The Kotla shambles

Overview of the Feroz Shah Kotla under lights, England v New Zealand, World T20, semi-final, Delhi, March 30, 2016 Getty Images

In February 1999 I went to watch a cricket match for the first time in a stadium and was witness to a moment in history. Pakistan, on tour in India after 12 years amid the latest peace initiative between the two countries, had snatched a famous victory in Chennai, and looked to wrap up the two-Test series in Delhi. As it turned out, Anil Kumble cast a magical spell and became only the second bowler in Test history to take all ten wickets in an innings.

History wasn't on her mind when my mother thought of taking her teenaged sons and their friends to the Feroz Shah Kotla. We were old enough to understand the game and it was only fair that we should watch a cricket match at a stadium. She wanted us boys to experience the noise, sloganeering, cheesy one-liners, cheering and jeering in person, rather than watch a sterile TV broadcast. So off she went to the nearest branch of a public-sector bank, bought five season passes and dragged us over the weekend to the Kotla's west stand. We sat and watched on rickety chairs Sourav Ganguly's half-century on Saturday afternoon, a 101-run opening stand between Saeed Anwar and Shahid Afridi before lunch on Sunday, and then the Kumble Show. In between, we wolfed down platefuls of delicious chola bhaturas, debated whether India had a safe lead, and endured loud Punjabi jokes narrated by an enthusiastic middle-aged Sikh gentleman. The atmosphere was convivial, the crowd friendly and the game enthralling.

"Legal cases, allegations and political slugfests are unable to capture the experience of the spectator. It is he who has to endure the consequences"

Over the last decade and a half, however, I have chosen to watch cricket on TV rather than trekking to the Kotla. The thought of permeating ever-increasing security rings, hunting for space to park one's car, worrying about the availability of food, and the waning enthusiasm to go to a stadium to watch a match acted as deterrents. But in late 2015, when an uncle offered us "passes" - free tickets, in Delhi parlance - for the final Test between India and South Africa, my ears perked up. I was curious to know what it would be like to watch a match at the Kotla after 16 years.

Since that cold, grey February morning in 1999, the Kotla has been transformed from a single-tier stadium into a three-tier red-brick arena, complete with floodlights, a new clubhouse, bucket seats for spectators and a new pavilion for the players. The Willingdon Pavilion, once a handsome colonial-era building named after and inaugurated by the viceroy and governor-general of India in 1933, stood as a mute spectator to the modernity around it.

What hadn't changed, however, was the style of management. For the past decade and a half, a toxic cocktail of politics, financial bungling and nepotism has reduced the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA) to an organisation that treats cricket as a means of self-fulfilment rather than a sport meant to be enjoyed by the people. It has become routine for courts to intervene before any cricket match at the Kotla, as was the case in the run-up to this South Africa Test.

There was a fear that the match would be allotted to Pune because assorted government agencies refused to issue clearances to the ground. On November 17, two weeks before the match, the Delhi High Court decided to hear the matter. Kirti Azad, a former India cricketer and current Member of Parliament, told the court that the DDCA was "an illegal squatter" and didn't deserve the match. The next day the court directed the state government to grant permission to the DDCA to host the Test and also appointed Justice Mukul Mudgal, a retired Indian judge, as an observer to ensure the smooth conduct of the match. The two-judge bench also said that this was the last time the court would bail out the beleaguered DDCA, and ordered the body to set things right by March 31.

Meanwhile the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, had independently appointed a two-man committee to investigate charges of corruption and mismanagement within the DDCA. "[Union finance minister Arun] Jaitley was the DDCA president for many years and I had set up a committee to probe all the corruption that took place during his tenure," Kejriwal said later in the year. The story blew up. Jaitley countered with a defamation case. Kejriwal wouldn't back down. He told a TV channel that a DDCA official had allegedly texted a junior cricketer's mother to "come to my place at night" to confirm her son's selection.

