In the lead up to the first ODI between India and West Indies on Sunday, Guwahati looks like any other Indian city that hosts cricket regularly. The road to Barsapara Stadium, which is hosting its first ODI, is full of banners with old photos of the two captains. Every 50 metres or so, the state’s chief minister also makes a banner-appearance, welcoming the two teams. And every 200 metres or so, an enthusiastic jeweller has his own welcome banners for the Indian team. It’s filled with mugshots of players, except the squad he has had printed is that of the Test squad that played West Indies.
Outside the stadium’s main gate, counterfeit Virat Kohli India jerseys are selling for 200 rupees, but it is difficult to get anywhere near the gate or the vendors. In true Indian cricket fashion, the area outside the stadium is an armed-force congregation. Fans can get manic, especially if they learn Kohli or MS Dhoni are bound to make appearances, and while Guwahati’s security personnel are in place to stop such intrusions, their massive numbers in this case might also be a consequence of the blasts that separatist organisation ULFA engineered in the city last week. More armed guards arrive seemingly every hour, and so do hordes of spectators.
Some of them breach security like they’ve been doing this cricket thing for years.
The truth is that Guwahati, in the state of Assam, last hosted an ODI in November 2010, when the Nehru Stadium was being used. It held an India-Australia T20I last year, the city’s first high-profile match in seven years, and now will finally host a West Indies team for the first time since 1987.
This is mostly down to the fact that it took seven years for the Barsapara Stadium to be completely constructed. For most of this duration, barring the last two years, the Assam Cricket Association (ACA) had been receiving grants from the BCCI. But when the incumbent ACA committee took over in June 2016, they inherited a serious shortage of funds, and within a month of taking office were completely cut out of the BCCI’s payroll.
Unlike neighbouring state Tripura, one of the first associations to adopt the Lodha Committee recommendations, the ACA did not show any such inclination. The Committee of Administrators, appointed by the Supreme Court to ensure the BCCI and its state units implemented the Lodha recommendations, had made it clear that funds would be released only to states that adopted the recommendations.
“When the present committee took over in June 2016, the stadium was 90 percent ready,” said ACA vice-president Devajit Saikia. “We took charge on June 12, 2016 and the Lodha Committee judgment came on July 18, 2016. That was hardly one month that we had completed. Since July 2016 the fund flow has stopped. We are not getting any funds for construction or any developmental work from the BCCI for two years.”
Like many associations in the recent past, the ACA was forced to look outside, and luckily for them the state government was willing to help out.
“We have a sport-loving chief minister in Assam, so we approached the state government and it was kind enough to release [funds],” Saikia said. The Hon’ble CM [Sarbananda Sonowal] and Hon’ble Finance Minister [Himanta Biswa Sharma], who was also the previous president of the Assam Cricket Association, gave us a grant in aid, not a loan, of Rs. 16 crores. This helped finish the stadium with respect to organising an international match.”
The stadium is a majestic structure that can hold 37,500 people. The galleries rise steeply, which is unusual for a stadium this big, and from a distance both the pitch and the outfield look world class. But even in here visuals can be deceptive.
A completed stadium didn’t make for a complete experience during last year’s T20I and a year later, with hardly any major events in between, the stadium needed resurrecting.
“This stadium has come out very nicely but it was never tested. We opened the venue with that T20I match and it was a challenge because it was a huge structure and we did not know the roads, the galleries, indoors, outdoors – there are 23 gates. It was very difficult for the first time from a logistical point of view and from a security point of view but we gained a lot of experience last year.
“One minor incident took place when the team was travelling, when a crazy person threw a stone [at the team bus]. But otherwise, everything went off nicely and the crowds were well behaved and well organized,” Saikia said. “This time it is a longer game but we are experienced. We know the loopholes and we have already streamlined the shortfalls and hopefully everything will fall into place on Sunday.”
The stands, corridors, and the press box were far from being match-ready two days before the game. The architectural beauty isn’t evident when one walks through dusty, debris-filled corridors and there were flea infestations on some floors as well.
Money is at the root of this problem too.
“We are cleaning constantly,” Saikia said. “On Sunday, you will see a spick and span stadium. With funds of INR 16 crore we managed to complete the stadium, but on the other hand, to run the daily activities we had taken a loan from Apex Bank and Yes Bank.
“Till now not a single corporate house is coming forward [to sponsor the ACA]. Or maybe there’s something lacking on our part as well, wherein we’re not approaching them properly. Having one match a year, it’ll be very difficult to maintain a stadium of this magnitude.”
However, the future has started looking better for the ACA. On September 20, shortly after the Supreme Court’s approval of the BCCI’s new constitution in August, the state association adopted a new constitution that was in line with the Lodha recommendations.
“We adopted it on September 20,” Saikia said. “On 24th we sent it to BCCI. They are looking at it for variance. They have asked for a variance certificate and a justification for minor cosmetic changes there. We have given the compliance report as well. We are awaiting the final approval from the BCCI so that we can carry forward and have a new body [after election] here.”
That approval could rekindle a healthy cashflow for the ACA, which has long drawn the ire of local media for alleged mishandling of funds. A new body that is ostensibly under the scanner of the Supreme Court itself should ease some of those concerns. As should the potential of hosting IPL games for Rajasthan Royals, who had BCCI’s approval but were restricted by the Rajasthan High Court from hosting “home” games outside Jaipur.
There are other ambitions too, says Saikia, should the legal situation ease, and one of them is producing a cricketer for the national team. Over the last five years, both Assam’s junior and senior domestic teams have come close to winning major titles, and recently they have produced notable India Under-19 cricketers.
There is no problem of interest for cricket in Assam – the T20I between India and Australia was sold out in about five hours, and on the eve of the ODI Saikia claimed over 90% of tickets had been sold – and, as such, the lack of their very own superstar cricketer is unfortunate. But the path back to international cricket has been slow, and that could be the case in this endeavour too. For now, the fans will have to make do with Kohli jerseys.