For so long India’s athletic and geographical outpost, the city of Guwahati is in the fledgling stages of what it hopes will be a sporting revolution.
The largest city in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam, Guwahati is a rapidly-developing and culturally diverse metropolis of more than one million people, wedged in between the Kingdom of Bhutan to the north, the nation of Bangladesh to the south and the rest of India to the west.
Located on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra River, a 3800km stretch of water that begins in the Tibetan Himalayas and flows into the Bay of Bengal in southern Bangladesh, Guwahati has traditionally been considered a rarity in India – a region that prefers football over cricket.
And in the space of just three days this week, a city starved of top-quality international sport for decades will get a generous helping of both pursuits.
The arrival of Indian and Australian cricketers here on Sunday evening signalled the first time in almost seven years that top-level cricket has come to the area; the second T20 between the two sides early on Wednesday morning (AEST) will be the first international match the city has hosted since November 2010.
And as the two teams made the short journey to their hotel from the LGB International Airport, past the heavily forested villages and hills that are dotted around the outskirts of this so-called ‘Gateway to the North East’, international football was making its bow in the city.
An official sell-out crowd at the 24,000-capacity Sarusajai Stadium – a claim that was proved to be bogus by the bays of inexplicably vacant seats – watched a group-stage double header of the 2017 FIFA Under-17 Football World Cup, which will be held in six Indian cities over the next three weeks.
A major non-cricketing sporting event so rare in the subcontinent that it has not just battled Virat Kohli’s dominant side for column inches over the past month, it’s temporarily bumped it from the front and back pages.
And after tournament heavyweights France thrashed its Pacific territory New Caledonia, who next year will hold a referendum on independence from its colonisers, and 16-year-old Takefusa Kubo, already handed the unenviable label of ‘the Japanese Messi’, helped his side to an easy win over Honduras, a nation’s sporting attention turned to the host’s second group match against Colombia in Delhi on Monday night, which they lost 2-1.
There will be seven more football matches in Guwahati over the next fortnight, but at least until Wednesday, the city’s main focal point is a round-ball game of a different kind.
Which has traditionally been rare for sports lovers in Assam, a state more famous for football and boxing and a region that is yet to produce a cricketer who has gone on to play for India. Guwahati-born paceman Abu Nechim, contracted to Mumbai Indians and Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL and a star at Under-19 level, is the closest the Assam Cricket Association has come to developing an international player.
But it’s hoped that the construction of the new 40,000-seat Barsapara Cricket Stadium, which will host its first ever international match this week, will signal the start of cricketing boon in the region.
Certainly, the warm reception given to the players upon their arrival on Sunday underlined just what their presence means to a city so desperate to put itself on the sporting map.
The players from both nations, clad in official uniform, picked up a few unexpected souvenirs on the short walk from their plane across the tarmac to the team bus; each was given a traditional red and white Assamese Gamosa scarf as well as a bamboo Jaapi hat as the excited locals did their best to make the tourists feel welcome.
Even the Indian players, who are all from more traditional cricketing strongholds, were made to feel like welcome guests for a rare visit to the north east of their country.
“It was really great feeling when we got to airport,” 22-year-old Kuldeep Yadav, who hails from the northern industrial city of Kanpur, said on Monday.
“Wherever we go there is a big following, which we are grateful for, especially when you travel across the country and get to see different local cultures. It’s a nice feeling to experience all this.
“Even here now there is a large crowd cheering at the stadium gate.”
And the significance of this match and what it will mean for the future of cricket in this city is not lost on the local ACA officials.
“We desperately wanted to bring back an international match in Guwahati after a gap of seven years,” ACA vice president Devajit Saikia told local media on Sunday.
“We have tried our best. If we can conduct (it) successfully, we can even expect IPL matches in Guwahati very soon.”
The Barsapara venue is so new that as the Australians trained for the first time on Monday, workers clamoured on scaffolding in the southern stand and with paint brushes outside the ground in a seemingly losing battle against the clock to apply the finishing touches.
Saikia added that the tickets available for this week’s match sold out in just hours last week and the simultaneous arrival of two major international events, according to the front page of the local Sentinel newspaper, has “created an electrifying and colourful atmosphere” that has the city in the grips of “sports fever”.
So rare has top-level cricket been in Guwahati that only three players who arrived on Sunday have played an international match in the city before; former India skipper MS Dhoni, veteran paceman Ashish Nehra and current captain Kohli, who scored a match-winning 105 as a 22-year-old at the old Nehru Stadium in 2010, the last time an international was played here.
And despite the close cricketing ties between the two nations, as well as the proliferation of Australians in the IPL, the only Aussie who touched down on Sunday to have played in Guwahati before won’t be rolling his arm over on Tuesday; two-time World Cup winning spinner Brad Hogg, who played ODIs here in 1996 and 2003, will be in the commentary box for local broadcaster Star Sports.
Even stand-in Australian captain David Warner, who will this week play his 20th international match in India to go with nine seasons in the IPL, has never visited Guwahati before this week.
“I think it’s a fantastic venue,” he said on match eve.
“It’s a nice ground and the wicket looks fantastic.
“It’s obviously the first game being played here and it will be a special one for both teams. Hopefully we can get across the line and get the first victory here.”
The bold declaration 12 months ago from Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal that Guwahati will become “the sports capital of India” has undoubtedly led to action in the region and this week is the first realisation of that dream.
Just which sport, cricket or football, best captures the imagination of one of India’s fastest-growing cities over the next decade is yet to be seen.
Australia’s Qantas Tour of India
Australia squad: David Warner (c), Jason Behrendorff, Dan Christian, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Aaron Finch, Travis Head, Moises Henriques, Glenn Maxwell, Tim Paine, Kane Richardson, Marcus Stoinis, Andrew Tye, Adam Zampa.
India squad: Virat Kohli (c), Rohit Sharma (vc), Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik, MS Dhoni (wk), Hardik Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ashish Nehra, Axar Patel.
October 7: JSCA International Stadium, Ranchi
October 10: Barsapara Stadium, Guwahati
October 13: Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium, Hyderabad