrekar Super) were heavy and ill-balanced. Thigh pads had not made an appearance, so players sought protection by stuffing batting gloves into the trouser pocket of their leading leg.

In Delhi cricket the Roshanara ground was the equivalent of Lord's. It had a great outfield, a tree-lined boundary, and a typically English-county kind of pavilion. The BCCI was officially founded during a meeting at Roshanara; the momentous occasion is now marked by a plaque. In sharp contrast was Kotla No. 2 (which is now used as a parking lot), where the boundary was so short batsmen could be run out trying to steal a single to fine leg.

The city's cricket scene was a busy whirl - a strange mix of office teams (Gedore, Escorts, Dena Bank, State Bank) and strong private clubs (Madras Club, Subhania, Rohtak Road Gymkhana, Delhi Blues). Later the power shifted to Sonnet Club, run by Tarak Sinha, operating from Venkateswara College in south Delhi. Sonnet was a cricket factory of sorts, churning out quality players (Manoj Prabhakar, Raman Lamba, Randhir Singh, Sanjeev Sharma, Bhaskar Pillai, Atul Wassan, Ajay Sharma, Ashish Nehra, Aakash Chopra, Mithun Manhas) as though off a conveyor belt. Competing with Sonnet was the NIS cricket centre at the National Stadium, run autocratically, and efficiently, by Gursharan Singh. India players from this centre have included Kirti Azad, Maninder Singh, Ajay Jadeja, Gagan Khoda, Murali Kartik and Vivek Razdan.

The picturesque Roshanara ground © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

All this too has changed. Sonnet is not as strong as before, NIS has almost closed shop, university cricket is dead and of no interest to anyone. The extent of commercialisation at the top of cricket's pyramid means quality players never reach college, and such is the extent of decline at the college level that St Stephen's has to put up notices requesting that players come to cricket nets so that they have 11 to make the team.

Most office teams have been wound up because companies can't afford the expense - it does not make economic sense either to hire players or to have on the roster players who turn out to be unavailable due to official BCCI commitments. Air India and ONGC are the only teams not to have made drastic cuts, but the likes of the Steel Authority of India, Food Corporation of India and Central Warehousing Corporation are in extreme decline - at best collections of stray talent.

To some extent their place has been taken by the new set of club sides owned by rich businessmen. Lal Bahadur Shastri Club is a leading club team, and new centres have sprung up at Mori Gate and in Bharat Nagar.

A large number of academies and coaching centres have also sprung up - ex-players Madan Lal and Gursharan Singh run efficient ones, as do the likes of Rajkumar Sharma (Virat Kohli's coach) and Surinder Khanna. Coaches confirm Delhi has rich talent at the lower levels but youngsters are easily distracted, so the challenge is to prevent them from drifting away from cricket.