"For the previous matches, no records were available to indicate how quotations were invited, how the vendors to whom work was allotted were selected, how the competitiveness of the rates was ascertained" Justice Mudgal

Undoubtedly these are shocking details. But legal cases, allegations and political slugfests are unable to capture the experience of the spectator. It is he who has to endure the consequences of the mess that has erupted inside the association. Often spectators are uncertain if the Kotla will host an international match at all. If it does, they usually can't buy tickets because, as is the norm in Delhi, they are given away for free. The parking spaces adjacent to the ground are reserved for politicians, judges, lawyers and businessmen. As a result, many fans have to park their cars a few kilometres away and reach the Kotla by bus, autorickshaw or, more recently, the metro. Once there, they need to walk along the middle of the road towards the stadium, because construction work has swallowed the sidewalk.

To be fair to the current administration, it isn't as if watching cricket was a more enjoyable experience in the '70s and '80s. Fans had to cycle to the stadium, sit through matches on cemented platforms and take along food from home. They often endured harsh weather and tedious travel because of a love of the sport. In retrospect, it seems that the absence of modern trappings - floodlights, bucket seats, online ticketing - at least ensured that the intimacy between the fan and his beloved sport remained intact. But over time, money, power and fame have determined a spectator's experience of the Kotla. The more he possesses those social currencies, the easier it is for him to enjoy a comfortable viewing experience.

The first bond between a spectator and a match is forged well before the game begins, with the purchase of a ticket. For the first three Tests of the India-South Africa series - in Mohali, Bangalore and Nagpur - tickets were available for purchase on BookMyShow, but not for the game in Delhi, since the association was yet to sort out a year-long ticketing saga.

Even a brief synopsis of the mess can get the head to spin. Not for Sameer Bahadur, though, who rattles off incidents and anecdotes without interruption. A cricket administrator, Bahadur is a tall businessman with an absent hairline and a voice that exudes anger at the mere mention of the DDCA. Along with former cricketers Bishan Singh Bedi, Kirti Azad and Maninder Singh, Bahadur is now leading a campaign to clean up the association.

Bahadur says that in 2014, ahead of a one-day international between India and West Indies, the DDCA entered into an agreement with BookMyShow to sell tickets for the game. BookMyShow owed Rs 1.5 crore, or around US$225,000, to the DDCA for selling tickets to the game, he says. But when the accounts were being settled, Bahadur says, BookMyShow is said to have claimed that it owed only Rs 70 lakhs, or around $105,000.

"DDCA office-bearers would send them emails asking for 500 tickets, 1000 tickets to use and sell directly," Bahadur told the Cricket Monthly, seething with rage. "These were later distributed or sold" as largesse to "people who matter - in the police, MCD [Municipal Corporation of Delhi], fire department, judiciary, politicians". Most of these tickets were priced as low as Rs 100, or $1.50, says Bahadur. "These were the best seats [in the stadium] and offered an unhindered view, and it is here that the maximum loot took place." BookMyShow declined to comment on the matter.

"The nucleus of the DDCA mess is the proxy system it follows. In other words, members appoint others to vote on their behalf during elections"

So dire was the situation that for the India-South Africa Test the Delhi High Court had to cap the number of complimentary passes at 10,000. When I asked Ravinder Manchanda, the treasurer of the DDCA, about the problems with BookMyShow, he said, "All this is history", and that it wouldn't happen again.

As holders of two passes, my friend and I turned up at the Kotla on the morning of the third day of the Test - a dead rubber after India had sealed the four-Test series in Nagpur. After going through routine security checks, we were greeted at the gate by turnstiles with barcode scanners. Once we had scanned our tickets and approached the main staircase, a vile odour from the toilets attacked our noses. We reached the lowest tier of the clubhouse, located at the old Willingdon Pavilion end, and looked for our seats, only to find that an entire section of the stand was covered in white cloth to create an extension of the sightscreen. We sat on two empty, dust-covered bucket seats in the adjacent section.

Spectators around us ate stale burgers, sandwiches and potato crisps as they struggled through an achingly slow game of cricket. Some left during the lunch and tea breaks. Many who stayed back kept themselves occupied with shooting selfies, and often ran to the edge of the stand to get a glimpse of Shaun Pollock, Kumble and Sunil Gavaskar, who were commentating on the match. Although the day was brighter than the Sunday in February 1999, it was robbed of its boisterousness. The raucous cheers, corny jokes and intense discussions were replaced by a palpable lack of interest in the cricket. Spectators cheered and gesticulated every time they saw their faces on the electronic screen that doubled up as a scoreboard. There were more than occasional cries of "AB! AB!", urging de Villiers to hit some big shots even as he blocked his way to a 91-ball 11 by stumps.

The next day my uncle, thanks to his acquaintances in the BCCI, ushered my brother and me into the DDCA box, located right below the dressing rooms. Here we were greeted by clean, shiny seats and granite flooring. Liveried waiters served food catered by Embassy, a popular restaurant, in bone-china plates. For company we had Rajeev Shukla, chairman of the IPL and current Member of Parliament; Amrit Mathur, former CEO of Delhi Daredevils; and other assorted DDCA officials. As soon as Shukla arrived, Ravi Shastri, the Indian team director, stood up in the balcony and bowed to greet him.

Even for its own box, the association had allegedly indulged in financial chicanery. According to Bahadur, Justice Mudgal had ordered only 100 plates of food from Embassy restaurant but after the Test, the DDCA presented him with a bill for 450. Manchanda, for his part, wished to focus on the positives. He claimed that this was the first match where Embassy alone was given a catering contract (by floating a tender) and said that all the "hue and cry" over the plates "has been resolved".

In his report, submitted to the court on January 18, Mudgal indicted the DDCA for its "deficiencies". "For the previous matches, no records were available to indicate how quotations were invited, how the vendors to whom work was allotted were selected, how the competitiveness of the rates was ascertained," he noted. "There were no minutes, or record of the tender committee or committees set up for different tasks. There were no agreements with the selected vendors in the past available for perusal."

"Time, money, power and fame have determined a spectator's experience of the Kotla. The more he possesses those, the easier it is for him to enjoy a comfortable viewing experience"

The nucleus of the DDCA mess is the proxy system it follows. In other words, members appoint others to vote on their behalf during elections. "Nobody sees the man's face and nobody knows who he's voting for," said Bahadur. In return for appointing a proxy, members are supposedly rewarded with plum contracts and free tickets to matches.

The abolishment of the proxy voting system is one of the many recommendations of the Justice Lodha Committee, appointed by the Supreme Court to recommend reforms to cricket administration in India. But barely two weeks after the Lodha report was released early in January, the DDCA shot down most of its suggestions. Two months later things were back to square one, when, just four days before the start of the World T20, the Delhi High Court rejected the DDCA's demand for a no-objection certificate from the South Delhi Municipal Corporation. The court declared that the Kotla's RP Mehra Block had violated construction norms and "had to go". So for the three games in the league stages, all 2000 seats of this stand remained unoccupied. It was only on March 23, a week before the Kotla was to host the first semi-final, that the court allowed the RP Mehra Block to be used.

In essence, the DDCA is a meeting ground for everything that contemporary Delhi is lampooned for. Hardly anyone buys tickets for public events; everyone expects a free pass. How someone is treated depends on how much power he or she wields. During the India-South Africa Test, car labels were subdivided into "P1A" and "P1" even though they were being parked in the same area - the former allowed your car sanctuary closer to the Kotla while the latter required you to park a little further away. A politician's convoy of more than two cars, with a red beacon, didn't require any labels - it parked itself right outside gate No. 1 of the stadium.

Ten days after India beat South Africa to wrap up the series 3-0, I turned up at the Kotla again, this time to watch a domestic one-day game between Delhi and Andhra. I wanted to see what the Kotla was like when it was free from the trappings of an international match.

For starters, entry was free. I arrived after lunch to a mostly empty stadium, its litter-strewn clubhouse populated by a handful of locals enjoying the winter sun and students from a nearby government school killing time. The students spotted Sudhir Kumar Chaudhary, the Indian superfan, his whole body painted in the tricolour, and posed with him for selfies till he fled the venue. There was no food or water available for spectators, many of whom lazily slouched on dusty bucket seats and cried "Maar yaar! Ghar jaana hai!" [Hit some shots, man! We have to go home!]

Once Delhi had cruised to the target of 184, I decided to venture onto the field and get a sense of what some of the Delhi players thought of the DDCA and the Kotla. I had taken just a few steps on the path leading to the boundary rope, when one of the handful of security men screamed from afar, shooing me towards the exit.

Disappointed and bored, I decided to leave. As I walked past the entrance to the DDCA office, I saw a cardboard cutout of a newspaper cartoon. It turned out to be RK Laxman's iconic Common Man, standing firmly at the end of the passage and pointing at another door.