If you’re making the first trip to the Karnail Singh Stadium, it’s possible that you would lose the way in the labyrinth of streets cluttered with road-side tea stalls, fruit vendors and rows of rickshaw-pullers. Carrying a smartphone with GPS works, but asking curious onlookers will only elicit a nonchalant shrug, followed by ‘pata nahi‘. This 60-year-old venue does a marvellous job of concealing itself in the midst of the railways hospital and numerous residential colonies that dot the vicinity, even though it is still one of the most centrally located venues in the national capital, with the glitzy Connaught Place being just a stone’s throw away, and the New Delhi station perched behind it. The quaint venue owned by the Railways, tucked neatly in the heart of Delhi, has a charm of its own.
As you cross those iron gates that guard the premises, what strikes you immediately is the simplistic wooden green-board scoreboard, which is reminiscent of the days of yore. The old-world charm seemingly blends with the brand new electronic scoreboard installed ahead of this domestic season. Situated behind the sight-screen is a boxing ring, where boxer Akhil Kumar frequents. Overall, this venue is a far cry from the gilded galleries and the swanky press boxes seen in a bigger venue like the Ferozshah Kotla, which is a 30-minute drive from here.
Being a multi-purpose facility, the Karnail Singh Stadium has hosted several athletics events in the past, like the 1964 Athletics Open, where Paan Singh Tomar had set a national steeplechase record. It has not hosted an international cricket match so far, even though it’s a regular in domestic cricket, being the home venue for the Railways team.
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More than anything, it’s the sheer aural and visceral thrills of watching a first-class fixture that’s the biggest attraction here. For instance, if you strain your ears a bit, it’s not difficult to miss the whistles of trains that whiz past the New Delhi station. Overlooking the old scoreboard stands rows of residential colonies of railway employees, with their balconies providing the ring-side view of the action. Old-timers remember the 2002 Ranji final with glee when these balconies were filled to the brim. There were old and young, house-wives and grandmothers, all jostling for space from their apartments, to get a glimpse of the game below.
What adds layers of charm are it’s affable security guards. One among them in Chaganlal, who was employed here for more than a decade. His rustic charm made him a hit with journalists. “On most occasions, play would start late in the morning, and journalists would call me to check on the score or for information like which team won the toss.”
Despite having such colourful characters, this venue has its own inherent drawbacks. Former Indian cricketer Murali Karthik, and someone who had played a key role in Railways Ranji team’s ascent in the early noughties, says there’s an element of prosaicness that’s integral to this venue. “During my playing days, we had athletes, boxers and cricketers of different age-groups training simultaneously. It used to get slightly cramped, but we would adjust,” he offers. Perhaps, this humdrum nature has also made most athletes efficient at multi-tasking. “Playing cricket was not the only thing on our minds. On several occasions, we have put out the nets and get the pitch rolled by ourselves, simply because there wasn’t enough people around,” Karthik reminisces.
The venue has also attracted a fair share of controversies. Like during the 2012-13 Ranji season, when it was banned by the BCCI, after the pitch that hosted a Railways vs Saurashtra game was deemed ‘poor’. The Railways board got the ban overturned. But the episode leaves Karthik with mixed feelings. “The pitches during those days were really slow and low. It was really tough for batsmen and bowlers. As far as that particular match is concerned, I was out with an injury, but the whole incident was played up to suggest that the pitch was doctored to suit my bowling. But I didn’t play that game anyway,” he notes.
With BCCI’s intervention, the nature of the 22-yard strip here has improved. What has not changed, however, is the ground staff’s ability for jugaad. So, on the morning of this year’s Ranji opener (Railways vs Mumbai), the ground staff realized, much to their horror, that a sizeable part of the boundary rope was missing. Instead of panicking, they used the plain old hose pipe as a quick-fix solution.
For long, the Karnail Singh Stadium has been riddled with such infrastructural nightmares. That apart, the poor air quality and smoggy weather in Delhi during the cricket season has reduced visibility by several notches over the past couple of years.
In a bid to address this anomaly, the Railways board has asked BCCI for permission to shift their remaining home games to Visakhapatnam. “The pollution in Delhi has reduced the visibility levels, and it has made it increasingly difficult to play in Karnail.We have asked BCCI to grant us permission to host all our remaining home games at our stadium in Vizag,” says RSPB secretary Rekha Yadav. If the board gives the go-ahead, the doors on this quaint and quirky bastion will be shut for the rest of this season.