The last time the 60,000-capacity Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in Kochi hosted an international cricket match was in October, 2014 when India faced off against the West Indies, a match the hosts went on to lose. Since then, the stadium has largely seen crowds in yellow – the colour of the Kerala Blasters, the local Indian Super League (ISL) team which commands a fervent following in the state. It was also one of the venues for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, a prestigious tournament that saw the state government whipping out several crores of rupees to maintain a world-class ground. Now, four years since that cricket match, the stadium faces the prospect of hosting another ODI – coincidentally against the same opponents – in November this year. But today, strangely that prospect has created strong antagonism between cricket and football officials in the state.
Several football players including CK Vineeth and Iain Hume of the Blasters have pleaded to the Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) not to ‘dig up’ the stadium in Kochi for a one-off cricket match that could overturn months of hard work in creating a world-class football turf. Instead, they say that the match should be shifted to Karyavattom in Thiruvananthapuram, where a traditional cricket stadium sits waiting.
“A lot of time, effort and money has gone into the football pitch at the JN Stadium. This picture was clicked two years ago, at a time when over a hundred workers came in for days on end. I have never met any of them, and could never thank them for what they continue to do, but I must implore the authorities that their work is not thrown away. The stadium in Kochi is one of only six in India that are approved by FIFA, a certification that will take immense effort and countless permissions to obtain again,” Vineeth wrote in a Facebook post that has been shared widely on the platform.
Hume also pitched in on Instagram, “I understand the love of cricket in not just Kerala, but all of India, and I don’t want to disrespect anyone for that. But there’s a ground in Trivandrum that is Cricket specific, so why for the sake of one match, rip up a pitch that has taken years to get to the standard as one of the best in the country?”
Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, went a step further, speaking to Vinod Rai, the chief of Committee of Administrators, asking him to denounce the ‘bizarre’ decision of the KCA to hold the match in Kochi.
“Thanks for the outpouring of support for my firm opposition to KCA’s shifting the WI ODI to Kochi. Turf laid for top-class football would have to be dug up, while a cricket-ready SportsHub stadium in Trivandrum, the best in India, lies idle. Who gains from this suspect decision?” he tweeted.
Thanks for the outpouring of support for my firm opposition to KCA’s shifting the WI ODI to Kochi. Turf laid for top-class football would have to be dug up, while a cricket-ready SportsHub stadium in Trivandrum, the best in India, lies idle. Who gains from this suspect decision?
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) 20 March 2018
But a top KCA official told IndianExpress.com that the issue is not about opposing football, but ultimately boils down to the agreement the association has signed with the Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA), the stadium’s owners. The lease of the stadium to the KCA was renewed in 2014 for a period of 30 years. Before the new stadium in Thiruvananthapuram came into being, all the international cricket matches in the state used to be held in Kochi.
“This is a stadium that we have invested so much money in for daily maintenance. Under the agreement, we have equal right to the stadium. We have invested close to Rs 1 crore. So the GCDA should compensate us,” said Ranjit Thomas, the KCA general manager.
“There’s no need for such agitated responses. We don’t want to get into an ego fight. Tomorrow, we have a meeting with the GCDA and ISL officials where a final decision will be taken. Since we have a stadium in Thiruvananthapuram, we will take a lenient view,” he added.
Worried about the potential damage to the FIFA approved World class Football turf in Kochi. Urge the KCA to take the right decision where cricket (Thiruvananthapuram) and Football (Kochi) can happily coexist. pic.twitter.com/rs5eZmhFDP
Kerala Football Association (KFA) officials also acknowledged the contributions of the KCA to maintaining the stadium.
“It would be better if it (the stadium) is given for football exclusively, but our opinion doesn’t stand. This is between the GCDA and the KCA. In a year, a stadium hosts perhaps one international cricket match so it’s important. International matches always take precedence,” said Anil Kumar, the KFA secretary.
“KCA has maintained the stadium for a long time. So the question is if they are not allowed to hold matches there, who will maintain the stadium?” asked Kumar.
With the state sports minister AC Moideen maintaining that the government will not allow any digging up of the football turf at the Kochi stadium, it seems likely that the ODI against West Indies will be moved to the Greenfield stadium in Thiruvananthapuram. All eyes, for now, are on the crucial meeting between GCDA, KCA and ISL officials on Wednesday.