The Narendra Modi stadium, and the politics and business of Indian cricket

The secret of Ahmedabad’s success as a World Cup venue? It’s all in the new name of the Motera stadium

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese (left) and India's Narendra Modi at the India v Australia 4th Test match, in Narendra Modi Stadium,  Ahmedabad, India, on 8 March 2023 (photo: Prakash Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese (left) and India's Narendra Modi at the India v Australia 4th Test match, in Narendra Modi Stadium, Ahmedabad, India, on 8 March 2023 (photo: Prakash Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Chander Shekhar Luthra

Writing in The Telegraph in April 2021, veteran sports writer Sharda Ugra had reflected, ‘Given that India will be hosting the 2023 ICC World Cup, where else could its finals be held but in Ahmedabad? Perhaps even the semi-finals. That’s not a snide dig but an informed punt.’

Two years later, her informed ‘bet’ turned out to be bang on target as the BCCI unveiled the schedule for the ICC World Cup 2023.

Ahmedabad will not only host the tournament opener on October 5, between defending champions England and runners-up New Zealand, but also the grand finale on November 19. It will also host the big India–Pakistan match scheduled for October 15, the England versus Australia match on November 4 and the South Africa versus Afghanistan match on November 10.

“Ahmedabad is becoming the new cricket capital of the country, but could a match or two not have been allotted to Kerala?” tweeted Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, “Disappointed to see that Thiruvananthapuram’s sports hub, hailed by many as the best cricket stadium in India, is missing from the World Cup fixture list.”

Indian cities and stadiums that will host the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup 2023 (image: IANS)
Indian cities and stadiums that will host the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup 2023 (image: IANS)

Not just Kerala, but Test centres like Nagpur and Mohali also missed out, even as Dharamsala and Lucknow have been included as WC venues for the first time. Vidarbha cricket association is of course controlled by Shashank Manohar, a Sharad Pawar confidante, while Punjab is ruled by the Aam Aadmi Party.

Punjab sports minister Gurmeet Singh Meet Hayer also seemed to be convinced that the decision to not allot matches to Mohali was “politically motivated”.

On the other hand, IPL chairman Arun Dhumal, the brother of Union sports minister Anurag Thakur, is associated with the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association, with its headquarters in Dharamsala, while BCCI vice-president Rajeev Shukla is from the UP Cricket Association.

While Shukla indeed is from the Congress, the decision to allot a match to Lucknow may have been influenced by other political considerations.

Even during England’s 2021 tour of India, which was to feature a total of 12 matches, 7 were allotted to the then ‘newly built’ Sardar Patel Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad. Soon thereafter, the Motera was renamed the Narendra Modi Stadium, the world’s largest cricket stadium, with a capacity to seat 1.32 lakh spectators.

The only bigger stadium in the world is the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Even as the controversy surrounding the renaming of the Motera after Prime Minister Modi snowballed in February 2021, the IPL fixtures released in March allotted it 12 games—more than any other venue—including 8 league matches, 3 play-offs and the final, just in case people had doubts about the new headquarters of Indian cricket.

“Beautiful how the truth reveals itself. Narendra Modi stadium—Adani end—Reliance end. With Jay Shah presiding,” tweeted Rahul Gandhi, with the hashtag ‘HumDoHumareDo’, on the unusual name change.

Shashi Tharoor reflected, “Maybe they just realised the stadium was named for a home minister (Sardar Patel) who had banned their parent organisation! Or maybe this is advance booking to ensure the next visiting head of state is hosted here, like Trump?”

But despite the vigorous defence of the renaming exercise by the government—and notably, not the BCCI—the stadium continued to be dogged by controversies.

England’s dramatic 10-wicket defeat in the third Test sparked an acrimonious debate on the quality of the pitch. The five-day test match didn’t last even two days, with spinners accounting for 28 of the 30 wickets.

Andy Bunn, in his column for The Mirror, wrote, ‘This was not a pitch fit for a blue-riband, five-day match after England lost to India in the shortest test match for nearly 90 years.’

Writing in The Telegraph, cricket writer Scyld Berry said, ‘This unfit pitch was no advertisement for Test cricket—India should be docked World Championship points.’ Berry demanded the ICC ban the venue for producing a sub-standard pitch for the contest. But he went on to acknowledge that the ban was unlikely: ‘... why the Narendra Modi stadium will not be banned lies in the name. The ground has just been renamed after India’s prime minister...’

The stadium, which hosted a political rally named ‘Namaste Trump’ for the visiting US president in February 2020, witnessed another spat about the nature of the pitch at Ahmedabad after the fourth Test between India and Australia in March this year. The Aussies alleged that the curators had prepared two pitches to help the home side against the visitors.

The World Cup will be held in India across 10 venues between October 5 and November 19. In the course of 46 days, matches will be played in Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Dharamsala, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mumbai and Pune. There will also be three play-off matches. Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium and Kolkata’s Eden Gardens will host the two semi-final matches.

The grapevine maintains that de facto BCCI boss Jay Shah did not consult any state association before the announcement of venues. “Earlier there was a procedure followed for finalising venues. Now, there is no consultation, no due process like forming a committee. There is only Mann Ki Baat,” says a veteran cricket administrator.

The BCCI earlier followed a rotation system while allocating international matches. But the system was junked while allocating a disproportionate number of matches to Ahmedabad. “[Gujarat officials] say that because of the three-year renovation time and the Covid pandemic, Ahmedabad lost out on a number of matches and therefore is now being compensated,” says an insider.

But is there any other example of a state association or venue that has been similarly compensated in the past? The answer is known, of course.

When major cricket centres not allocated ODI World Cup matches expressed shock, the BCCI secretary wrote back a placatory note saying that “other centres will be given matches to host in bilateral series”. He has also written to World Cup hosting venues to voluntarily forego their turn to host an ODI in order to ‘compensate’ the others. The catch is that the WC host cities are being given grants of Rs 50 crore each for renovation. “By releasing the money to these selected venues, the BCCI is ensuring that other cricket centres in the country are never able to match them in terms of infrastructure. The BCCI has effectively signed death warrants for the left-out venues,” says a former cricket administrator.

World Cup venues, especially the ones chosen to host the matches involving India, Pakistan, Australia and England, benefit from other spin-offs as well. Hotel rooms in Ahmedabad, for example, have been booked 100 days in advance at a tariff which is 8–15 times higher than normal. Almost 70 per cent of the city’s hotel rooms have been booked for the anticipated October 15 clash between India and Pakistan. Room rent for a standard single room in a four-star hotel, which was Rs 3,086 on July 4, has gone up to Rs 59,219 for October 15, per the hotel’s portal.

Little wonder then that centres ignored by the BCCI—like Mohali, Indore, Rajkot, Ranchi and Nagpur—are sulking.

Chennai has been another major loser; and it may not entirely be a coincidence that several of these centres are in states ruled by the Opposition. Bengal has been singled out for special treatment because Amit Shah has a ‘special interest’ in the politics of the state. Madhya Pradesh, where the state cricket body is controlled by Jyotiraditya Scindia, has also been ignored.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines