For a ground that is administered by the most politically influenced state cricket body in the country, the Feroz Shah Kotla is, nowadays, a surprisingly good-looking venue. Although very much a work in progress - the foundation stone was laid on March 28, 2004 - after the Pakistan series, with several stands less than half built, it is already possible to imagine what the finished product will look like. Not cavernous and intimidating like the Eden Gardens, not a concrete beast like Chepauk, not low-rise and laidback like Mohali, the Kotla will be a stadium worthy of India's capital when it is complete. It's always dangerous to look at a cute little girl and predict that she'll grow up to be drop dead gorgeous, but sometimes you can just tell.
Don't for a second imagine it was always so. For the longest time, since its inception in 1883, the Kotla was an unfriendly place to play, watch and cover cricket. The DDCA - Delhi and District Cricket Association - was for the longest time referred to as the Daaku Daaru Card Association (dacoits, drunkards and card-players' association) by journalists in the city. Slowly that perception is changing.
The first thing that you realise when you visit the Kotla now is that the space present is being used much better. Previously there was a second ground close to the main one, and this cramped things up. Spinners can take heart from the fact that the boundary ropes in the new Kotla have been pushed back, thereby ensuring that a mere combination of modern bats and strong forearms do not defeat their art. The pitch is still bedding down, and looks quite curious. It's grassy down the middle, where no-one but the most obstinate fast bowler in search of a bouncer would land the ball, and bald at both ends. Curious looking, but it still plays like any old Kotla pitch - on the slow side, good for batting.
The pavilion, one of the signature structures in any ground, is modern, functional and yet not in-your-face. Not unlike college students who take to activism and politics simply because it's fashionable, the pavilion is left of centre. Red-brick on the sides, clear glass fronted, with corporate boxes on the top, a sprawling section of stands and the dressing-rooms below, it's a construction that someone has thought a bit about.
The stands that ring the ground are one-and-a-half-tiered at the moment, but when fully built will seat 55,000. "The most interesting thing about the development here is that we have not taken any government funding, and we have not even used the 5-odd crores that the BCCI has allotted us," Arun Jaitley, president of the DDCA, told Cricinfo. "Simply by selling signage rights, hospitality boxes and naming rights to the ends, we have raised 35 crores from corporates."
On the first day of the Sri Lanka Test, with VVS Laxman broad-battedly ill-treating the spin of Malinga Bandara, the medium-sized crowd that gathered was vociferous in support. Every single was cheered lustily, Sachin Tendulkar's entry, always a good indicator of the crowd, was an event in itself. If Laxman felt a shiver because of the chilly wind blowing in from the south east he would have been warmed by the many layered background score that accompanied Tendulkar's entry. As Rahul Dravid, who Tendulkar replaced, began to walk back, the chants began, "Sa-chin, Sa-chin ..." graduating rather rapidly into a heady cocktail of applause and hysterical yelling. Starved of cricket in recent times, the people of Delhi filled the Kotla and showed their appreciation.
Just recently, Delhi played its first match on the ground in over a season, a Ranji fixture against Mumbai. "I have to tell you, it's great to see the Kotla like this," Aakash Chopra, who has played most of his cricket at the Kotla, said. "With the stands around, plenty of space in the field, the new grass on the outfield, it finally feels like a real stadium. It feels like you're playing an important game of cricket on a fitting stage." Like one of those forward or backward defensive strokes he has become famous for, Chopra is right behind the line in his assessment.