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Home in disorder

other Updated: Feb 05, 2008 00:51 IST
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It was like India were playing away even though they were at home. October 13, 1983, months after Kapil's Devils had lorded it over the world, you would expect them to be mobbed, cheered and lauded wherever they went in the country. They were too, across India. Except at the Sher-e-Kashmir Stadium, when they took on the West Indies, that day.

Shakeel — a groundsman at the stadium — was 12 when Clive Lloyd's men came and won that One-day International by 28 runs, and remembers that day well. "Cricket got badly wounded on that fateful day in Srinagar," he said. "Wearing saffron turbans and teekas, the garlanded West Indian team walked in.

“Long queues of security personnel welcomed us on all the gates. The Indian team was unwelcome in Srinagar. The people were not really fond of the West Indians but would support anyone against India," he said.

"When Clive Lloyd hit a four, huge green flags were raised. As were posters of Pakistan stars Imran Khan and Salim Malik. A half-eaten apple was thrown at Dilip Vengsarkar and the cries of 'Pakistan Zindabad' rend the air."

International cricket returned to the Valley only once after that, and never thereafter. That was in 1986, when Australia were touring. Support for the visitors was again equally blatant. India lost again and Jammu and Kashmir got deleted from the list of international venues.

Like it is in Baghdad, Kabul or anywhere with even a brief history of violence, the stadium was taken over by the Army in 1989. Cricket continued here but only CRPF personnel were playing. Over time, the dressing rooms became storerooms and the stands were used to dry clothes (they still are).

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's announcement to reduce military presence in the state meant that the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA) got its ground back. The stadium is now being revamped.

There will be a new clubhouse, five new wickets with soil from Patan, a nearby town. Incidentally, Mumbai used soil from Patan to prepare their wicket for the Ranji Trophy this season.

"We are keeping in mind the natural advantage that our bowlers have. They mostly tend to be medium-pacers," Shakeel pointed out.

Cricket is also played at the Maulana Azad College Ground and the Science Collage Ground in Jammu, with the latter hosting Ranji Trophy matches as well. Lunch is served at the college canteen and for dressing rooms, you have to make do with tents.

The JKCA doesn't have any ground in Jammu, where the weather is comparatively favourable for sport. Plans to build a stadium in Bajalta were made public long back but little has happened since.

"We are in series talks with the government over this issue and will surely come up with the stadium," assures JKCA secretary Salim Khan.

Surviving strife, sportingly

The last thing anyone would look for in Baramullah is a stadium. There are three, encapsulating efforts to keep sport alive here.

It's 8 pm when we reach Baramullah, two hours away from Srinagar. Professor Shaukat Ali Stadium, our first stop, is a sea of men in battle fatigues nestling AK-47s. Even though security forces seem woven into the state's fabric, up close they can be intimidating.

Mushtaq Ahmed meets us at the gate. Appointed by the Jammu & Kashmir Sports Council, he is in charge here. This stadium hosted C.K. Nayudu Trophy matches in 2006. "This is a multi-purpose venue. We play kho-kho, volleyball, kabbadi, hockey, cricket and football here," he said. The cricket pitch is covered to protect it from snow and right now, the only activity is from military personnel.

Cradled by mountains and 20 km away is the Baramullah Stadium. Or, rather, the remains of it. The foundation stone for the outdoor stadium was laid in 1990. Work started two years later but a rocket destroyed the chowkidar's hut and the pavilion. That was as far as the Baramullah Stadium got. But the ground's huge and somewhat maintained. And for some, that's good enough for cricket.

The indoor stadium, built in 1994, has table tennis boards, badminton courts and a health centre. Ahmed said Rs 75 lakh was spent — 35 lakh from the Army and 30 lakh from the PM’ Fund after I.K. Gujral came visiting. Even in a part of India where staying alive is an effort, sport isn't dead.

