Playing Cricket by the Gomti: The Lesser Known Story of the Game in UP

Uttar Pradesh is the most populated state of India with over 19 crore people, and undoubtedly has a lot of cricket talent. But the results are not commensurate with its population in terms of players representing the country and the state winning the national titles.

Lucknow: Lucknow’s KD Singh ‘Babu’ Stadium has hosted a solitary test match, an India versus Sri Lanka encounter in 1994. But both Anil Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar made full use of their lone visit to the venue and made it an unforgettable one for different reasons, individually and team-wise. Tendulkar hammered his seventh Test century while leg-spinner Kumble bagged the first of his eight ten-wicket match hauls to steer India to an innings and 119-run win in the first match of the three-test series. India also won in Bangalore and Ahmedabad to sweep the series.

The ‘Babu’ stadium, named after the former India hockey captain and double Olympic gold medal winner, hosted just one more international encounter. It was a one-day international between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, a league game of the Nehru Cup in 1989.

Then there was a long, 24-year lull before international cricket returned to the city in 2018 – at the brand new and breath-taking Ekana Stadium. Since this modern venue has come up, the frequency of international matches’ allotment to Lucknow has increased. So far, Ekana Stadium has hosted one test, seven ODIs (before the Indian-England World Cup match on October 29) and six T20 internationals, besides several IPL matches as it is also the home ground of the new franchise, Lucknow Super Giants.

However, Kanpur has been the preferred choice for international matches since 1952, when it hosted its first test match at the Green Park Stadium. Despite the city not having the required quality facilities like five-star hotels for teams and air connectivity etc., matches continued to be allotted to Kanpur as most of the officials of the Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association (UPCA) who had influence in the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) were based in the city and favoured the venue. Crucially, a Kanpur-based major business conglomerate has been heading the UPCA for years and backed these officials.

The Ekana Stadium in Lucknow during the World Cup. Photo: Ekana.com

Despite Kanpur having the sway, Lucknow hosted an international match very early, in the same year when Kanpur hosted its first test. That was the India-Pakistan test match in 1952, organised by a very influential individual, Habul Mukherjee, a renowned hockey coach, who was secretary of the now-defunct Lucknow Sports Association. The Lucknow-based Mukherjee wanted to promote hockey with the profit that he had expected to generate by hosting the cricket test. With that goal in mind, he managed to get the match allotted to Lucknow, despite there being no proper infrastructure to stage the important five-day encounter in the capital city.

The test was played on a matting wicket laid out at the makeshift ground, on the banks of river Gomti, next to Lucknow University. At times, this venue is also called Gomti ground. Wooden poles and planks were erected and temporary seats were laid out for spectators, but most of them didn’t buy the tickets and the overall management was an utter failure.

Lucknow-based Shahid Ali Khan Durrani, manager of the Indian cricket team’s eventful tour of Australia/New Zealand/Fiji in 1980-81, was closely associated with Mukherjee and one of the volunteers during that Test. “It was his wish to promote hockey from the profit he had hoped he would make from the Test match. It turned out to be a disaster. He was left heartbroken,” says the 87-year-old former secretary of the Services Sports Control Board. “I also recall a Commonwealth XI, captained by Sir Frank Worrell, visiting Lucknow in 1952. The match was played at the La Martiniere College ground.”

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By all accounts, Lucknow never really made any serious efforts before or after that test to raise quality infrastructure so that it could host international cricket matches. Neeru Kapoor, one of the oldest Uttar Pradesh Ranji Trophy players, attributes this to a lackadaisical attitude of successive generations of administrators and a lack of proper infrastructure in the state.

“Many years ago cricket was properly organised only at certain centres, like Allahabad, Bareilly, and Agra etc. It was very properly organised particularly in Allahabad, which has produced some great players like Anand Shukla and Mohamed Kaif. In Lucknow, there has been no infrastructure and no one to promote players – it was tough,” 80-year-old Kapoor, a former national women’s selector, tells The Wire. “Things are changing now, though. There are 50-60 cricket academies running in Lucknow.”

