Kochi gears up for cricket feast

THE LAST time the Pakistan cricketers came to Kochi for a first class match, in February 1999, the visitors were quite relaxed. A few of the players even went to Kumarakom on a boating trip during the three-dayer against the Board President's XI. At one stage on the second day, coach Javed Miandad even took to the field for an hour or so, substituting for an injured Saeed Anwar. The match meandered to a draw but Kerala leg-spinner K. N. Ananthapadmanabhan made it memorable for the home fans with his five-wicket haul in Pakistan's second essay.

Six years on, a very different ambience welcomes you as you enter the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium to watch and feel Kochi getting ready for India's April 2 One-Day International against Pakistan. The oval is silent, the stands are empty but already you can catch images of fans cheering loudly from all over. Here and there, you can hear some wild screaming too.

"Yes, the ambience is going to be electric," says the bubbly Kerala Cricket Association secretary S. Haridas. The Nehru Stadium is still a young maiden, it has just hosted six first-class fixtures, but the coming tie is expected to be the mother of all battles being the series opener. The security will be tight, the stadium will be as hot as a cauldron on full flame but you can be sure it's going to be a noisy, packed house.

Even the men who prepare the wicket appear to be feeling the heat. Especially, after India shockingly lost the last one-dayer to Zimbabwe in Kochi five years ago. The city lost its reputation as a lucky venue with that debacle. To be fair to the curator, that was the working of a certain Douglas Hondo, a medium-pacer who came from virtual obscurity to pull the rug from under the Indians' feet. But the two earlier one-dayers in Kochi, against Australia and South Africa, had been a virtual treat for the spectators with India scoring 300 runs and winning too.

"Of course, the curators of Test pitches will be under bigger pressure but everybody will be looking forward to a run feast here," said Mr. Haridas. For this, the KCA has once again placed its trust on the seasoned G. Kasturirangan, a former BCCI chief curator.

The tie will be Kochi's fourth ODI and sixth first-class match but the budget will be the biggest ever. "It will be close to Rs. 1 crore," said T. C. Mathew, the general convener of the Kochi match who is also the KCA treasurer. The figure includes stadium rent, guarantee money for the BCCI, a temporary air-conditioned press box, which will be placed much higher than the regular media stand, players' dressing room renovation, temporary `roof' for the chair stands and barricades inside and outside the venue.

With Kochi being a vibrant hub in God's Own Country, a thousand-strong crowd is expected from Pakistan combining cricket and tourism, said the BCCI secretary S. K. Nair, also the KCA president, the other day. With educational institutions closing by the end of March and with enquiries coming in from fans from Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, the KCA is keen on cashing in on the festive mood. Ticket rates for chairs are likely to be higher than previous ODIs and sales will begin in the last week of March. No harm in making hay while the sun shines.