Aditi Parab’s Khelo India gold medal in the U-17 4x400m relay came after she spent 16 months training on the steps of the Dadoji Konddev Stadium in Thane. Running in the stands, she has also watched grass grow on the infield where she has been denied access.
The reason: her spikes could take off tufts of grass being protected for a summer of cricket. On Thursday, she was turned back at the gates and the stadium closed to several athletes as part of a security drill for a celebrity cricket match featuring Marathi actors. Also, at least a couple of IPL teams are expected to use the newly furbished and fenced stadium for training thereafter.
Over the last year, cricket has squeezed out over 200 young track-and-field athletes to a corner of this Thane stadium and beyond a prohibitive white fence that restricts anyone from even stepping onto the field. Most practice only on the steps of the stadium, some even in the top-tier. The multipurpose stadium, which could fill up for day-night inter-club athletics competitions for the last three decades, is now available for athletes only along the viewing galleries.
Aditi’s athletics club-mate Nandini Kaskar, too, trains for her long-jump run-up on the same lower-tier steps. The erstwhile long-jump pit is now buried somewhere under where long-on will stand for a right-handed batsman. Sprinters queue up to take their tilt at a hastily-built, single-laned and pot-holed 200m track.
It has now forced parents to make regular visits to doctors with their wards complaining of anything between foot pain to shin fractures, losing up to six months to easily-avoidable injuries.
Aditi rues what real training could have achieved. “It’s affected my speed. The shin hurts, running on concrete. I could’ve won an individual medal instead of relay,” says Aditi, who started at age 10 and understands the importance of training on a natural surface.
“The leg movement is ruined and we’re picking injuries. Athletics is not all training on concrete – that’s harmful. We need to run on the grass, and why are our spikes harmful and cricketers’ not? Not that we have a track either,” she says.
“We’re not opposed to cricket. We’ve shared this ground with cricket nets – they would train from 3-5 pm, and our children would come in later,” says Isha Ramteke’s mother. “They first told us the ground was being renovated, and after that, they refused to let us even step on the grass.”
Minal Palande, the sports officer in charge of the stadium owned by Thane Municipal Corporation and in the 1980s as a multipurpose facility, says: “The Rs 3.25 crore the Corporation has spent on it is because of the initiative of Sanjay Jaiswal, the municipal commissioner. The whole surface was relaid with Bermuda grass from Australia. Athletes’ spikes will ruin the grass.”
“Kolkata Knight Riders has just confirmed they will train here. And we got enquiries from Royal Challengers also. In fact, Virat Kohli’s personal manager called up to check about the facility,” says Palande, a former kabaddi player. The district athletics association head is Eknath Shinde, also Thane’s guardian minister.
“Once the idea came up that this will be a Ranji venue potentially, no one spoke up for athletics. Everyone wants to be photographed with cricketers,” says a coach, on condition of anonymity. Soon, the big guns – Mumbai Cricket Association and BCCI – rolled in with samples of Australian grass deemed too delicate for sprinters’ spikes.
Aditi, originally a sprinter, says the 100m runners are clueless about how to train. “There is a 200m track. One lane, but it’s there. But for 100m, we need a straight track, we don’t know when to kick off acceleration,” she says, as the curve has botched her technique for the straight dash.
Efforts to drive away the sprinters have been subtle but stern, and cricket’s encroachment goes beyond the six-lane 400m track. “They’ve stopped maintaining women’s toilets, and we have to beg for running water and even drinking water. Sometimes washrooms are locked up,” says a parent.
Along with annual school sports days, the headlining Arya Krida and Mahapaur athletics competitions, as well as inter-schools events that could create a buzz in Thane West, have all been stopped this last year.
But over 400 parents are up in arms and determined to fight the long fight. They travel with a dozen electric bulbs and remove them from sockets hanging above the steps each day after practise since the last batch was stolen.
Currently, Nidhi Singh, who started out when the grass field was open to all and then watched the fence come up, is a national camper in Patiala. “I started at 12, and training on the field was a huge contributing factor. I remember being hit by a cricket ball on the shin once, but I didn’t resent cricketers having their nets. Now though, the steps are harmful, and cricket is throwing us out,” says Nidhi, a 4×400 South Asian Games medallist.
These sprinters travel at 4 am every Saturday-Sunday to train at the University Stadium (adjoining Wankhede Stadium). They will be relocated to the Anandnagar ground in Mumbra. “It’s far away, there’s no place to walk even, and it’s strewn with beer bottles,” says the mother of Amy Arun (6).
The municipal authorities, meanwhile, rejoice the arrival of cricket. “Actually, this is bigger than Wankhede, and Sachin (Tendulkar) has played a Ranji match here in the 80s. Australian grass, underground sprinkler system, and revamp worth 3.25 crore – it’s the jewel of Thane,” says Palande, before locking the gates, to prevent security breaches ahead of the celebrity match.