Kartar Singh, an elderly farmer, and his wife sit on chairs on the edge of a cricket field that is enveloped by agricultural lands and other cricket grounds, as they watch the setting sun spread its golden hue.
There are cranes searching for food in a farm across a thin walkway and women strolling back home past the cricket ground carrying vegetables that have just been plucked from the fields.
The chill of the approaching winter is yet to strike as there are no wind-cheater jackets worn by the kids practicing at the cricket nets in front of Kartar, who himself is dressed only in a kurta.
“This cricket ground gives me a lot more income than I would get from farming this land,” says Kartar while pointing to the ground which is spread in six acres in Chhawla in south-west Delhi at the edge of Najafgarh.
Back in 2015, Abhishek Mankotia, a former Himachal Pradesh age-group cricketer who was running an academy at St Mary’s School in Dwarka, approached him for a piece of land as he sought for himself a bigger ground to make kids play matches.
“The school ground, although spread over four acres, had a lot of trees and there was space constraint as we needed a ground to host matches and give opportunities to grown-up kids. So I approached Kartarji and sought some land. Back then, these were only farmlands. It cost us Rs 20 lakh to develop it into a ground,” says Mankotia who runs Mount Cricket Club.
Kartar leased out a six-acre piece to Mankotia for developing a cricket ground for an annual fee. He soon gave Mankotia another four-acre plot for another ground. The annual rent is set at Rs 1 lakh an acre, bringing the annual fees to Rs 10 lakh for the entire 10-acre plot that houses two grounds and nets.
“My family and I have around 80-100 acres more land that is used for farming. But unfortunately, the returns on farming are extremely low. These 10 acres are giving us as much if not better return annually than what farming the rest of the land gives,” explains Kartar.
“The revenue through farming is Rs 50 lakh but if you factor in the expenses, we struggle to make Rs 10 lakh a year on the rest of the land,” he adds
“The water here is khaara (saline) which means that cultivation isn’t that productive.”
Mankotia runs his academy there, charging Rs 1,500 per player while girls can learn cricket free of charge. He also lets it out to corporates who want to play cricket. The fees charged from corporates is Rs 7,000-8,000 a match. There can be anywhere between one to three matches a day, especially on weekends.
After seeing the sleepy Chhawla village abuzz with cricketers thanks to Mankotia’s academy and ground, other farmers joined in and leased out their lands. Over the past couple of years, three more private academies have sprung up. The Haryana Cricket Academy (HCA), Talent Hunt Academy lies just adjacent to the field while Essex Farms cricket club’s nets are just a stone’s throw away.
This south-west Delhi village is not the only pocket of farmlands developing into a cricketing hub.
Some 8-10 km further into Najafgarh, there are as many as 10 cricket grounds that have been carved out of farmlands. The lessees pay an annual charge similar to the one in Chhawla and in return let it out for corporate and private cricket matches and cricket academies for earnings. In many cases, they run their own cricket academies.
Delhi paceman Pradeep Sangwan, who also represented Gujarat Titans at this year’s Indian Premier League, has also invested in a ground in Najafgarh and is managing it. The ground is equipped with facilities and also coaches youngsters including some underprivileged ones.
“The demand for cricket grounds in Delhi has increased manifold. Hence the agricultural fields are being turned into cricket venues. It is good that these fields are fulfilling an important requirement,” says Sangwan.
“You will find grounds in clusters in many places in and around Delhi,” he explains.
There is a little hub of such farmland-turned-cricket grounds in Mundka-Ghevra area of west Delhi also. There are also some grounds around Sonia Vihar in north-east Delhi although the high density of population hasn’t allowed a hub to blossom and develop, forcing colonists/builders to build residential plots.
As Delhi’s population has surged over the past decade or so and knowledge of cricket has spread, so has the demand for good turf wickets and proper grounds. With most grounds in sports complexes inaccessible, the farmlands have filled in the need.
In fact, even the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA) will be using some of these grounds for its league cricket and Hot Weather tournament this year as it has been using it since past few years
“Nowadays, it is often difficult to find grounds in the city as the charges are too high. We find it difficult to hire Jamia Millia Islamia, Khalsa College and those at the sports complexes as the rates are a bit too high,” says Ahmad Tameem, vice chairman of the league committee.
Eight of the 13-14 grounds that are planned to be used for the league matches this year are farms converted into cricket fields, according to Tameem.
The three grounds in Chhawla – Talent Hunt Academy, HCA and Mankotia’s – will be used alongwith Mundka 1, 2 & 3 grounds. City Gymkhana ground at Loni Border as well as Chhattar Singh Stadium at Sonepat-Delhi border will also host matches.
While the Sonepat ground costs DDCA Rs 6,000 a day, the rest of them cost Rs 5,000 a day. This is way less than the price being charged by those in urban pockets of the Capital.
In these urban pockets, DDCA will use the grounds at Hamdard University, Guru Gobind Singh College of Commerce, Shivaji College and St Stephen’s. The Air Force Ground at Palam will also be used.
The DDCA pays anywhere between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000 for these grounds.
“Jamia, Khalsa and others cost even more which is why we don’t hire them,” he adds.
DDCA hires grounds only in Delhi and doesn’t go beyond its borders even though there are a lot of options available in the National Capital Region such as Gurugram, which has the highest number of grounds, and Noida.
Radhey Shyam Sharma, a coach and former curator at Ferozeshah Kotla, who owns the famous Subhania Cricket Club has relocated from Paharganj in Delhi to a village near sector 147 in Greater Noida. His son Narender looks after the facility.
They have set up a ground on a six-acre plot, having invested Rs 35 lakh on the ground which is used for inter-club junior cricket and is also being let out to corporates for Rs 4,000 a match to cover the expenses.
Narender pays an annual lease fee of Rs 3.5 lakh to Raju Nagar, a farmer who owns the land. There is another ground near this venue.
Some distance from Subhania’s ground, near sector 135 in Greater Noida, there is a hub of grounds, spread on either side of a large drain.
Chaman Chauhan, who used to serve as pradhan of Dostput-Mangroli, Chhaproli and Yaqutpur villages before the post was abolished since the area has come under Noida authority, has leased out nearly six acre of his land for over Rs 2,00,000 a year to Manish Sharma who runs the Palla Sports Academy there. Sharma also lets it out to corporates for Rs 4,000 a match to make up the expenses.
After Chauhan leased it out to Sharma, a family from Dallupura in East Delhi, which also owns a land there built two grounds.
However, it is on the other side of the drain that there are grounds in bigger numbers that follow similar financial models.
“This land of ours comes in doob kshetra (land that can be submerged in water during rains). Crops perish almost every year. It is extremely difficult to have regular income from farming. That is why I have opted for this,” says Chauhan as he stares out at the farmlands spread out.
The farmers grow wheat, rice, carrots and radish here.
“One farmer sowed carrots four times this season but the rains were so heavy over this past month that he lost the crop every time,” says Chauhan. “There have been losses. I think this (having a cricket ground) is the best option to overcome that.”
For some farmers, the bajra crop got spoiled.
In Gurugram, the Baliawas-Kadarpur stretch has plenty (around 30-40) of grounds.
“Baliawas, Kadarpur and Bandhwadi are hubs of the grounds. The farmers get anything between Rs 70,000 to Rs 2.5 lakh a year depending on the location,” says Puru Singh, who has taken ground on lease in that stretch.
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