KPL is ready for Hubli but is Hubli ready for KPL?
The archetypal construct of taking the game to the grassroots seems to be the latest fad amongst the corporate controllers of the game. I call them corporate controllers because just like things work inside a corporate house, here too, meritocracy precedes over aristocracy. Had it not been the case, Jayadev Shah, son of long-standing Saurashtra administrator Niranjan Shah would have captained the Delhi Daredevils for at least one season, given the Daredevils' knack for instability and the miracle by which Shah junior has been captaining Saurashtra for years despite averaging a measly 28 with the bat after 117 first-class games.
When Karun Nair says that the Mysuru Warriors are the best-managed team in the Karnataka Premier League (KPL), you are tempted to believe him. The Warriors reached the KSCA Stadium in Hubli at least three hours before the scheduled start of the first game of the Hubli leg of KPL 2017 on September 14. They had an extended football practice before regular warm-ups and throwdowns. They followed it up with catching practice after Nair won the toss and opted to field first.
The Hubli Tigers, their opponents for the match, had only warm-ups and throwdowns. It would be unfair to extrapolate things based on one pre-match session, but it was perhaps because of this lack of practice that Mayank Aggarwal dropped Arjun Hoysala at deep midwicket, something that, again, perhaps, cost Hubli the game.
As good as the action was on the field -- the match was decided on the fourth ball of the last over with a No. 7 batsman finishing it off with a six -- when I first stepped foot in Hubli, I couldn't quite make out that the KPL had reached the city before I had. In approximately four square kilometers of the area that ranges from the railway station to the KSCA stadium, you couldn't make out that some of Karnataka's finest -- from Stuart Binny to Shreyas Gopal -- were present in the city and had brought cricket to them.
"I understand where you are coming from, but perhaps the administrators thought the other way. They would build it up; more and more advertisement hoardings would come up as the tournament reaches its knockout stage," a KSCA official told me when I queried him about next to no advertisement of the league except only in a small perimeter around the stadium. The stadium, in any case, seems to be cut-off from the main city.
I couldn't understand the logic behind 'building it up' towards the knockouts, given that the KPL is only a 23-day long tournament, more than half of which has already been done with in Bengaluru and Mysore.
The 'building it up' wasn't restricted to just the main city. When you reach the venue in Rajnagar, you are greeted with beams and columns of concrete laying bare in your face with the path from the entry gates to the seats strewn with construction waste and heaps of soil. The path itself was akin to the 'Triwizard Maze' wherein every opening in the concrete jungle through which you could get a glimpse of the seating was blocked by either tin foils or steel barriers, and if nothing, policemen.
A local ball boy had to seek directions from at least three members of the ground staff to take me to the media box after 20 minutes of labour. Upon reaching there I discovered that the media box, more of an enclosure than a box, was nothing but an arrangement of tables and chairs put under a plastered roof in an open-air verandah on the second floor of an unpainted concrete skeleton.
The commentators and broadcast crew didn't have it any better. Theirs was another verandah but enclosed by a fiber cubicle with glasses and better seating with furnished tables. Not to mention that the media box or the broadcast room had no internet supply. Most of us from the digital media had to depend on mobile phones and data cards, while some were mere spectators of the game and could have as well taken the seats on the grass banks.
"We're building a bigger facility here. The concrete stands that you see have been built within the span of a year. We are making it into a 20,000-people facility from the capacity of 1,000 that we have now. In the future, you might see more games and who knows, perhaps India games here," the official told me about the plans that the KSCA has for the place.
"This land has been allotted to the Hubli-Dharwad Zone by the KSCA, and after 10 yards behind the boundary rope, we have another 20 feet available to build the stands," he added.
A few moments before we had this conversation, there was pandemonium for a good 10 minutes when local crowd and groundsmen played peek-a-boo on not one but two levels of stands immediately behind the sight screen. Nair was on strike, and R Vinay Kumar, the Hubli captain, was bowling. Even when Vinay Kumar would have been of Nair's age, there would still have been the envious space-lust of the Indian diaspora for the area around the sight screen.
