Conditions ripe for cricket to shine in Tirunelveli
Cricket may be a religion in India but not all parts of the country are as devoted to the sport as you would think. Although still in its infancy, one of the biggest accomplishments of the Tamil Nadu Premier League is its ability to get the game through to places where it is otherwise absent.
While Tamil Nadu has consistently produced international players and Chennai Super Kings have remained in the memory despite their two-year suspension, the further down south you travel in the state, the harder it becomes to find fans who consume cricket as a staple diet.
One area that hasn't been a bedrock of cricketing talent and where the sport is far from the primary source of entertainment is Tirunelveli. And that is a fact that Tirunelveli District Cricket Association vice president S Shanmugam admits to.
"Tirunelveli and Palayamkottai are known for football, hockey, and volleyball only," he told Sportskeeda, before adding, "but actually cricket, with the help of the TNPL, has created another avenue for the people. Cricket is also, you know, as important and people have started participating in that."
The success of the inaugural edition of the TNPL and the fact that the defending champions are the Tuti Patriots, from a city (Thoothukudi) that is just over 50 kms away from Tirunelveli certainly has helped that process as well.
TDCA secretary R Murali admits that TNPL has been a huge help as it has now provided an avenue for aspiring cricketers and showed them that a pathway does exist. Perhaps not right to playing for India, or even Tamil Nadu straight away, but the door is ajar and it is up to the players to storm that door and break into the fortress that proved so elusive hitherto.
"Now in districts, our players are very keen to have a professional cricket," Murali said on the sidelines of a TNPL game at Tirunelveli. "Nowadays, kids are being accompanied by their parents, who want to give them an edge in their game. This year we have got two players who are joining the Tamil Nadu combined districts team.
"The boys are coming up and ex-cricketers are getting involved in the coaching of the players, they want to do something for the districts and give something back because they know that TNPL is a platform that will help them come up."
Located on the banks of the Thamirabarani river, the city hasn't had it all its own way when it comes to hosting cricket games. While the grounds have been packed for the second edition of the TNPL, a petition was filed with the Madurai bench of the High Court against the games being held in the city before the start of this edition. However, the stay was refused and the ICL Ground in Tirunelveli has seen a spike in attendance even for double headers that began in the scorching afternoon sun.
"The reception is fantastic," says Shanmugam with a huge smile on his face. "The people are expecting these matches for the last one month. (On the crowd being full even for afternoon games). Last year it was not like this."
And that sentiment is evident from the passionate support that the crowd has provided, reaffirming the faith shown by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) in increasing the number of games at the venue to 13 (four more than the inaugural edition).
With more people walking through the gates, when asked about any changes to the facilities apart from the increase in stadium capacity to 4,000, the list that the TDCA secretary reels off is a long one.
"We have improved our ground conditions. The ambience of media boxes and commentary boxes, the pavilion, the dressing room are the areas we have concentrated on. The ground also, compared to last year, is greener and the wickets are also prepared to a high standard. We have improved our galleries and the number of seats as well," he concludes.
With increased facilities and the chance to host the TNPL, the cricket flag has never flown higher in Tirunelveli, so what next for the city?
"Next season, there will be a minimum of one or two players from Tirunelveli (in the Tamil Nadu side)," is the immediate response from the TDCA vice president, who speaks about their plans going forward.
"Some other small villages that are not covered, we can encourage them to participate. We are going to provide practice nets in rural areas, we want to get an academy and try to improve the cricket in this area. Get good coaches and also give coaching to our ex-cricketers, send them out and then utilize them to coach our players. It is a drastic improvement in Tirunelveli cricket."
The cricket bug has finally bitten Tirunelveli and with improved infrastructure, the privilege of hosting a tournament like the TNPL and the opportunity for youngsters that wasn't there before, now is the perfect time for a rough diamond to emerge from the city that is known for its signature sweet rather than its cricketers.