Feats at Green Park

While Green Park had some serious shortcomings, it is also a fact that many great feats have been performed there. One of the most outstanding records has been legendary off-spinner Jasu Patel’s 14-wicket match haul in a test match against Australia in 1959-60. He captured nine for 69 in the first innings and five for 55 in the second to spin India to 119-run win.

Leg-spinner Subhash Gupte also bagged nine wickets in an innings at this venue in 1958. In the West Indies’ first innings of the second Test, he captured nine for 102, though he couldn’t prevent Gerry Alexander’s team from registering a 203-run win.

It was also at Green Park that Mohammed Azharuddin slammed his third consecutive century in his third test match – his third successive since making his debut against England in 1984-85. He also has the highest all-time average at this venue (181.00), having tallied 543 runs in three Tests.

Poor on-field results

There is a belief that cricket administrators of Uttar Pradesh have paid little attention to the on-field cricket and have done precious little over successive years and decades. As a result, its teams’ performances have been poor, to say the least. To mention its performance in the Ranji Trophy would suffice as an example: in the 88 years of the national championship, Uttar Pradesh has won the title only once, in 2005-06 when Mohammed Kaif captained the team, and lost the finals on five other occasions.

The state has emerged champions in junior national tournaments a few times, but the promise shown has not translated into greater glory. Many of the players who shone in the junior ranks never lived up to their promise. Only a handful of them progressed to represent the country. So, it should not come as a surprise that since the formation of the UPCA in 1931, only a handful of players – Gopal Sharma, Rudra Pratap Singh (senior), Gyanendra Pandey, Kaif, Piyush Chawla, Suresh Raina, Praveen Kumar, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Kuldeep Yadav, Rudra Pratap Singh (junior), and Sudeep Tyagi – have gone on to represent the country.

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It’s generally said that in Indian cricket, state cricket administrators have two options when they represent the UPCA in the BCCI: seek positions for themselves in various committees of the Board or fight for players of their states. In Uttar Pradesh’s case, the former seems true. But this is not the lone factor for the state not having produced players in ratio to its vast population. The perennial friction between Lucknow and Kanpur administrators has stunted players’ progress as many genuinely talented cricketers have fallen by the wayside for want of support.

Domination by Mumbai etc.

Some people also cite the domination of other powerful associations, saying their players got preferences over Uttar Pradesh cricketers over decades when it came to selection. “There has been total domination of Mumbai, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu and players belonging to these associations. Uttar Pradesh has had abundant talent, but it has always been a question of getting the support at the right time. Players like Anand Shukla, Ubaid Kamal and Ashish Winston Zaidi never got sufficient support,” former Uttar Pradesh captain Ashok Bambi tells The Wire.

Also, corruption in selection of players for the various Uttar Pradesh teams makes news every season. A few days ago, an audio clip, in which someone could be heard purportedly demanding a few lakhs of rupees just for enabling a player to attend the trials, went viral. Apparently, there has been no investigation by the UPCA into this, or other such instances.

Uttar Pradesh is the most populated state of India with over 19 crore people, and undoubtedly has a lot of cricket talent. But the results are not commensurate with its population in terms of players representing the country and the state winning the national titles.

The changing scenario

However, the picture is changing now. Lucknow has been allotted five matches of the ongoing World Cup. Work on another stadium in Varanasi has begun and that will help Uttar Pradesh host a number of important matches in the future. “Over the last few years, Lucknow has gained a reputation as an international venue and it has culminated now in the city hosting the World Cup matches,” Durrani tells The Wire.

Among the new cricket infrastructure coming up in Uttar Pradesh, the Ekana Stadium stands out. It is indeed a marvel, with easy viewing for spectators from all around the stadium as there are no pillars to pose obstruction to them. Hopefully, talented Uttar Pradesh players would also be selected without any bias.

Qaiser Mohammad Ali has covered cricket for over three decades, based in New Delhi. He tweets at @AlwaysCricket.