The city of Ranchi now has another reason to feel happy about apart from being the home state of India's captain, MS Dhoni. The newly built Jharkhand State Cricket Association Stadium in the city, the country's 42nd international venue, saw a full house when the Indian team walked onto the ground for the first time, for the third ODI against England. Crowds thronged the stadium not just to cheer the local star but also to set their eyes on the facility, which seemed next only to the captain in popularity, at least on that day.
If the lush green of the outfield wasn't striking enough, the pitch too was ideal for a good contest. The Himachal Pradesh team played a Ranji Trophy game at this venue about a month ago and I can vouch for its services, which are first-rate. The dressing rooms are not only spacious but also very comfortable, with a provision for ice- and steam baths in the bathrooms attached. The practice facilities, at the back of the stadium, are of good quality (about eight practice pitches), while a small field in the premises comes in handy for fielding drills and open net sessions. There's also an indoor cricket academy and a residential facility. All of this in a stadium in one of the smaller cities is pleasantly surprising.
Fortunately, though, stadiums like this aren't an aberration in India anymore. All the new ones are equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, at least for the players. While there's still some scope for improvement in terms of the services extended to spectators, players are no longer complaining about makeshift dressing rooms and dirty loos.
It's a huge shift from the long-prevalent practice of providing only basics to sportspersons, but the fad of building such stadiums is getting to be a bit of an obsession. How else does one explain the presence of more than one international stadium in a state? In Maharashtra, Nagpur has two, Mumbai three. Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh have two each. In a country that has 27 teams (two of these 27 teams are not funded by the BCCI, and hence don't have an international stadium) in its national domestic tournament, there are as many as 42 international stadiums.
I can almost hear you say that there can never be enough top-class infrastructure for sport, especially in India, and that it can only be good if every city has such a facility. While there's no denying that if put to good use, these stadiums can be breeding grounds for the Dhonis and Cheteshwar Pujaras of the future, it's important to find out if the investments involved, usually in excess of Rs 100 crore (approximately $18 million), are yielding the right results. These stadiums must make both financial sense, with regard to the revenue they generate by hosting international and IPL games, and practical sense, in terms of the access players enjoy to the facilities at these grounds through the year.
A closer look at the average number of days a Test centre is busy for annually might make these investments look like a colossal waste of money, for most of these stadiums are in use not more than 60-70 days a year. While stadiums like Mohali, Wankhede, Chepauk and Kotla (the ones that host IPL games) are busier than the rest, hosting games from September till May, other stadiums, like the two in Nagpur, are less occupied. Even the busiest stadium hosts only a handful of first-class matches (four or five), age-group tournaments (not more than four or five matches again), and a few IPL games (eight or nine).
The square and outfield in these stadiums are looked after, but most other parts, except the indoor practice facility and the gym - if there is one - remain under lock and key. At most grounds, the training facilities are adjacent to the main stadium and are put to good use throughout the year, but the main outfield is completely out of bounds.
Till not long ago, cricket was a game played in maidans. While the state associations are busy erecting stadia, the maidans have started to disappear. Buidling a world-class stadium might be a good way to justify the funds provided by the BCCI, but does it promote cricket as it should?
In fact, most groundsmen are so finicky, they don't even allow the home Ranji team to have fielding and training sessions on the main ground during the preparatory camps ahead of the season, let alone permitting them to play on the square before matches. They view the ground as a showpiece, which must be unveiled only when the arc lights are on and the world is watching. At times like these you wonder if calling a stadium a team's home is even partially correct, for you are as much an outsider as your opponent is.
If that's what happens with first-class cricketers who represent the state team, I need not mention how accessible the facilities are to players lower down the ladder.
For the longest time Rajkot had only one turf pitch in the city, and that was at their old cricket ground. Since there weren't regular practice sessions at the ground, most players, including the likes of Pujara, had to make do with playing on jute matting at little known cricket academies.
The stadium in Cuttack has been hosting international matches for decades, but, appallingly, it has the only turf pitch in the entire state of Orissa. Even players living in Bhubaneshwar, the capital, have to travel to Cuttack for training or practice on concrete or jute matting surfaces. Unfortunately, there are many similar stories across the country.
The point I'm trying to make here is that instead of investing hundreds of crores on state-of-the-art stadiums with all the bells and whistles, it would be a good idea to start using that money judiciously to build more cricket grounds with decent practice facilities, which in turn would attract more talent.
How about acquiring pieces of land in the interiors of every state, developing basic grounds and running cricket academies (open and free for all) through the year? Such a move would ensure that anyone who wants to play the sport, irrespective of how far from the big cities he lives, has access to a ground and a good coach. State associations could run these academies using merely the interest generated from the vast sums they spend in building big stadiums.
Till not long ago, cricket was essentially a game played in maidans. While the state associations are busy erecting stadia, the maidans have started to disappear. Building a world-class stadium might be a good way to justify the funds provided by the BCCI for "promotion of sport", but does it promote cricket as it should? It will be interesting to know how many state associations would take up such ambitious projects if they had to raise the funds themselves. Right now the money is provided by the BCCI, and so the states don't think twice about the utility or otherwise of such expenditure.
Some state associations - Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh among them - have set an example by opening many cricket centres funded and/or run by the state association across the state throughout the year. Others must consider following suit.
Building a few more stadiums is unlikely to produce another Sachin Tendulkar or Kapil Dev, but opening cricket centres might just put India on the right track to unearth talent.