Running in the King's Way

| Updated on: May 05, 2011




Thousands of fans honking and trying lung power with vuvuzelas late into the night after India's World Cup victory was not a true reflection of Delhi's sports heritage. In fact, some four decades ago, the city was far more sporting. The Raj Path, where the passive fans displayed their love for cricket by blocking traffic till the wee hours, before emptying beer cans, has surely seen better days. On the lawns of the Central Vista, from National Stadium to Rashtrapati Bhawan, Milkha Singh sweated it out to stardom in the 1960s. Later, another Olympian, Sriram Singh, did bulk of his training on the same stretch to excel in 800 metres in international arena. In fact Singh started his athletics career on Raj Path.

Why just Indian athletes, some of the Olympic legends have graced Raj Path. From multiple Olympic gold medallists Emil Zatopek and Kip Keino to British sensation Steve Ovett — all have stretched their limbs on this road.

In the late 1960s, well–maintained lawns on both sides of Raj Path had plenty of football action every evening. Bamboos of mosquito nets, borrowed from the nearby Central Vista Mess, suspended with a rope, used to act as goalposts. Sometimes two bicycles on each side did the needful. Local BB Stars and Goans Club had their training sessions on these lawns.

Even Talkatora Gardens used to be popular practice grounds for top football clubs like N.D. Heroes and Simla Youngs. Grounds behind Red Fort were also a favourite of the local footballers.

The playing fields of the past

Much before sports infrastructure was added to the city for the Asian Games in 1982, Delhi had several top-class playing fields, now extinct.

National Stadium, now a hockey venue, was a multipurpose stadium. Built in 1933 and known as Irwin Amphitheatre, the stadium had hosted the first Asian Games in 1951. Later, it became the focal point of organised sports in the city. Every evening over 300 athletes used to train here.

Besides track and field, cricket nets outside the main stadium were a great hit. Popular Madras Cricket Club had regular training sessions here under coach Bharatan. Delhi opener Venkat Sundaram and a genuine pace bowler, S.S. Lee, were the outstanding products of the Club.

After daily training, most of the players used to go to Kohli's tea shop at Pandara Road. Boiled egg or butter toast with tea at Kohli's was a kind of ritual that every trainee of National Stadium indulged in. No training session was deemed complete without it.

A hall, cramped though, on the upper deck of National Stadium served as a table tennis hall. Here national stars such as Manjit Dua, Sudhir Phadke, Devender Puri, G.S. Mani and others honed their skill.

Match on, after the cars are gone

Old-timers still remember the parking space of Nirman Bhawan that used to turn into a table tennis arena after offices shut at 5 p.m. For years, the parking area was also the venue for Delhi's ‘C' Division Table Tennis League.

Not just Nirman Bhawan, Delhi table tennis league used to be organised also on the top floor of Indian Express Building and Times of India at Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg.

All the national-ranking players such as G. Jaggannath, Udey Gurjar among others played in the Burmah Shell Tournament staged in the parking lot of the Burmah Shell House building in Connaught Place.

Railway Stadium in crowded Pahar Ganj was another popular haunt of Delhi's top hockey players. Recalls Harbinder Singh, ace centre forward and gold medallist of the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964: “the Northern Railway team was virtually the national side and we used to play there every evening. And after our practice we used to go to Nikku's tea shop, a few yards away on Basant Road.” Mohinder Lal, winning goal scorer in Tokyo, Mukhbain Singh and Charanjit Singh were part of Harbinder's gang. Nikku had named the shop ‘Sportsmen Tea Stall' and the walls of the small shop were adorned with framed pictures of hockey players.

Harbinder Singh still remembers the ride in open trucks from Palam Airport to Railway Stadium when the Indian team returned from Tokyo after winning the gold medal. “On the entire route, there were thousands of people waving the national flag and cheering us,” he recalls.

The dawn of night cricket!

Incidentally, the Railway Stadium was also a pioneer of sort in floodlight cricket in Delhi. Late Madhavrao Scindia, then Minister for Railways, had erected temporary lights at the stadium for matches played at night at the packed stadium in the early 1980s when not many had even seen floodlighting.

Night cricket, at times with tennis balls, was also very popular at a public ground just outside the Old Delhi Railway Station.

Some distance away from Railway Stadium was the famed Gol Market residential area where football in the large open space just outside the houses would put to shame many high-tech venues. After the matches, a treat from the losing side used to be at Bangla Sweet shop at Gol Market or at Madras Hotel (now shut down) near Shivaji Stadium.

Further down the Madras Hotel was Irwin Road (Now Kharag Singh Marg) where sportsmen used to meet over a cup of tea at Tee Pee O.

Nathu's in Bengali Market was also a stopover for players on their way back home after training sessions. It was here that sports and performing artistes exchanged ideas. Then students at the National School of Drama, Nina Gupta and Anang Desai were always good company to the tired athletes. Occasionally M.F. Hussain parked his half-painted Fiat car to have a chat with sportspersons.

When it's windy, it's tea break

Even though there was no proper indoor hall for the game, badminton was a very popular sport in Delhi in the past. Some of the country's leading players such as Suresh Goel, Deepu Ghosh and Roman Ghosh have played in Barakhamba Road Tournament, organised at the open-air gravel courts by the roadside. And whenever there was a strong breeze, players had to take a forced tea break!

Boxing was also a very popular sport in Delhi. In fact, after the British, some Anglo-Indian enthusiasts carried on the legacy. But then there was a time when the sport was almost extinct in India. It was then that New Delhi YMCA jumped into the fray and launched YMCA Championship. The bouts used to take place well past midnight to a packed house in the open-air arena. For people in Pahar Ganj and nearby residential colonies, the championships were post-dinner entertainment. It was through this championship that the game was revived and some top boxers came up in the national scene. Qamar Ali was one of them. The Kolkata youngster went on to become the first Indian boxer to claim the gold medal at the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002.

There may not have been official patronage or the kind of sponsorship that cricket players enjoy today. But some kind-hearted souls were always around to appreciate efforts by young Delhi sportspersons. Banarasi Das Malhotra, a restaurant owner, offered free food and milk to Satish Kumar, who later won medals for India in the World Games for Deaf and Dumb. Famous Karim Hotel also supported football players in the Walled City. A sugarcane juice shop owner at the Ashram Chowk on the ring road was always ready with a few glasses of fresh juice whenever local runners passed by his shop. It may be pittance compared to the largesse that players get today, but these lovers of sport never blew their trumpets or vuvuzelas at Raj Path.

Published on May 05, 2011

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