Sports, cricket stadiums and the Shalika Grounds

Monday, 21 September 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Of all the grounds that have lost their way, probably the most pathetic is the fate of what is referred to as the Shalika, formerly known as CTB grounds at the Lanka Hospital (Apollo) end of Park Road – Pic by Ruwan Walpola

Undeniably, one of the most attractive developments witnessed in the city of Colombo of late is the planned improvement of its parks and walking tracks. While the very popular Independence Square walking track is the star of the category, there are several other walks that were developed about the same time: Nawala, near the Parliament, Waters Edge, Bellanwila to name a few. 

These popular facilities have not only positively altered the appearance of what was once a derelict, war-scarred city, they also, while providing the city dweller a pleasant open area for working out, have improved the air quality.

Colombo is changing helter-skelter, high rise buildings sprout up virtually overnight; in a 10 perch plot of land where earlier one family had their residence, now stands an apartment block, perhaps housing twenty families. They demand services; power, water, garbage disposal, parking space for their vehicles. In this urban monstrosity, where space equals big money, clean air and open spaces are losing out in priority.


Importance of delivering on the small things

In the overall scheme of things, one may play down the significance of maintaining parks and walking tracks. But you would not do that after experiencing a government which could not even manage that minimum, relegating parks to the insignificant, neglecting them; left with rutted walks, overgrown grass and burnt out lights. Recent history has taught us that governments that cannot deliver on small things, will invariably fail on the large matters; peace, economy, integrity.

In this country, good examples are overlooked, while any shoddy deed is eagerly copied and multiplied. When once neglected parks are cleared, enclosed and walled public spaces are opened up and made wholesome, there is no response from counterpart sports grounds occupying other government, ultimately public lands. These various grounds, in the different parts of the city, are generally sport specific; mainly cricket, some managed in the form of clubs, others claimed by schools. In these places, walls are not coming down, barricades are going up.

Most cricket grounds in the city are now being turned into stadiums, ugly concrete structures are constructed around, constricting them; where once sparkling green expanses soothed the eye, the gloomy rear side of the stadium now glares; forbidding, hostile and grimy. 

In my youth, the area bordered by Park Road, Havelock and Greenland Roads was park like, beautiful greenery extending away in every direction. In this one invaluable location we had several sports clubs: the BRC, the Havelock, the Colts, a Soccer ground and even a children’s park. We saw hockey, a lot of softball cricket for the youngsters, even tennis at the Colts, and there were no ugly walls. The different grounds were ringed by thoughtfully planted Cassia, Flamboyant and Neem trees; majestic, providing a cool shade, the gentle breeze rustled the leaves. 


All bets on cricket

The very philistine idea now prevailing seems to be that cricket will become a massive spectator game, raking in the millions. It is not enough that we have in Colombo, the SSC, the Tamil Union and the Kettarama stadiums; any ground will swell with thousands coming to watch 22 young men battling it out occasionally. It matters not how often these contests are held. Every club committee is eager to build stadiums, a venture, temptingly open to not so sportsman like motives. 

Like in many other things, have we lost our way here? Even is sports, such a disorganised, mutinous development bodes ill. No one sport can thrive, if the spirit of the outdoors, the exhilaration of the green, the joy of a gentle walk is denied to the millions. One cannot conceive of sporting achievements, when to the average person in the country, a green is something he can only see inside a concrete stadium, and that, only after paying to enter the enclosure. 

It is clear that while we have placed all bets on one game, cricket, the overall sporting standards have dropped drastically. Sri Lanka hardly counts in other sports and athletic events, reduced to celebrating an occasional Bronze; due to its rarity, the celebrations for the consolation prize going over the top. 

In most athletic events, we have steadily retreated below international standards, often failing to even qualify to participate, performing below entry level competence. Even in Cricket, an extremely chancy sport, achievements are few and far between. A nation not given to a general outdoor sporting culture, simply cannot thrive on a myth of athleticism.


State of Shalika grounds

Of all the grounds that have lost their way, probably the most pathetic is the fate of what is referred to as the Shalika, formerly known as CTB grounds at the Lanka Hospital (Apollo) end of Park Road. This area used to be semi- marsh, in an earlier era I am told, eager golfers practiced here. Later, during the socialist days of the early 1970s the grounds ended up with, of all institutions, the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB). 

Those who in the 1960s and 70s were victims of its deplorable service, will tell you that the CTB was one of the reasons for the drubbing the then Government received at the 1977 General Elections. When it was floundering so badly in providing public transport, its core service, how it managed a sports ground needs no elaboration.

This is a very residential area; for the residents of the adjacent Anderson Flats (Golf-links Flats) Park Road, Chitra Lane, Polhengoda, a much-needed green space. For the Shalika management, that is not a concern. Surrounded by a dilapidated, mildewed wall built a good 50 years ago, a patch of green guarded by a large squadron of security guards (while the BRC, Colts, not even a quarter mile away have at most times just one doorman), the ground has become meaningless. Its purpose is not to serve the neighbourhood, the Shalika is a mere grass patch, maintained for no conceivable reason, other than to provide passive employment to a few men. 

If you are looking for some fresh air, Shalika grounds is not the place to go, the security will stop you. For entry, you need a ‘pass’ issued with incredible formality by the CTB! 

The form printed in English is titled “Application for a permit to enter & use the Shalika Sports Grounds for Jogging”, is as elaborate as a citizens’ application for a National Identity Card!

A visit to the corner photo shop is necessary as two ‘stamp size’ photographs must be attached to the form. Before submitting the form, it needs certification by “an amortised person”, perhaps half a day spent searching for a Justice of Peace! In addition to this unbelievable run-around, there is a Rs. 1,000 being levied annually from the “jogger’.

Primarily a transport provider, the CTB, can be forgiven for being a poor groundsman. Shalika must be one of the worse maintained grounds in the city; uneven surface, grass growing wild, often water logged and mosquito infested, they are clearly challenged in the art of park maintenance. Even in design, the complex is primitive. The main gate at the Anderson Flats end opens into the “jogger’s toilet”, a good 50 years old, unmistakable, the stench hits you yards away.


A memorable incident

One evening, about two years back, I was at the Shalika Grounds, there were only a few walkers at the time, when I saw some men hastily opening the gate on the Park Road side to allow a convoy of impressive looking cars to drive in. There were several men, in the standard white short-sleeve shirt and dark trouser of security staff. They were waiting for something to happen or someone to arrive. After about half an hour, we heard the drone of a helicopter which appeared presently, landing in the middle of the green. The cars drove even closer to the helicopter. A few persons alighted from it and quickly got into the cars, which then drove off. Making inquiries, we learnt that it was a well- known businessman who was also a leading personality in the then Government. The helicopter was privately owned, we were told. I do not know whether landing rights were previously arranged with the CTB or if there was a payment involved. 

This scene stayed with me, the suggestion of power, of mystery; the overpowering sound of the helicopter, the cars with tinted windows, the fussing security detail, clashing sharply with the surrounding feebleness, neglect and inefficiency. It could easily be from a Graham Green thriller, a sharp display of power and glitter, all the more effective in that neglected ground, having neither.

As for Shalika Grounds, the only remedy I can see is in the form of an intervention by the UDA (Urban Development Authority); either they run it as a public service, or lease the grounds to an appropriate sports club to develop it, with meaning for the people of the area. 

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