Thursday, March 03, 2005

Dharamsala? High altitude? Hardly ...

The Pakistanis have been slightly bemused at being asked to play their warm-up match against the Indian Board President's XI at the high-altitude venue of Dharamsala. But, it could easily have been worse, had this fixture been played at another venue in Himachal Pradesh - the Chail Cricket Ground.

When you have to hike three-and-a-half kilometres uphill at an incline that is steeper than most staircases you must be heading somewhere special. If such a hike is undertaken from main market area in a sleepy little town called Chail in the Himalayan slopes of Himachal Pradesh close to Simla, you will find yourself at the world's highest cricket ground. At approximately 2500 metres above mean sea level, (some say 2444 meters) the cricket ground at the Army school at Chail is certainly one of the highest.

“Why would anyone want to build a cricket ground at such altitude?” you might ask. Having reached the top, puffing and panting, I certainly asked that question when I stood on the outfield of that ground a couple of years back. If folklore is to be believed, the Maharajah of Patiala was a keen follower of the game 'twenty two fools' played and it was he who indulged himself with this ground. In days when there were no cricket boards and no leagues, the Maharaja amused himself by watching teams slug it out in his hilly hometown. What is even richer is the fact that the Maharaja invited several British teams to play at the ground and they actually obliged, for generous purses, of course.

Set at the very top of a hill, the cricket ground boasts two permanent sight screens. The outfield is a trifle patchy these days, as the Maharajah is a thing of the past, and with him the funding and the doting groundsmen. As if to rival the St. Lawrence Cricket Ground in Cantrerbury, England, the Chail Cricket Ground has a stately little tree well within the confines of the playing arena. The wicket is a rather low quality one, but one has to grant that the soil has little or no clay in it. This makes the surface very susceptible to cracking, and it is extremely difficult to hold the top layer together. It is not uncommon to see a mat pinned down over the wicket to make the bounce more even.

At most times, the conditions at the ground are very windy, inspiring visions of lanky swing bowlers routing out oppositions. However, this is a bit misleading. Former Indian captain and legendary left-arm spinner Bishan Singh Bedi regularly conducts camps at the ground. At one such camp, Yuvraj Singh, then not even a first class cricketer, was one of his wards. Bedi has mentioned to several interviewers that the bowlers were mercilessly thrashed. After Yuvraj had sent more than a few cricket balls sailing over the ropes and down the valley, it was decided that the guidelines laid out in the MCC rule book might not be sufficient to deal with the situation. Yuvraj was sternly told that if he hit one more ball out of the ground he would be declared out! That tells you a bit about the sheer drop that begins just yards behind the boundary.

Little inconveniences like this only go towards increasing the quaintness of the place. With increasing demands on cricket grounds to be uniform in pitch condition, ground condition, media facilities and things of the kind, the Chail Cricket Ground stands tall and high in defiance of all this. It's outdated, outmoded and an anachronisym. It truly is the spirit of cricket.