Club cricket flourished in Delhi long before IPL struck the cricketing world. Today, it is a mere shadow of its glorious past.
‘Hot weather’ cricket in scorching summer was much-awaited in days when there was little cricket on television, the game was free of corruption, spot fixing was unheard of but yes, there was rampant betting at these matches. One section of the spectators was a ‘closed group’ who followed the fortunes of local cricket as well as the cricket reporters. Local cricket in Delhi had its charm even if it reached its peak only in high summer. The summer circuit comprised four tournaments – Lala Raghubhir, Goswami Ganesh Dutt, Hot Weather and Ajmal Khan. Only one team, Indian Airlines, claimed the local cricket grand slam, winning all four. It was a grand feat considering that most teams had big players from the zone.
I remember one Goswami Ganesh Dutt (GGD) tournament match at the Hindu College in 1984. Old-timers still talk fondly of that match, recalling an astonishing knock by Ashwani Kapoor, a very talented wicketkeeper-batsman from the stables of National Stadium. It came on the hottest day of the summer even as more than 1000 fans crammed into the college premises to follow the contest to its last ball. “The innings is vivid. We needed 290 (in 40 overs) against Mohan Meakin. None backed us but we made it even though they had some mean bowlers in Sanjeev Sharma, Subhash Sharma and Anil Mathur,” said Kapoor, who smashed 159 to set up an incredible four-wicket win for National Institute of Sports (NIS).
Cricket has moved on from the time chasing 290 in 40 overs was considered a stiff task. The other day, Sonnet Club made 292 and the opponents, a nondescript club from Gurgaon, accomplished the job in a mere 25 overs! Today, the clubs have little talent to showcase. It is natural for cricketers of the era bygone to hit the nostalgia trail. “We would wait for summer. The Mohan Meakin team would pack itself in a bus and return after a month or so, participating in these tournaments. At the end of it, we would have cash and gifts, happy at heart. Those were wonderful days. I don’t remember any cricketer ever suffering a heat stroke. When the world would stay indoors, we cricketers would earn our living,” said former first-class cricketer Kamal Juneja. “Playing in Delhi was education, the best way to learn the game,” said former Uttar Pradesh batsman Rizwan Shamshad, who, like Bhaskar, was unfortunate not to have played for India.
Club cricket has indeed declined in the Capital. The reasons are many. Facilities may have improved, the grounds too, but the men in charge are not passionate about the game. “Youngsters don’t have the time for club cricket. They know the short cuts because they are guided by these harmful elements. Each club has a vote and the selectors oblige them generously,” said K.P. Bhaskar, remembered for being a stylish batsman of repute. Local cricket has indeed lost a lot of sheen. There was a time when players like Kapil Dev, Madan Lal, N. S.Sidhu, Kirti Azad, Manoj Prabhakar, Chetan Sharma, Ashok Malhotra, Maninder Singh, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir would be seen regularly. Even M. S. Dhoni frequented grounds in and around Delhi in summer with close friend Arun Pandey. The stars have vanished from local cricket.
“Our tournaments now start just after the Indian Premier League and the international cricket calendar makes it impossible for the big players to play local cricket. But they enjoy playing in summer,” remarked Naveen Chopra, organising secretary of the Lala Raghubir tournament. Club cricket had its own heroes over the years. Entertainers who produced some ‘legendary’ stuff but failed to carry it to the next league. Some names, unsung and unheard, that readily come to mind are Ashok ‘machchi’ Bhardwaj, Kamal Talwar, N.P. Singh. Even a Shoaib Akhtar would have dreaded bowling to them on the small cricket fields of Delhi! They could massacre any bowler and leave the best exasperated. Then there was S.S. Lee and K. K. Sharma, two quicks, who revelled in breaking the stumps.
“I don’t want to bowl to him,” Manoj Prabhakar, crafty otherwise, once bemoaned after being slaughtered by N.P. Singh, the mild mannered Sikh from Indian Airlines. “NP could savage any attack,” commented Bhaskar. “Club cricket was rich in the 70s and 80s. Matches were hard fought. To get to play a match at the Kotla was such a huge motivation..Unfortunately, it has been hijacked by fraudsters today. It is all about money,” reflected Bhaskar.
Ashok Katyal, organising secretary of the GGD tournament, explained, “It has become tough to organise a tournament. It costs Rs.8 lakh a year. Teams demand excellent playing conditions and prizes. We are in the 40th year of the tournament and we do it as service to the game. Each committee member contributes Rs.11, 000 and the rest we raise through sponsorship,” said Katyal. The ground rent in the tournament’s inaugural year was Rs.15 and famed Test umpires Swarup Kishen Reu and Ram Babu Gupta officiated at a royal fee of eight rupees. The umpires today receive Rs.1500 per local match.
Only a few clubs have survived the test of time. Madras, Sonnet and Subhania have continued to nurture talent while institutional teams like Mohan Meakin, Air India and Escorts have stopped recruitment. The truth is there is little money for cricketers at club level. “The lack of financial security is worrisome,” said coach Tarak Sinha. “High maintenance costs have led to the closure of many clubs. There are very few grounds,” said Narender Kumar Sharma of Subhania. One prominent cricketer sold his club last year for a whopping Rs.80 lakh. So much for his cricket promotion! For Sinha, the “joy” of local cricket is lost. “It is all about money. Often, we don’t even know which club will have what players. There is no identity of clubs and its players. At Sonnet, we have a loyal set of players. Managing a club has become a costly affair. It comes to four to five lakh rupees a year. Often, I have to beg for donations or plead with a sponsor,” lamented Sinha, who has dedicated his life to cricket.
In sharp contrast, allege veteran officials, most tournaments today are money-making tools. “The overall standard of the tournaments has fallen. Entry fee is high (from Rs. 35000 to 50000),” said a coach. Indeed, club cricket is not the same anymore; there are fewer journeymen cricketers too, for there is little money on the local circuit now even though players make millions at the international level. But players still enjoy it. Gautam Gambhir and Munaf Patel played at the Modern School the other day. Ishant Sharma,Virat Kohli and Virender Sehwag would never miss a local match. It won’t be a bad idea to follow these local games this summer. The heat is certainly scorching. But the players are not complaining.