Spirit willing, Sopore calling

Between Baramullah and Uri is Sopore. It's a small village, 58 km from Srinagar. At -2 degrees, the winter's mind numbing as we travel to what is the playing field of Sopore.

The drive from Srinagar is long and made worse by the club. The road is busy with children carrying wood, and adults going about their chores. Destination reached, we use the pocket-gate to enter because the big gate is closed. Possibly envious at our easy access, something that is denied them, children watch as we go in.

The field is massive and goalposts are in place. But that's about all the connection there is to sport. It was uneven, pock-marked and up ahead in the distance, we could see cows grazing on it. Maintenance seemed conspicuous by its absence. Qayoom, manager and the caretaker of the field, meets us and takes us to his chowkidar hit which is also his office. It's past six but the lights don't come on and Qayoom simply says "Sorry madam, light nahi hai."

Like it is with most sports councils and even the Sports Authority of India, most of the Rs 2 crore budget earmarked for the Jammu and Kashmir Sports Council goes in paying salaries. Maintenance or development of grounds from this budget is between negligible and near-zero.

The ground in Sopore has no groundstaff but that didn't prevent an inter-school football tournament from happening last summer. Qayoom said hockey too is played here regularly. Sometimes, the will to play is all you need.

Remains of the day

It used to be the address for those desiring some sporting activity in Srinagar. It had a sport library, four billiards tables, five table tennis boards and weightlifting equipments. Till January 15, 2005, evenings at the Saifuddin Clubhouse were happy hours of fun and games.

On January 15, two fidayeen sneaked in and took refuge. The Army laid siege and for six full days, Srinagar's pride got a battering from inside and outside. "I remember playing table tennis with a friend in the evening when I heard shots being fired. We got out through the back door. Saifuddin was one of the places we took pride in. But you can't fight destiny, can you?" Ahmed, a Srinagar resident, said.

The wounds haven't yet healed. Perhaps they never will. In the ruins of the club remain shards of glass, broken furniture, destroyed billiard tables and bullet-marks on the walls. What used to be throbbing with life is now weedy, unkempt and dead. For almost six years since August 9,1989, Saifuddin, as it is referred to here, was a scene of hectic social activity. Even 3 years after destruction, only memories remain. And a scrawl on the wall, which says: "Doodh maangoge to kheer denge, Kashmir mangoge to cheer denge".

As we are about to leave, a teenager comes up and says: "Hamare Kashmir aane ke liye shukriya, yahan ki tasvir duniya ke saamne zarur laayiega."

The times, they sure are changing.

Still a soldier’s domain

For 15 years, the Srinagar Indoor Stadium was under Army control. In many ways, it seems it still is.

True, the stadium, built in 1983, was reopened for public in 2005 but everywhere you see men in uniform rather than sportspersons honing their skills. Outside and around the main hall there are bunkers peopled by soldiers. Inside the hall, some are exercising, on a floor that is wasting, its covers peeling off. In one corner, there is gymnastics apparatus, broken & lying in a heap. The lighting is dim and the sitting area cavernous & empty.

This is the state of affairs three years after the Army let go off the hall. Time enough to rebuild, we ask Rashid, the sports council official who is our escort on this trip, our incredulity showing. "You see, the army took shelter in the hall. In winters, they would break furniture and everything they could lay their hands on to build fires," he said. A little girl in karate whites appears. She is ready to train but her coach hasn't arrived. He won't today, she said, adding "yahan to aise he chalta rehta hai."

Outside the hall, the place is abuzz with soldiers. Our departure coincides with the arrival of food for them and activity is frenetic. "Who are you," asked a soldier from the bunkers. "Ye media se hain" said Rashid. "Kya kar rahe hain yahan?" asked the armyman again. Rashid then went to him, had a word and came back. We don't know what he said but he has the 'no messing around with them' look on his face.

The Srinagar Indoor Stadium may now be under the sport's council's jurisdiction but there's no denying who calls the shots.

Last tournament: National wrestling (men & women)