Mired in strife for a better part of the last two decades, Kashmir's major link with cricket had been the willow grown in the valley that was used to make bats many budding cricketers swore by. Now, as the valley enjoys an extended spell of peace, the budding cricketers holding the Kashmir willow bats could well be Kashmiri, especially if the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association has their way.
The Sher-i-Kashmir stadium, the headquarters of the JKCA, is unlike any international cricket stadium you are likely to come across. There's only one entry point to the stadium, located in one of Srinagar's most secured central forces base, a narrow gate with a checkpost next to it. The stadium itself is quite a marvel, lined with Chinar trees on all sides save for a small spot which has the Greater Himalayas in the backdrop.
The last international match held here was 25 years ago when the Allan Border-led Aussies defeated India. Vestiges of that match can still be seen in the rusty temporary stands, much like the ones that adorn the lawns near India Gate a week or so after the Republic Day parade, that are still up.
"The West Indies were the first team to play an ODI here (1983). Viv Richards loved the city and stadium, and the fans support almost made it like a home ground for him. The West Indies won that match, after that the Australians came here, but then since 1989 things took a turn for the worse," reminisces Abdur Rauf, J&K chairman of selectors and a veteran of 63 Ranji Trophy matches. Soon after the violence first broke, the stadium was taken over by the Central Reserve Police Force.
"For nine years not a single team came to play Ranji Trophy in the state. I remember the JKCA was operating out of one room because the rest had been taken over by the CRPF," remembers JKCA secretary Ehsan Mirza.
Eye on the future
Construction work is still on-going at the stadium as two new stands have come up. Plans are also afoot to start the state's first cricket academy in the premises. "Brajesh Patel (NCA director) was here to see the academy. His advice was simple, put nets in place, and get the practice ground ready, and you've got the academy. We did that and many youngsters are already making use of it. We will complete the residential complex later this year and by next year the first batch can commence," adds Rauf.
To mentor the youngsters, JKCA has roped in former India captain Bishen Singh Bedi. "The main focus of the JKCA is to groom youngster. Bedi ji will help us greatly. He is someone the youngsters respect and can also learn a lot from. We also contacted Mohinder Amarnath, but he turned it down because of a prior commitment," says Rauf.
The JKCA have also been bolstered by the state government's decision to give them 60 acres of land in Jammu to build a new international stadium with the projected estimated to cost Rs70 crores. BCCI will mostly fund the project, with the stadium slated to be complete by 2013, however JKCA also have to raise funds.