The next time Yashasvi Jaiswal lofts Tom Hartley over the mid-wicket boundary in the series, it will be at the Niranjan Shah Stadium. On February 14, a day before the third Test match, the Saurashtra Cricket Association (SCA) stadium will be renamed after Niranjan Shah, the long-serving affable administrator, who gets an advance birthday present before he enters the octogenarian club in June.
Having cricket stadiums named after administrators is not rare in India. But Shah’s case is unique because he made it without political patronage. Belonging to a Gujarati family, who were into newspaper publishing, he rose through the ranks due to his administrative skills. He also went on to play 12 first-class matches between 1965-75, but even he concedes, “it was not very serious”.
Long-time administrators like Shah whose time in office goes virtually unopposed — almost fifty years — have their share of critics, and the matter was central to Lodha commission’s reform process inside BCCI. But it’s equally true that Shah began at a time when there was no money in Indian cricket, let alone Saurashtra cricket, a tiny off-shoot. Shah had a burning desire that his team beat big teams like Mumbai — then Bombay. It took some time. But once he entered cricket politics, Shah was able to bring big-ticket cricket to Rajkot.
A measure of how insular Indian cricket was can be understood from the state of cricketing infrastructure in Rajkot at the time. Even though Saurashtra had been competing in Ranji since 1950-51, formerly as Nawanagar, it took Shah 10 years in administration to get turf wickets at the RaceCourse ground. “Those times, we had either government stadiums or municipal grounds. There were constant tussles to get things moving,” said Shah.
BCCI first opened up ODI cricket to non-metro cities. In 1986, Rajkot hosted its first ODI with Kapil Dev’s India taking on Australia. Shah’s administrative clout continued to rise as he often toured the world as Indian team manager and became BCCI secretary. “My years, with Sharad Pawar as president 2005 onwards were the best,” he said. “That’s when BCCI took a risk with IPL.”
India was reluctant with the very idea of T20, which is why a young team was picked for the inaugural World T20 in 2007. MS Dhoni’s India won the tournament, IPL became an instant success in 2008, and that changed the course of Indian cricket. With money flowing in, the board encouraged state units to build their own stadia. SCA bought land in 2005, began work in 2008 and the stadium was ready in 2013.
With a media box modelled on the Lord’s spaceship, stand canopies evoking the Adelaide Oval, the stadium had a modern appearance, yet was built at a shoe-string budget of ₹75 crore. Today, BCCI pockets ₹67.8 crore media rights revenue from every bilateral match; ₹104 crore from every IPL match.
Sleepy Rajkot is gearing up to host its third Test. Three days from action, there is little to suggest the Indian team is in town. The only billboard en route to the stadium, 15 km away from the city in Khanderi, is Rahul Dravid smiling away in a fuel advertisement. But Shah is confident the crowds will come over the weekend. “Only if you give small towns Test matches will people warm up to the long format,” says Jaydev Shah, Niranjan’s son and a veteran of 100 Ranji matches.
The crowds will be cheering local boy Ravindra Jadeja, who comes from Jamnagar. They won’t get to see Cheteshwar Pujara though. Out of favour from the national scene after playing 103 Tests, he will still be doing duties for Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy in the old stadium.
Not only are Saurashtra defending Ranji champions, but also twice winners and five-time finalists in the last ten editions — the most improved domestic red-ball team on the circuit.