As the sun sets over Srinagar, islands of late-evening life have started popping up, emerging for the first time in over 30 years. Parts of the volatile old city that would once fall silent and dark at sundown, leaving no place for youngsters to go, have acquired a rare buzz this year as youth hooked to a new passion — play football and cricket tournaments in floodlit stadiums till midnight.
Located in Srinagar’s volatile Rajouri Kadal neighbourhood and nestled on two sides amidst old-style congested houses, the Gani Memorial Stadium previously hit the headlines in 2010 when 17-year old student Tufail Mattoo died during clashes between stone-throwing protesters and security forces near the fencing of the stadium, triggering a wave of Valley-wide protests.
Shunning those memories of a violent past, the Gani Stadium instead played host to a successful T20 tournament in September and October this year, with 16 teams and over 240 players participating. Among the top scoring batsmen in the tournament was Arshid Ahmad (name changed), who was booked in 2016 for participating in violent protests. “Cricket is my passion,” he said, refusing to discuss the politics of the place.
J&K State Sports Council’s (JKSSC) Divisional Sports Officer Nuzhat Farooq, who was the chief guest at the final match of the tournament, said, “It was a sight to see such a crowd in the old city. Locals were really enthusiastic. Youth need to take up sports to stay fit.”
In the days since the T20 tournament, scores of families, including women and children, swarm on the stadium with eatables to watch late-evening cricket matches. “It’s a spectacle for us.,” said Manzoor Najar, a local. “We would never stay out of our homes till late in the evening. This area used to be pitch dark. Only drug addicts would dare roam around. That has changed.”
The matches under the lights now end around 10 p.m. to 11.30 p.m., with the area witnessing an unusual milling around of locals and vehicles till late into the night. Around 120 high-beam lights erected on eight poles at the cost of ₹1.24 crore have made the stadium an island of life for the youth living around Rajouri Kadal.
Just five kilometers away, towards downtown Srinagar, Irfan Majeed Mir is busy curating the second round of the Khan Bagh T20 Night Tournament in the Lal Bazaar area. Sixteen teams from and around Lal Bazaar are participating in the tournament, with matches starting in the cold November evenings and ending by 10 p.m.
“Teams pay from their own pockets for the diesel generators. People get entertained. Such tournaments also check the spread of drugs among the youth. Many drug addicts play and the game has changed their lives,” Mr. Mir said.
The tournament has already produced two fast-scoring batsmen in Ashiq Basheer from Ahmad Nagar who has a strike rate of 169 and Ishfaq Shah from Lal Bazaar with a 162 strike rate. CricHeroes, a mobile application, is installed on many phones to check the rating of the players playing on the ground. Many matches are beamed live on social media platforms like Facebook.
At a recent match, crowds cheered ‘Watson, Watson’, as a bowler who looks like and imitates Australia’s former captain Shane Watson takes on the batsmen of the Miraco Falcons team. “Gone are the days when games were meant only for Sundays and would depend on the weather and the situation of the day. We are hopeful to play till we have the first snowfall this winter,” said Majid Khan, a local from Lal Bazaar, as the temperature dipped and the autumn haze spread on to the pitch.
Dozen more stadiums
Since 2019, the JKSSC has installed floodlights at five places in Srinagar city. The first to host a football tournament under the lights was the AstroTurf Football Ground in June 2019. As well-lit stadiums have proved a success among locals in other districts of the Kashmir valley, the sports council plans to add around a dozen floodlit stadiums in the coming months. Over the past three years, most districts of the Valley have seen such stadiums being built, especially in volatile south Kashmir.
“We were astonished by the response we saw in Sopore [in north Kashmir’s Baramulla],” said the Council’s joint secretary Bashir Ahmad Bhat. Sopore was known as a hub of militancy and separatism in the 1990s. “A tournament organised under the ‘My youth, my pride’ programme in October saw over 10,000 spectators watching the matches on a daily basis for 45 days. It was unbelievable. Under-light stadiums are drawing unprecedented crowds in the Valley, even in places like Sopore,” he added.