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Deserted grounds and locked up kits: The story of Kolkata maidan cricket in COVID-19 era

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The shops had opened but the stores bore a deserted look. A deathly silence hung over the famous Maidan market, the hub of sports goods in the city.

The silence was indeed deathly, and not just a figure of speech, because the once bustling sports goods business, located right next to the lungs of the city, is dying a slow death.

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One cannot expect many takers for the myriad bats, helmets, badminton rackets and football boots dotting the storefronts in the lived dystopia we inhabit following the cataclysm that is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once the nationwide lockdown brought the sports season to an abrupt halt, thousands of lives associated with the sports world in the city of Kolkata, had plunged into despair.

File:Cricket on the Maidan - Kolkata - India (12249338793).jpg ...
Many promising cricketers have quit the sport and are trying to find other means of employment. (Credits: Wikimedia Commons)

“We never expected this to happen, we were never prepared for something like COVID-19,”says senior cricket coach Siddhartha Ghosh.

Ghosh is the one who points to the market as the signifier of the breakdown of a system that has existed for ages.

“Many promising cricketers have quit the sport and are trying to find other means of employment,” he adds.

Kapoor Chand Agarwal, an ICC-accredited coach who also runs an academy in Howrah, says that there was no option but to stop all cricketing action completely. “We cannot take risk with lives, can we?”says the eloquent Agarwal, who has recently attained a certification from Australia. He says that his students include budding cricketers as young as six and the health hazard posed by the virus was too dangerous to ignore.

Agarwal has taken a positive and innovative approach to tackle lockdown blues for his wards.

“We have conducted webinars with all our students frequently and focused on diets, conditioning and strength training tips. They need to stay in shape when the action resumes,” he adds.

Kapoor Chand Agarwal and Laxmi Ratan Shukla
Good Old Days: Kapoor Chand Agarwal along with former Bengal captain Laxmi Ratan Shukla at his cricket academy before COVID-19. (Credits: Vision Cricket Academy)

Ghosh concurs, “Gyms have opened and since cricket is not a body-contact sport, I think is it time that the powers-that-be consider allowing cricket training to resume. There won’t be much time as and when cricket activities begin.”

Both coaches believe that physical exercise, running and correct diets do help but cannot be a replacement for actual practice.

“Cricket is a game of skill and intricacy, 5 kms on the treadmill can make you fit but not help you with your skill-set,” he says.

Many budding cricketers who were coming up the ranks through sub-junior tournaments have had one year of their lives wasted, a potential death-knell for their development.

“I am really worried about our age-group teams since the Ambar Roy tournament and school tournaments were cancelled, they have been completely out of practice” says Agarwal.

Uncertainty and hope

Koushik Ghosh
Koushik Ghosh feels younger players need to keep themselves motivated and wait for resumption of cricket post COVID-19. (Credits: Twitter)

The story is a bit different for the top players in the Bengal set-up. Koushik Ghosh, a Bengal opener and a pillar of the Bhawanipore team says that he only stayed home for 20 days post the lockown before beginning his individual training regimen.

“I am working out for two-three days and doing nets in the local club as per the instructions sent by the Bengal coaches” he says.

The BCCI has supplied the state boards with a much-talked-about SOP that they need to strictly adhere to for training during these troubled times.

If the SOP is followed to the tee, charismatic Bengal coach Arun Lal, who is past 65, won’t be able to come to the ground.

Kaushik Ghosh says it will be an irreparable loss if Lal is lost by Bengal.

“His words have an amazing motivating effect and a lot of credit must go to him for taking us to the Ranji final last year” Kaushik adds.

However, the SOP does suggest that some kind of action in the top-level domestic tournaments is on the cards later in the year. What of the division cricketers then?

There have been stories of suicides, of cricketers driving autos and selling gears in the post-COVID-19 era.

“The younger players will have to keep themselves motivated and get back into the groove as and when action resumes” says Ghosh.

He says older players may have to quit the game, especially if they rely on cricket for their livelihoods.

If you cannot make it to the Bengal team, there are no job opportunities and many dreams have already been shattered by the loss of a season.

One forgets the gamut of other professionals, scorers, umpires and malis, involved with the game whose lives have also been hit equally hard. An umpire this writer spoke to says he has not left his house in four months and is running out of savings.

There is talk that Avshek Dalmiya, the CAB president, is trying to get the grounds ready for division cricket post the Durga puja in October. It is all conjecture though and no green signal has yet been given by the government. Everyone feels the current BCCI president Sourav Ganguly has been proactive and doing his best to help cricket get back on track.

Siddhartha Ghosh feels that there might be a problem if both division football and cricket resume at the same time.

“There are finite grounds and training and match scheduling will both be a headache for CAB and IFA,” he says.

As Agarwal says, “hope is the only candle for maidan cricketers right now.”

As one walks along the deserted maidan greens on a gloomy Saturday afternoon, one remembers the sound of bat middling the red cherry, the echoes of excited fielders and the sight of white flannels dotting the grounds. Will they only remain memories?

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