Cricket bounces on an uneven pitch in Kashmir

Published: Sunday, June 27, 2004, 23:53 [IST]
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Srinagar:With terrorists forcing the closure of cinema halls, video parlours and bars in Kashmir, thousands of Muslim males turn every Sunday to the one form of public entertainment still left to them -- cricket.

"If I don't play cricket on Sundays I feel uncomfortable throughout the week," said Muzaffar Wani, 34, a schoolteacher and father of two.

Like fellow cricketers across the disputed territory, Wani rises around 5:00 am every Sunday, puts on his sports shoes, picks up a few cricket stumps and leaves home so as to be in time to grab some space for a cricketing encounter.

At Srinagar's Eidgah grounds, which adjoin a graveyard where separatists, Muslim rebels and Kashmiris are buried, more than 70 teams play cricket every Sunday. Every other bit of flat open ground in the summer capital Srinagar is occupied by hundreds of other teams.

But with the increase in the number of teams vying for ever -- decreasing space comes an increase in the risks -- Wani last year was hit on his forehead by a ball and had to spend four days in hospital.

"Every Sunday we see more and more teams playing cricket, making it more risky and a messy affair," said Ghulam Mohammed, who has represented Kashmir in matches against other Indian states.

"But we can't do anything. Cricket is a passion."

Every third male in Kashmir is a part-time cricketer, according to some estimates, but no females at all play the game.

"This is the only entertainment we have," said Mansoor Ahmed, a sports teacher at a local school.

"We don't play the game to find a place in Indian cricket team. We simply love cricket in the absence of any other form of entertainment," said Manzoor Ahmed, a former guerrilla.

Aside from the casual teams, more than 50 cricket clubs are officially recognised by the Kashmir government and are authorised to play at the Sheri Kashmir stadium, which hosted two international cricket matches -- in 1983 and 1986 -- featuring India versus the West Indies and Australia.

But gone are the days when the likes of cricketing greats Vivian Richards, Clive Lloyd, Steve Waugh and Dean Jones graced the ground.

The stadium, surrounded by huge chinar trees, is now occupied by Indian troops fighting a 15-year insurgency in the state.

A lone gardener has been left to to battle the recurring weeds and unwanted grass. The wooden benches for spectators are withering while the pavilion is a mess.

Official teams these days rarely get a chance to play matches at the stadium and the players are angry that the Government offers them no help or patronage.

"The Government does not sponsor any major tournament to encourage the local talent," said cricketer Mushtaq Ahmed.

"We have no coaches, no proper grounds. It is only our love for the game that keeps us going," he said.

Cricket needs an even pitch to avoid uneven bounce that can cause injuries, but in Kashmir the young and not-so-young play on any available surface.

"Every week we receive lot of cricket-related injuries," said Mohammed Akbar, an orthopaedic doctor at Srinagar's main hospital.

But like a people obsessed, the players don't let the risk of injury get in their way of having a good time outdoors on a Sunday.

"This game is driving people mad and they don't even care about being hit," said Government employee Mohammed Yusuf, 47, who himself plays every week.

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