Sport, Interrupted: Hot-weather cricket in cold storage leaves Delhi players in limbo

Aakash Chopra, who first played in the Om Nath Sood tournament at 14, said he scored so many runs one hot-weather season that he knew he would be picked for his third Ranji season. Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, ESPN looks across the country's sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.

A couple of months ago, Divij Mehra bought a new pair of cricket shoes. A standout for the Delhi U-19 cricket team last season, Mehra, 17, believed the Asics bowling spikes would be important for what promised to be a busy period ahead. Instead, the spikes have been left as they were. "They are still in their packing. There hasn't been any need to use them so far," he says.

This isn't how things were expected to be. The months of March, April and May are the busiest in the Delhi club cricket calendar. "From November to February, players are playing the BCCI tournaments," says Tarak Sinha, the highly respected coach of Sonnet Cricket Club, who won the Dronacharya award for coaching in 2019. "If you're a student, you're busy with school or college. If you are an administrator at a college, you would need your playing grounds for your institution's needs. So the summer months are when both players are free to play club cricket and when a lot of playing grounds become available because that's when schools and colleges have their vacations."

There are several premier tournaments in this period, starting with the DDCA league, comprising the 110 clubs recognised by the Delhi association. Around 40 teams qualify from there for the DDCA hot weather league, which lives up to its name: the matches are played under blistering 40-degree-plus heat in the peak of the north Indian summer. There are also several high-profile privately conducted cricket tournaments named after their benefactors: Om Nath Sood, Lala Raghubir Rai, GG Dutt and Laxman Dass. The cricket stops only when the monsoon hits North India, around end-June, and resumes with the first-class season in September or October.

"This [summer] period is the most intense. There are matches on every available ground from 7 in the morning," says coach Randhir Singh of the Rann Star cricket academy, whose alumni include India internationals Yuzvendra Chahal and Pawan Negi. "If you are a reasonably strong team, you might be playing around 35 matches over these 60-odd days. It's not as if you play one match and are done. You are playing matches almost every other day. And the important thing is these are 40-over-a-side matches, so it gives you plenty of time on the field."

Former India opener Aakash Chopra will vouch for the competitiveness. "I remember one match in the Lala Raghubir Rai tournament where I scored 65 and (former international cricketer) Raman Lamba had scored 67... the organisers were planning to give me the man of the match award since I was a young kid. But Raman Lamba was very adamant that I should only get the award if I'd scored more than him. That's how competitive we would get in these tournaments," says Chopra.

This year, the fields have remained empty through the long, hot summer. The cancellation of all the tournaments is unprecedented, says Pramod Sood, who organises the Om Nath Sood tournament. It features 24 teams and is played in league-cum-knockout format over a month from end-March. "I've been conducting this tournament without a break since 1994 and there are other tournaments that are nearly 40 years old. There's never been a case where we had to abandon a tournament. There has been a time when I lost a playing field at the last moment, but I still took out a loan and called in favours to ensure the tournament went on," he says.

The cost of organising such a tournament isn't insignificant. "Each edition costs Rs 12-14 lakh (approx US$ 15,000-18000) to organise. There's prize money, ground charges, umpiring staff, catering and equipment to take care of," says Sood. Although teams pay an entry fee, it is only a fraction of the cost of organising the tournament. Cost and return on investment, however, isn't the primary concern for Sood or most organisers: It's the opportunity lost for the younger cricketers.

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Sport, interrupted: How the coronavirus lockdown is affecting the Indian sport ecosystem

At first glance, a halt to club cricket doesn't seem particularly important considering the scale of the tournaments that have been shut across the world. But this grassroots cricket is significant to the overall health of the sport. "Club cricket is where you get talent for the higher levels," says Tarak Sinha.

"Yahan pehchan ban sakti hai. (You can make a mark here)," says Anuj Rawat (20), who's kept wickets for Delhi for the past two years. Rawat's cricketing career began with the PMCG club. "I made around 750 runs in the DDCA league when I was still an U-16 cricketer. That gave me a lot of confidence because I was scoring these runs against established players. It also helped me get recognized when I went for selection trials," he says. The 'pehchan' Rawat refers to is important when you consider the intensity of competition for places in the Delhi state teams. Performances at the club level might not guarantee selection but they certainly allow you to push your case further than it would have gone otherwise.

"In an average year there will be at least a thousand good cricketers who show up for the selection trials for the first-class team," says Tarak Sinha. "They then get cut to 500, then 200 and so on and finally you have trial matches. If you are among the thousand who show up initially, you'll be lucky to get four or five deliveries to make an impression on the selectors. Now if the selectors have heard of you, if they know you have done something at the club level, they'd probably give you some more time. There is even a rule that's made by the DDCA committee that if you score 600 runs as a batsman or take 25 wickets as a bowler on the club circuit, you get a direct call to the first shortlist. You don't have to come into the first trial."

This has been the case for a long time. "I remember one hot-weather season where I had scored so many runs that I knew there was no way I was not making the Ranji team. I had played two seasons of Ranji cricket but had had a mediocre second season and there was a question mark over my being picked for the third season. And I recall thinking I had done so well, I knew that I would be picked," says Chopra.

The result of this gruelling process is that it has supplied a steady stream of cricketers to the state side and also the India team. "Virat Kohli was 16 years and five months old when he scored 113 off 88 balls for Vidya Jain Academy against Malviya Cricket Club in the 2005 Om Nath Sood tournament," says Sood. "Aakash Chopra was only 14 when he first played in this competition, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir were 16 when they played for Delhi Schools for the first time. And they come back even when they are seniors."

The absence of a club season also deprives players of much needed match practice and the chance to iron out flaws in their game. "Think of the entire domestic cricket season like a set of exams. If the Ranji Trophy is the finals, then the Delhi club season is like your quarter or semifinals," says Randhir Singh. "This [hot-weather] season makes you match-fit. You get an idea of where you stand and what areas you need to work on. If you do well, you know that your changes are working. Everything players do for the rest of the season - their fitness, mental strength - is made here. That's why you see Virat Kohli and Yuzvendra Chahal play the odd match here."

Mehra, the U-19 cricketer, was looking forward to analysing himself as well. "Before this season I knew there were areas that I had to work on. I'm quite thin and my body doesn't always find it easy to withstand the stresses of the game. I've been trying to bowl from a longer run up and to improve my pace. That all has to wait," he says.

As things stand, he doesn't imagine he's going to be getting on-field experience any time soon. "Things have opened up but I don't see us starting playing matches right away. I'm doing my best to work on my strength at home using weights in the meantime," he says.

The organisers now hope for a curtailed version of the season to be held at some point. "The club matches are usually 40 overs a side but there's been a discussion in the DDCA that we could have 20-over matches. All the teams are amenable to it but it depends how the situation will progress in the city," says Sood.

It's a hope that grows dimmer by the day, though, with the number of coronavirus cases in the capital increasing steadily. But Sood is adamant he will conduct the tournament in some form eventually. "I've already paid a deposit of Rs 2.5 lakh for a ground. I've still not taken it back. I've told the ground management to keep the money until we can conduct the tournament once again," he says.