The real Kash­mir: High pas­sion, no fa­cil­i­ties

Hindustan Times (Delhi) - - HTSPORTSMAX - Bhar­gab Sarmah bhar­[email protected]

UP AGAINST ODDS Growth of sports in J&K is suf­fer­ing due to lim­ited ac­cess to play­grounds and over­all po­lit­i­cal cli­mate

SRINAGAR: “There are two kinds of matches be­ing played here. One is like the one you came for — in foot­ball, cricket, vol­ley­ball. The other one is be­tween the army and the rebels,” said an el­derly shop­keeper as he tried to con­vince this re­porter to buy a shawl from his small hand­i­crafts shop at Dal Lake’s fa­mous float­ing mar­ket. Lo­cal club Real Kash­mir had beaten I-league lead­ers Chennai City at the Tourist Re­cep­tion Cen­tre (TRC) Ground ear­lier in the evening but foot­ball didn’t seem to in­ter­est the gentle­man much.

“I don’t un­der­stand this league-feague busi­ness,” he said frown­ing, re­fer­ring to the I-league, be­fore point­ing to a shop as­sis­tant and say­ing that the young man had at­tended one of Real Kash­mir’s home games.

Tem­per­a­tures had plum­meted in Kash­mir with fresh round of snow in late Jan­uary but the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ued to be volatile. Just two days prior to the game against Chennai City, Khon­moh, on the out­skirts of Srinagar, had wit­nessed a gun­fight in the morn­ing. Lo­cal me­dia re­ported that two mil­i­tants were killed by se­cu­rity forces in the en­counter. Last year saw 586 peo­ple in­clud­ing civil­ians, se­cu­rity per­son­nel and mil­i­tants killed in the val­ley, ac­cord­ing to data re­leased by Jammu Kash­mir Coali­tion of Civil So­ci­ety (JKCCS), an um­brella in­sti­tu­tion of civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions in the state. Of­fi­cial fig­ures by the cen­tral gov­ern­ment put the num­ber of deaths at 361 till De­cem­ber 2. That made 2018 the blood­i­est year in a decade.

Given the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion in Kash­mir, it was hardly a sur­prise that the TRC Ground was shrouded in a se­cu­rity blan­ket prior to the high-volt­age clash be­tween ti­tle con­tenders Real Kash­mir and league lead­ers Chennai City on Jan­uary 28.

This level of se­cu­rity de­tail in an I-league game is un­prece­dented but it is hardly an un­usual sight in the val­ley: heav­ily armed army­men are vis­i­ble on the city’s ma­jor roads. “When I first ar­rived, it was a bit of a shock to see so many army­men hold­ing guns on the side of the roads. But once you are here for some time, you get used to it,” said key player Ma­son Robert­son, son of Real Kash­mir head coach David.

‘UN­SAFE FOR KIDS’

In­side the ground at TRC, Azad Ahmed Khan scoffed at the state of grilled metal stands. “Kids can get their feet stuck in the gaps here. It’s not safe. It’s not com­fort­able to sit ei­ther. I am an old man and I am shiv­er­ing sit­ting on steel. When some­thing so ba­sic is not in place, it just goes on to show how se­ri­ous the gov­ern­ment has been about sup­port­ing sports and the Kash­miri youth over the years,” he said.

The TRC Sta­dium, with its pavil­ion on one side of the ground be­ing used as a makeshift press box, is hardly the most op­u­lent of foot­ball sta­dia. The fact that it is also the only foot­ball ground avail­able for train­ing sums up the state of sport­ing in­fra­struc­ture in the city, and, in­deed, the val­ley.

A few me­tres away, a group of six girls, in their late teens, pre­pared to watch the Chen­naiKash­mir game. Afreen Khan, Muskan Bhat, Mehroosh Baba, Alka Naseer, Num­rah Tariq and Tanzeel Sheikh are foot­ballers train­ing with the lo­cal State Foot­ball Academy (SFA). They were also part of the In­dian Women’s League (IWL) qual­i­fiers last sea­son, where they played four games rep­re­sent­ing the J&K State Sports Coun­cil, win­ning one and los­ing three be­fore bow­ing out in the pre­lim­i­nary round.

“It is a strug­gle to fo­cus on foot­ball when there are fre­quent strikes,” said Muskan, adding: “But foot­ball is grow­ing. Among girls, there is huge in­ter­est these days”.

Afreen ex­plained that a lack of so­ci­etal sup­port con­tin­ues to be a hur­dle. “The weather is an­other is­sue dur­ing win­ters be­cause some­times our train­ing ses­sions are af­fected as well,” she said.

So, did Real Kash­mir’s pro­mo­tion to the I-league help them? “They have helped mo­ti­vate us but there is still a se­vere lack of fa­cil­i­ties,” said Num­rah.

“When I first played for In­dia, peo­ple thought that there would be changes. But the sad truth is that noth­ing changed after that. Our as­so­ci­a­tion re­mained the same,” said Parvez Ra­sool, the only one from the val­ley to repre- sent In­dia in cricket.

“Last year the Com­mit­tee of Ad­min­is­tra­tors (COA) stepped in and only then have changes started to come in. More pro­fes­sional peo­ple, like Ir­fan Pathan, have been able to as­so­ci­ate with us since then. At least in cricket, things have im­proved sub­stan­tially since last year,” he said.

“But over­all, there is a lack of avail­abil­ity of grounds for kids. There are open grounds avail­able in some places, in north Kash­mir for in­stance, but they aren’t main­tained for play­ing sport.

“The ba­sic fa­cil­ity that a sportsper­son should get is not avail­able. The tal­ent is there and can rise above the daily is­sues faced but the ba­sic fa­cil­i­ties must be there.”

The prob­lem per­sists down south in Jammu, ac­cord­ing to teenage gym­nast Bavleen Kaur who won five of the state’s eight medals at the re­cent Kh­elo In­dia Youth Games, in­clud­ing all three of their gold, in the un­der-17 age­group. “We train at the bad­minton hall of the MA (Maulana Azad) Sta­dium. It is very small a space to ac­com­mo­date the 200odd gym­nasts who train there.

“I feel we have some of the best coaches in gym­nas­tics here but the lack of fa­cil­i­ties re­mains the big­gest prob­lem. There are many girls who train in gym­nas­tics but they never get to de­vote much time be­cause the space is so lim­ited,” said Bavleen, who trains un­der Kru­pali Pa­tel Singh, an Ar­juna award win­ner, and her fa­ther Surinder Pal Singh.

FU­TURE PLANS

Saleem ur Rehman took charge of Direc­torate Gen­eral Of Youth Ser­vices & Sports of Jammu and Kash­mir last year. Ac­knowl­edg­ing the lack of play­ing fa­cil­i­ties, Rehman said there are plans to im­prove things.

“There is a ~300-crore project sanc­tioned by the state gov­ern­ment, un­der which we are go­ing to have around 20 play­ing fa­cil­i­ties in each district across the state. We will also have an in­door sports sta­dium in each district, which will be ready in three months.

“We have now laid the foun­da­tion stone for Khel Gaon (sports vil­lage), un­der which we will build fa­cil­i­ties for ma­jor sports un­der one roof, like the Bale­wadi Com­plex in Pune. We are propos­ing to have play­ing fa­cil­i­ties for cricket, foot­ball, hockey, ten­nis, shoot­ing, gym­nas­tics and a few other sports,” said Rehman.

At the TRC Ground, mean­while, Real Kash­mir have con­tin­ued to punch above their weight this sea­son after be­com­ing the first club from the state to make it to the top-flight. Still in fight for the ti­tle race, Real Kash­mir have made the right noises in their debut I-league cam­paign. A tie-up with sports goods man­u­fac­tur­ing gi­ant Adi­das, al­beit with neg­li­gi­ble fi­nan­cials in­volved, hasn’t hurt them in terms of vis­i­bil­ity ei­ther.

How­ever, while the sports de­part­ment says it plans to up­lift the in­fra­struc­ture, it re­mains to be seen whether it re­sults in bet­ter ac­cess to grounds and fa­cil­i­ties.

Un­til then, sto­ries like Real Kash­mir, Bavleen Kaur and Parvez Ra­sool could re­main ex­cep­tions rather than the norm.

HT PHOTOS

(Clock­wise from above) A young fan at the TRC Ground watches Real Kash­mir in ac­tion; women too turn up in num­bers.

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