World Cup Tour Diary

A love letter to Feroz Shah Kotla

A ground where the past, the present and the future of Delhi come together

What's there not to like about the Feroz Shah Kotla?  IDI/Getty Images

"Ask to be dropped at urinals," I always instruct people. Or make a left at the urinals if I am driving when parking is available during domestic matches. I don't think there is a cricket ground in the world other than the Feroz Shah Kotla that is identified by urinals. It has no gates on the main road because it is slightly off the Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. The road is lined with trees so you often miss the floodlights, a usual identifier of cricket grounds, from the ground level, and the narrow left that takes you in.

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So you go by the urinals. They are right there. Right in the middle of the pavement you use to enter through gates 1 to 6. Now that I don't live in Delhi, I come out through gate 5 of Delhi Gate metro station, turn left, go past the petrol pump, past the Ambedkar Stadium entry and some of the Kotla entry gates, past the chhole-kulche cart, and they are right there, the urinals to remind me where to take the left. The dusty small field where Delhi police set up its scanning tent is right behind the urinals. The opening to that field is easy to miss but not the stinky urinals.

Except they are not stinking this time. I am here to report that - probably because of this World Cup and the focus on fan-friendliness of Indian stadiums - those urinals have been covered and locked. In fact, the whole stadium is at its best behaviour. The Gautam Gambhir Stand, which looks like a multi-level car park, doesn't quite look as ugly as usual because the cladding doesn't carry chewing tobacco advertising but rather pleasant ICC signage. At least on day one, I am told, the toilets for women were clean and well stocked. Even Delhi police are rather polite.

Kotla needs to do a lot more to be regarded as one of the great stadiums in the world, but - perhaps it is my privileged access to the press facilities speaking - I don't actually mind Kotla. Perhaps because what you see is what you get, warts and all. There is no green cloth there to invisibilise poor people and poverty.

Kotla is what it is: a flawed stadium bang in the middle of a flawed but charming city, right at the edge of Old and New Delhi. Some parts of Kotla, even, are charming: the external walls built of natural stone and not bricks, for example. To its south are actual remnants of the actual Kotla, a citadel built by the then-emperor Feroz Shah Tughlaq to secure his capital.

The Kotla faithful rally behind the hometown hero during a T20I against New Zealand in 2017  BCCI

During the day the actual Kotla is a picnic site with an entry fee of Rs 25, in the hot summers a place for young lovers to meet away from prying eyes. In the nights, it is believed to be haunted by djinns - genies, loosely. People still write their wishes on the walls hoping for the djinns to see and fulfil them.

This is not the only myth around it. It is said that the actual playing surface on Kotla is built on top of a graveyard that was used to bury transgender people. It is their curse, they say, that there will never be any life in the Kotla pitch.

For this World Cup, Ankit Datta has finally got the better of the curse and prepared the truest Kotla pitch I have ever seen, which resulted in the quickest World Cup century and the highest World Cup team total. This after years of frustration Delhi Capitals director Sourav Ganguly had to face with the pitch and Datta. Only when the soil was relaid after this year's IPL did life come back to the pitch.

Beyond the Kotla are newspapers' old offices - the whole Fleet Street of Delhi now seems to have moved to Noida - and the Income Tax office and the Delhi police headquarters. If the south side of the road has an important air to it, the north side, Purani Dilli, is another world. If you walk or take a train ride from food havens Jama Masjid or Chandni Chowk towards the ground, you are going past not only some great food but also some rare books, indigenous bonesetters, and - the most gloriously and unapologetically displayed - sex doctors who promise "mardana taqat", which loosely translates to male virility.

The longest-running sexist joke was to tell the DDCA people to get some of those quacks to inject some mardana taqat into the pitch. That has hardly mattered because Delhi has always sent out decent crowds to cricket matches. It is no surprise the first big crowd of this World Cup emanated from Delhi even though it was South Africa against Sri Lanka.

Even for domestic cricket, young men from the neighbouring Ansari Road in Purani Dilli come out in hundreds into the Mohinder Amarnath Stand and display how much cricket they know. They bring with them Urdu newspapers that carry detailed reports of these matches. There are no displays or jersey numbers to tell players apart but they know their Rohit Rayudu from Ambati Rayudu.

The house where Mirza Ghalib once lived is not far from the Kotla  NurPhoto/Getty Images

Such is their expression that the banter is never nasty. Once, during a dull phase in an India-England game, some bored man in the stands shouted "Pakistan", and immediately a "haye haye" response followed. Everybody did it once, laughed, and went back to napping. There was no mean edge to it. It didn't lead to rancour. You were not thrown out if you didn't participate in it.

One of my best watching experiences in an Indian ground has been when everybody in my stand watched in tension and counted every ball Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers blocked when trying to play out an impossible draw in 2015-16. Nobody made an announcement but the stand applauded when the partnership reached 100 balls. That crowd still stands in the face of every stereotype about north India.

During domestic matches, you can see why Virat Kohli or Ishant Sharma came battle-ready: the extreme competitiveness and pettiness among players. It all comes from the system. You can't survive otherwise. You can see all this because you can watch in an intimate setting. If you are lucky to get a Ranji match here in the new year, which is when the AQI begins to settle down again, there are few experiences as entertaining as watching domestic cricket in the winter sun at Kotla. From the banter from the stands to no effort made by the players and administrators to not air dirty laundry in public.

I have spent many a lazy winter day watching the first session, wandering off into the lanes of Purani Dilli in the afternoon for some sinful food, often stopping by Gali Qasim Jan at the house where Mirza Ghalib once lived, and then back to the Kotla - left from the urinals - to watch tired bowlers still trying to draw some life out of a slow and low surface. Purani Dilli is an extremely busy place, full of small businesses busy with their hustle, but you just as easily step aside and find spaces to do nothing.

Perhaps Kotla the ground just benefits from being in the right place. It is a location where the past, the present and the future of Delhi come together. Feroz Shah Kotla the ground is a little like the neighbourhood it resides in: rough, doesn't care how it looks, but with a heart, and hope in the dying sun that the overnight moisture will help in the first hour next day.

IndiaSouth Africa vs Sri LankaICC Cricket World CupArun Jaitley Stadium

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo