A week into inaugural matches of the gentlemen’s game gone renegade, Ashok Malhotra chuckles.
The New Delhi Jets coach watches his captain Marvan Atapattu, once a star for Sri Lanka, at the nets during the Indian Cricket League (ICL) tournament, an event and its players blacklisted by the sport’s governing body.
Cricket carnival: Cheerleaders perform during the ongoing ICL tournament in Panchkula. The district administration is counting on cricket fans-led tourism to boost the town’s fortunes.
The game isn’t the cause of amusement. Of all things, Malhotra’s thinking of real estate.
“I’ve been told land prices around here have shot up 25%,” he says. “People thought ICL would be a flop. It’s a stupendous success.”
A top Panchkula government official can’t confirm the statistic, but proudly offers anecdotal evidence: The government rate for a 500 sq. yard plot is Rs35 lakh, while the market rate has soared to Rs1 crore.
District commissioner Rajender Kataria says that “one month ago, no one had heard of Panchkula”, whose population of 319,398 is merely three times a capacity crowd at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens stadium. “Now, we are on the international map.”
This young town, barely 18 years old and dwarfed by nearby Chandigarh, has pinned much of its future on the Zee TV-organized ICL. While many development projects were already planned—a seven-star hotel and an information technology park, for example—they have been given new life and possibility with the guarantee of steady traffic due to matches.
The current tournament ends on 16 December, but another is slated for March; ICL’s Twenty20 format features six teams playing against each other for a total prize money of Rs15 crore.
Globally, the introduction of a team, stadium or big event is a tried and tested way to spur local development. Consider Beijing’s efforts to spruce up for the 2008 Olympics, for example. And, of course, New Delhi has seen itself made over twice now owing to the 1982 Asian Games and the upcoming 2010 Commonwealth Games.
But those are already places on the map. For Panchkula—which relies on a combination of government jobs, agriculture and remittances from non-resident Indians to sustain itself—the league’s entrance is viewed as a way to reinvent itself as more than an extension of Chandigarh, independent India’s first planned city. The Panchkula administration also hopes ICL can help erase some of its relegated status as a stopover between the hills of Shimla and the plains.
After the league was announced, Panchkula stepped forward as host, despite warnings from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) that those supporting the competition would be banned from its play. For example, coach Malhotra and Atapattu, along with more than 50 players, can no longer be associated with BCCI-sponsored cricket; BCCI plans its own Twenty20 league, the Indian Premier League.
Official international matches are staged in nearby Mohali and big league domestic games at the Chandigarh stadium owned by Punjab Cricket Association. Panchkula held childrens’ tournaments at its rundown facility for rentals reportedly as low as Rs2,000 a day.
Now, Essel Group, the parent of Zee, has put in an estimated Rs5.5 crore to upgrade the Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex; floodlights have been flown in from the US, landscaping has been done and new stands, toilets, dressing rooms, dugouts and food stalls put up. Another innovation not common to India: a wire runs across the pitch, from where a camera will be slung for a bird’s eye view of proceedings.
All this, of course, sits against a breathtaking view of the Aravalli range. Even an Australian commentator last week, in between reports on the play, pronounced: “Great view looking at the hills.”
With such messages and images, the Panchkula administration is counting on tourists coming in as fans from the 125 nations that the Zee network reaches. Since the launch of the tournament on 30 November, celebrity cricketers and top Indian actors have descended on the town daily. And Panchkula has virtually entered drawing rooms and Indian restaurants (popular pla-ces for the diaspora to watch cricket) across the world.
“ICL will drive this (town)—tourists will have another place to go to,” Kataria said. “It’s a tourist-driven event.”
When that happens, those in the local hospitality and transportation business will benefit, he hopes.
Adjacent to the Panchkula Golf Club, not too far from the stadium, a seven-star hotel, called “The Golf”, is planned. Another hotel site will be auctioned soon in the neighbourhood. These are not an offshoot of ICL’s arrival but will help entrepreneurs and the town’s infrastructure gain momentum; players, officials and media have been staying in Chandigarh during this tournament.
Alongside, the agriculture-driven district is looking at information technology: The state government has earmarked a 90-acre plot for an information technology park, and is planning another in the headquarter town.
Kataria concedes these are not the offshoots of ICL. But he says that over the years, the tournament will help Panchkula become attractive to professionals coming to work at these centres.
Locals share the excitement. Says Malvika Singh, a 36-year-old Panchkula resident working in a private sector company in Chandigarh: “So many things are happening, downstream…transport, hotels…it’s good,” she says. “Where can we get this kind of entertainment for Rs100?” Singh says of the ICL matches.
Already, local labour, material suppliers and the local administration have benefited from the stadium’s facelift, carried out over the last one month: more than 1,000 jobs are estimated to have been created in this period.
The Haryana government earns Rs11.25 lakh annually by renting the stadium to ICL for 50 days a year for the next decade, apart from fees for the police security provided; additionally, it gets 15% of daily ticket sales, and most important, a new stadium that it can monetize with no investment.
The ownership is still with the administration and it plans to negotiate new rates with organizers of other sports events, Kataria says.
The administration’s contract with Essel, said to be investing up to Rs100 crore in ICL over the next 10 years, requires refurbishing the stadium firther, says Kataria.
Indeed, there are challenges, coupled with a lot of hype that might lead to slow offseason. Mohinder Gupta, a real estate broker a few kilometres down the road from the stadium, says land prices are going up slowly—he reckons, it would be about 5%.
But ICL still seems alien to people who ought to know: Auto-rickshaw drivers from Chandigarh’s sector 45C, about a 35-minute ride away on straight roads, had no clue where the stadium was located.
On opening day, driver Shivshankar Gami, an immigrant from Bihar settled in Chandigarh for the past two decades, confesses it’s the first time he’s hearing of ICL. He says he didn’t even know Panchkula could stage a cricket match.