Sport, interrupted: After 228 years, Kolkata's storied CC&FC laid low by lockdown

Founded in 1792, five years after the MCC, the CCFC is in its first known three-month shutdown in 228 years. Dinyar Mucadum

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.

Vece Paes was a 17-year-old medical student when he first walked in to the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club (CC&FC) in the early 1960s. He was to play for the Rangers club against the hosts in a pre-season football match, but was stopped before he could enter the field by the CC&FC captain.

"I was wearing light cream stockings, instead of white," says Paes, a member of the Indian hockey team that won bronze at the 1972 Munich Olympics. "I was told I couldn't play until I'd changed into a white pair."

It was to be the beginning of Paes' orientation into a world of sport he'd never known. In a few years, he left Rangers and was invited to play for CC&FC, soon becoming part of both their football and rugby teams.

"We played rugby on Saturdays and football on Sundays. And after each match when we returned to the changing room there were bottles of beer for everyone and we sang and danced till 2 am.

"I was just out of Bangalore boarding school life and the first thing that struck me was the joyfulness attached to sport. It was in such an atmosphere that my son Leander grew up. It played a defining role in shaping his love for sport."

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

Founded in 1792 -- five years after the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) -- the CC&FC is in its first known three-month shutdown in 228 years, says current club president Dinyar Mucadum. Its staple diet of cricket, football, rugby, hockey, cycle polo, tennis and swimming is on hold -- the worst possible news for a sports club.

"As a sports club if I can't earn my revenue from sports, it's obviously a big let-down," says Mucadum.

By this time every year, the club has already earned its meatiest chunk of annual revenue through the Merchants Cup, a five-a-side corporate football tournament. The football season typically starts in May and the Merchants Cup that runs for four weeks and comprises 64 teams rakes in around Rs 20 lakh in revenue. "We usually wrap up the Merchants Cup football before the onset of monsoon season," says Mucadum. "It's a major revenue loss for us not to be able to host it this year."

The tournament, which was started in the 1970s, has had some of the biggest names in Indian football -- including Chuni Goswami and Shyam Thapa -- along with those from other sports, including Paes father and son, take the field. It began as a way for the club's members to relive their schoolday sporting exploits, but has since become a Kolkata institution, a celebration of the city's love for sport.

Hockey, too, had a Merchants Cup tournament at the club until 2005, before lack of corporate sponsorship brought it to a halt. "No one wanted to invest in the sport. We were down to four or five teams so it just didn't make sense to carry on with it anymore," says Mucadum.

In addition to football, the lockdown has also eaten into two other sport seasons at CC&FC -- rugby and cycle polo. The rugby season runs from April to September, with local teams vying for the Calcutta Cup (its more famous namesake is contested for annually by the teams of England and Scotland). The other highlight is the All India and South Asia rugby tournament, hosted by CC&FC and the Bombay Gymkhana in alternate years. This year, it's the latter's turn. There's also a post-monsoon month's window for cycle polo, which may not take place this year.

The club is currently surviving on member subscriptions, numbering 1,500, and bar and restaurant takeaways.

"Though we shut in March, we managed to accumulate some funds from sponsorships prior to it and paid off salaries until May to all 80 staff members working for us. Looking ahead, though, it's going to be difficult. We have members coming over for food and drink takeaway orders; it's a trickle of revenue and it's not enough to sustain us."

For members, CC&FC is more than just a place to hang out on Sundays -- it's almost a second home. Paes recalls that, as a single parent, it was also his way of keeping his young son engaged outside school hours.

"Leander would accompany me to CC&FC. In the monsoons, he and his friends would play football on the slushy club ground. By the end of the match, the boys would be muddied all over and unrecognisable. They would then line up outside the field for the club maalis to hose them down."

The club's cricket season usually starts in November and the Merchants Cup cricket is held in the first quarter of the year. This time, the final of the tournament in mid-March had to be brought forward by three days for a mid-week finish to beat the growing apprehensions as the coronavirus threat increased. Two years ago, the club also floated a six-team T10 cricket tournament that allows members to own teams and play against each other.

"Kolkata Knight Riders has been a primary sponsor of the league for two years now and it has been a recent additional revenue stream. We don't know what it'll look like anymore," says Mucadum.

He's not losing hope, though. They are considering the option of pushing the cricket season back by a month to give the football Merchants Cup a second chance. "If things look better in August-September, we could maybe host the Merchants Cup in a small way without spectators. We could have fewer teams and spread the matches out. We've been speaking to corporates and the response has been good so far. It's a possibility we are looking at. The maintenance staff live on the club premises so our field is lush green, well-trimmed and ready for a game anytime."

For the club, the recovery path ahead could be a tardy one. While tennis has resumed, other sports are still on hold. The gym and swimming pool will be shut for the foreseeable future.

"There is fear among people. No one wants to be out socially and this will continue for at least the next six months. If this phase of no sport continues and our income isn't able to offset our expenses, we may have to request members to increase our subscription fee. It would be our last resort. Quite literally, without sport, our name loses meaning."