The official I spoke with was livid when it happened and spoke in no gentle terms with the ball boys who were running around -- confused and awestruck at the magnanimity and the foolishness of their actions -- and with the lone security guard who was placed there to check the human influx and exodus. Flummoxed with the barrage directed his way, the guard bent as low as he possibly could to avoid Nair's line of sight, as if he were a pet dog who had just been served plain grass for fetching the stick for his master.
"The people here know that the KPL is happening. That is why they have come here to watch the game in huge numbers and have stayed back for the second innings," the official continued.
Yes, despite the unreadiness of the venue and the men who were supposed to make it ready, a significant chunk of the crowd had stayed back until 11 PM to watch the game conclude. They cheered for Aggarwal has he stroked the Mysuru bowlers all round the park, rooted for Vinay Kumar as he ran in to bowl, and roared at the fall of every Mysuru wicket.
With Mysuru needing 10 runs off the final over, we halted our chat and paid rapt attention. The game had shifted sides on many an occasion until then. Wickets in the third, fifth and tenth over had left the Warriors reeling at 58/3, needing 97 off the last 10. But 21 runs off the 13th over, in the symphony of 6, 0, 4, 6, 4, 1 by NP Bhareth changed the dynamics of the match.
Soon, 22 runs off 18 balls made it Mysuru's game. However, Aggarwal, who had dropped Hoysala earlier made sure that he latched on to the ball when Bhareth hit one straight to him in the 18th. Kranti Kumar sent back Shreyas Gopal in the next over to bring it down to 10 off the final over.
The crowd was silenced by SP Manjunath when he hit the first ball of the last over for four but was brought back to life again when Suchith holed out two balls later. 6 runs off 4 made it anybody's game before Manjunath seized the moment and decided to be the anybody by making one sail over long-on.
"Great game," I remarked. "Well, that's cricket," the official replied.
Indeed, that's cricket. I remember Chris Gayle has his Royal Challengers Bangalore teammates being given a raucous reception in a mall in Bengaluru last year and scores of fans lining up for a bowl-out session with their stars. The porch was jam-packed and people crammed the balconies for an exhibition of tennis-ball cricket.
So it wasn't really a surprise that locals thronged the half-built facility, found their way to the seats through the concrete maze and stayed back until the end, only to watch their side miss out by a small margin.
The results don't matter to these people as much as watching those men on the field. Most of them would not recognize the players who represent their franchise. All they know in clear terms is that Hubli now has a team of its own and they wouldn't have to go to Bengaluru every time.
The act of relishing the game outlasts any other stimuli for a common fan and this interest needs to be preserved. To really take the game to the grassroots, those roots must be watered and made aware that a game is being brought to them. And when it is brought to them, it should be presented in a way that makes people want to return.
The KPL, with all its talent and a little bit of glamour, is into its sixth year, but even after three years of hosting games in Hubli, the Dharwad zone doesn't seem to be ready for the KPL yet.
After the game, as Daniel Vettori -- a part of the commentary panel -- was leaving the establishment, trying to drag his trolley-bag through the mud and uneven flooring, he was surrounded a bunch of enthusiastic fans who wanted to take selfies with him. The lone member of the broadcast crew who was tasked to escort Vettori to a cab could not do much even as young men poked their phones in front of the cricketer and devoured the moment.
Vettori could not do much either except for waiting patiently and giving each of those men their share of the sliced limelight. This is a common occurrence in the country, given the star culture that India has, but Vettori could have had at least a few more helping hands to take him to the hotel.
Nobody surrounded me for anything as I walked out, and thankfully so, except for two boys roughly my age who I had met while tending to nature's call at innings break. As I occupied the pot left vacant right in between, thereby intruding their short-lived privacy, one of them told the other that whoever's done with his business first, the team he's rooting for would win. As they leaped to the finishing line of perhaps the easiest race in the world for men, I chipped in saying if I'm done first, the game would be a tie.
As it turned out, the game might as well have been a tie. When I walked out, one of those boys caught my arm and reminded me that the other one, who'd won the race, was indeed rooting for Mysuru.