Notwithstanding the absence of basic infrastructure, the cricketers in Sopore have been pooling funds to improve the rundown College Stadium so that game survives politics and turmoil, Daanish Bin Nabi reports
Even Sopore, Kashmir’s apple town, plays cricket. Town’s tryst with cricket started in the early 1960s when two known cricketing clubs – United Cricket Club (UCC) and Muslim Cricket Club (MCC) were functional.
Even today, Sopore knows the names of Muhammad Ramzan Baba, Abdul Rashid Sumji, Muhammad Akbar Pandit, and Muhammad Sultan Dar. There were Nisar Pandit, Shafqat Sofi, Farooq Untoo, Bashir Gadoo from UCC and Muhammad Akbar Ganai and Ghulam Nabi Ganai (nicknamed after Australian fast bowler Douglas Robert) of MCC.
“They are our idols. We learnt cricket from them,” Majid Malik, one of the town’s best batsmen said. “They used to play with Chaturvedi bats and without batting pads and sometimes even without shoes.”
Malik, started his career in the early 1990s, at Sopore Coaching Centre Club. It was the time when UCC and MCC started fading away thus giving rise to the Sopore Sports Club (SSC) literally from the ruins of UCC. “UCC and MCC somehow managed to sustain till 2010 but later, they stopped altogether,” Sopore Cricket Association President Bashir Ahmad Bhat, who is playing cricket since 1972 from Sopore College Team, said.
Senior players from the belt remember the period from the 1960s to 1980s as the ‘golden period’ for cricketing activities in north Kashmir. However, with the onset of militancy, cricket lost the toss, especially in the town.
The Sopore College Ground, known now as the Subhan Stadium, had remained the main sporting venue of the town. With the rise of militancy, it was converted into a garrison.
Cricket made desperate attempts to survive. As militancy and counter-insurgency dominated Sopore, players moved to venues in Srinagar, Singhpora and Handwara for matches.
“During the early 1990s, it was a nightmare for the players,” Chief Organiser of Sopore Cup, Raouf Ahmad Chalkoo, who is playing the game since 1991, said. “We were all stressed and disturbed by the happenings around us. There was a heavy presence of security forces inside the College Grounds. It took us many years to realise what we lost.”
The Sopore Cup
It was the Highland Cup, organised by Freddie Nedou, Farooq Abdulla’s maternal uncle, that helped to revive cricketing activities in north Kashmir. A number of players joined their heads to revive the game and reverse the upsetting era by engaging crickets and coaching them. Muhammad Yousuf Gabru, Zahoor Ahmad Bhat, Firdous Ahmad Ganai, Majid Malik; Firdous Ganai, and Tariq Tantray contributed to the effort.
These efforts led the town’s retired cricketers to float the Sopore Cricket Association in 2018. They have been conducting the Sopore Cup, every year. Bashir Ahmad Bhat is currently heading the association.
The Sopore Cup has successfully concluded two major tournaments so far. The 2021 edition was participated by 32 teams. The response to the inaugural tournament was amazing. Almost everybody had come to Subhan Cricket Stadium to watch the final match on October 10, 2021, when the final match of ‘Sopore Cup’ was held at. “I have never witnessed anything like it. It was after the 1980s, that Sopore stadium witnessed such a massive crowd,” Majid Malik said.
In its second edition currently going on, 48 teams are participating. All Sopore Cup matches are being webcast live and a local channel has got exclusive rights for its coverage. Besides, the Association has developed a mobile app (Prism Live Streamer) for cricket enthusiasts to watch the scores live over cell phones.
“After Srinagar, Sopore has been a hub of sports activities but the political situation changed all these equations,” Chalkoo said. “Now we are trying our best to revive our golden days.”
The tournament is being managed professionally. Sponsored by various business houses, they charge a Rs 7000 entry fee against which lunch is being served to 24 players; 2 umpires; 2 groundsmen; a scorer and 1 venue in charge each. “If any team is travelling with their managers, we ensure we provide them best of facilities under our limited budget,” Chalkoo added.
Helping the game revive fast is being credited to Bashir Ahmad Bhat. “He is surely in top 10 players till date from north Kashmir,” Nisar Khanday, who is the first player from north Kashmir to play Ranji Trophy, said.
Despite the challenging situation, a number of cricketers made it to the Ranji Trophy. These include Nisar Khanday (Sopore), Raja Saleem (Bandipora), Arif Nabi (Sheeri, Baramulla).
Ranjot Singh, a resident of Main Chowk, Sopore, is also performing better in the ongoing Under 19 Vino Mankad One Day Trophy, where he took eight wickets for 25 runs against Kerala in Dehradun. Muhammad Manzar played from Jammu and Kashmir Team for the Under 19 is from the New Colony area of Sopore.
“Many players of the 1990s could not make it big because of the turmoil,” Khanday said. “They were fit and the best but nobody cared about them. We have been neglected always and for a long time now.”
Khanday, the JK Team manager in 1999, regrets that the Jammu Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA) has completely ignored the talent from the belt. “We have players like Basit Pandit, Muhammad Haziq Bhat, Manzar and Asif Nabi. JKCA did not gave them any chance to play at the higher levels,” Khanday alleged. “There is corruption and money involved in JKCA that is why our talent does not get any recognition.”
The Subhan Stadium, the town’s main cricket pitch spread over around 40 kanals of land is in shambles. There is no proper staff to manage it.
Although a new stadium, Khushal Stadium has been built on Sopore Bypass road, it lacks the basic facilities. There are no washrooms and restrooms for the players or a sitting place for the spectators.
“The administration did install flood lights but there are no basic facilities at the ground for the players,” Khanday said. “The Khushal Stadium is run by the bureaucracy and not by the sports personalities. The administration must give it to sports people so that they run it professionally.” Interestingly, the new stadium came up without a pitch roller and no turf. This has led the players to tighten their embrace around the worn-out Subhan Stadium.
What is interesting is that the Sopore Cricket Association spends its own kitty for the improvement of Subhan Stadium. Its managers said the expenditure they book on dewatering, de-weeding and levelling the ground goes up to Rs 40,000, every season. This is contrary to the footballers who use the stadium but allegedly avoid contributing anything to the upkeep of the facility that is owned by the college.
“We are diverting the young minds from drugs,” a cricketer said. “Ideally, the government should have come forward and contributed in improving the run-down infra.”
Bhat regretted that Subhan Stadium also lack washrooms and change rooms. For the last three years, the government is busy constructing the Indoor Stadium but it is far from getting ready.
On the infra front, Khanday said the crisis exists across Kashmir. “JKCA got affiliated with BCCI in 1957. Still, Jammu and Kashmir lack an international level ground,” Khnday said. “Himachal Pradesh got affiliated with BCCI in 1984 and it has six international grounds. BCCI gives the same amount of money to both states.”