The cricket association of Kochi had bought the stadium on a 30-year lease in 2014.

As almost all fans of Kerala football may have already heard, Kerala Blasters, Kerala Football Association (KFA) and Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) are engaged in an ongoing tussle over their rights to use the Jawaharlal Nehru International (JNI) Stadium in Kochi. The stadium is currently the home ground of the Yellow Army, but the KCA had taken the stadium on a 30-year lease from its guardians the Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA) in August 2014, thereby leading to a dispute between the three parties.

To give readers a bit of context, the KCA recently wrote to the GCDA saying that it wants to use the JNI Stadium in Kochi for international and domestic matches, just like they used to before 2014. They have been raising their concerns for a few years now, but temporarily stopped doing so in 2018, when the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Chhetri, CK Vineeth, Iain Hume and Kerala Blasters’ officials voiced their protests alongside fans of the ISL outfit.

The emergence of Thiruvananthapuram’s Greenfield Stadium as a top-class cricketing venue in the state further hampered KCA’s progress, as their idea of demolishing the JNI Stadium’s football turf to reconstruct a cricket pitch did not garner enough support.

A tweet by Sachin Tendulkar in 2018 in favour of the football turf at JNI Stadium, Kochi

While the JNI Stadium has hosted several memorable international cricket matches and IPL games till date, experts say that it is understandably time for the sport to move on from the venue. The stadium is one out of the only seven FIFA-accredited venues in India and was also one of the hosts during the U-17 World Cup in 2017.

Prior to the World Cup, the pitch at JNI had undergone a massive overhaul, as it was converted into a world-class football turf. But, in October 2014, the same venue played host to an India-West Indies ODI, for which the surface in the middle was converted to clay. A month later, when the ISL began, the cricket pitch was quickly covered with grass, but the clay underneath it resulted in several problems for the Blasters who played their home matches there.

“Only if you eliminate the cricket pitch entirely, can you play football properly. Cricket pitches are made of clay. When such pitches are converted back to football turfs by simply laying a grass cover, it affects footballers very badly. It will also result in a ground that does not meet the standards of the ISL,” former Kerala Blasters star Sushanth Mathew told Khel Now.

“In the 2014 season, we experienced a lot of difficulty while playing our home matches. A cricket match was recently held there and we played on a turf that had grass cover over a hard clay surface. Later, the cricket pitch was totally removed and a proper football turf was constructed – and that’s when we finally started enjoying our home games,” he added.

GCDA, the guardians of the JNI Stadium are keen to allow both football and cricket to co-exist at the Kochi venue. “Our desire is to have all sports happening at the stadium. We should go forward with mutual understanding, this is a good stadium and it should be useful for everybody,” V. Salim, the Chairman of GCDA said in a recent interview.

It was also popularly claimed that it takes only 20 days to convert a cricket pitch into a football turf, but Sushanth dismissed these claims. “I do not think you can do it properly even if you have 30 days. If both sports co-exist at JNI, it will affect Kerala Blasters negatively in terms of both – performances and results,” he warned.

Furthermore, Dean Gilasbey, international consultant for football pitches, also spoke to Khel Now about the issue. “Playing football and cricket on the same venue does pose some problems. However, if the right procedures are in place, the two sports can co-exist,” he said. “The main one would be to introduce a drop-in pitch, as a hard clay surface in the middle of the pitch would not be suitable for football.”

A ‘drop-in pitch’ is one which is prepared away from the ground or venue at which it is used and ‘dropped’ into place for a match to take place. This allows multi-purpose venues to host other sports and events with more versatility than a dedicated cricket ground would allow. Although, this system has gained popularity in countries like Australia and New Zealand, it is yet to catch up in other parts of the world. It is also more expensive than conventional surfaces, which is why Indian grounds are yet to make use of this technology.

As the possibility of drop-in wickets has been ruled out, it becomes harder for both cricket and football to be played simultaneously at the same stadium. Gilasbey himself observed that while cricket could go on without any hindrance despite sharing spaces, it is football that will suffer on a large scale.

“If cricket has plans to return to JNI, the wicket will have to be removed much ahead of the ISL season. That said, this is not an easy or cheap process. Therefore, my concern is, if they leave the clay wicket on the pitch it will not suit football and could increase the risk of injury, although cricket will be fine,” he said.

He has also worked with UEFA and FIFA and was one of FIFA’s pitch consultants during the U-17 World Cup. Back then, he had worked closely with JNI’s ground staff and had revealed that there were separate sets of staff for both sports, which was another problem. “The other major issue is that JNI’s management constantly swapped between ground staff for football and cricket. This is not ideal, as all ground-related maintenance should be done by one company,” he opined.

As mentioned earlier, the KCA bought the stadium from the GCDA on a 30-year lease in 2014. They did so by paying an initial deposit of ₹1 crore and they chalk up an additional ₹10 lakh every year to maintain their lease. If one takes a look at the ongoing issue through the point of view of the lease and the expenses incurred by the KCA till date, it is extremely unfortunate that they have not been able to host cricket matches at the venue since 2014. It also seems fair to allow the sport to return there.

“So far, we have also spent crores of money (estimates say ₹10 crores+) on it for maintenance purposes. Hence, to us, it seems morally fair to allow us to host cricket there. We have no problem with football. We just want cricket to happen there as well,” said KCA secretary Sreejith V Nair.

Meanwhile, the KFA themselves have expressed their agreement for cricket to be held at the venue, as long as they have the rights to host football matches. “We can acknowledge the fact that the KCA has taken the stadium on lease from the GCDA. We do not have any problem with it, because the contract agreed by both KCA and GCDA has an agreement that enables us to host both national-level and international matches at the venue. This includes ISL matches. Hence, we are not worried about having cricket at the venue as well,” KFA secretary Anil Kumar told Khel Now.

It is now up to the GCDA to resolve the issue surrounding the JNI Stadium in Kochi, by organizing a meeting between KCA, KFA and the KBFC management. As per various sources, the meeting is expected to happen later this month, although a date has not been fixed yet.

Kerala Blasters are also pondering over the high costs of the venue and are thus looking for an alternative for home games. That said, the EMS Stadium in Kozhikode is an option for the club, but an official decision on the move is yet to be made.

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