I have a bucket-list, a collection of places to go before I leave. And if you are a sports fan, the list will be much more specific. Among the sports venues I have visited, from where I have reported, played or wandered like a tourist, there are a few that glow brighter than the others.
The best way to combine the sports and travel is visiting the famed stadiums. There’s no need for a game to be on – those edifices will breathe the sports that have made them famous. You need only to pause in the empty stands to soak up the history and energy of these places.
Sepang International Circuit
There's something infectious when you are among 30,000 Formula One ‘nuts'. You need not be a hardcore F1 fan to join the celebrations. I realised this at the Sepang International Circuit, Kuala Lumpur, and venue of the Malaysia Grand Prix. It was the first time I was watching F1 ‘live.’
The place was packed with tourists, race fans, first-timers on the circuit, on a sweltering March afternoon. The setting, unlike other sport venues, seemed different — vast tracts of open land surrounding the circuit, a row of palm trees dotting a stretch of the track, pits with hoses and strange devices, curvaceous grid girls, celebrities, hidden rooms from where team members trooped in and out. And then there were the gladiators who came out in their shining machines.
Once the machines whirred, it was like standing behind an aircraft set for take-off. Frankly, after a few laps of blistering speed, the excitement seemed to wane a bit. A downpour stopped the race for some time and cooled the temperature. The race resumed, but there was much more happening in the stands. I began watching that - the Mexican wave as in a football stadium, people clapping and singing, women dressed up as if they were at a party, others reading with ear plugs cutting off the noise of the zooming cars, while a young Japanese woman kept opening her vanity mirror and powdering her face, even as the hardcore fans sat glued to their radio-headphones and race guides, oblivious to all the celebrations around.
Trying to unravel the exact and true origins of cricket will lead you to though a labyrinth. An answer to this medieval mystery might be found in and around the village of Hambledon, in England. This picturesque little village is located in the county of Hampshire, just an hour by road or rail from London. A visit to Broadhalfpenny Down and the Bat & Ball Inn here is a must for anyone who loves cricket. And I played here against Hambledon Cricket Club.
The word ‘Broadhalfpenny’ was a title given to places licensed by Royal Charter for fairs and markets. The Bat & Ball Inn was built in about 1730. It was only natural that the Down was used for cricket and the Inn as a pavilion and clubhouse. It would not be right to describe Broadhalfpenny Down as the birthplace of cricket, but it could be said to have been its nursery.
The Hambledon Club formed in 1750 and in 20 years they had become leaders in enforcing rules of the game. The middle stump was added, the width of the bat defined and, for a time, disputes on the rules, resolved. It was here that the skills of cricket were perfected. Richard Nyren, captain of the Club and landlord of the Bat & Ball Inn, was the first to think about the game and how it could be best played.
The Bat & Ball Inn was the focus of the club. The players huddled together here after a match for a post-mortem of the game, analysing and discussing, striving to iron out the flaws. Hambledon set the pace for the game in its formative stages and it seemed that the Bat & Ball Inn was the centre of cricketing universe. A stone monument, unveiled in 1908, stands on Broadhalfpenny Down that commemorates a match between Hambledon and an All England side. The Bat & Ball still stands across the Down still used as a close-of-play clubhouse. Playing a match here was a privilege.
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Along with the must-see sights in Los Angeles I had ticked this historic venue in my itinerary. I managed to get my LA-based nephew to take time out to drive me to this place. Though he often passed this stadium he had never thought of going in. The moment I entered through those gates I felt the goose bumps.
The Los Angeles (LA) Memorial Coliseum is a multi-purpose stadium commissioned in 1921 as a memorial to LA veterans of World War I and completed in 1923. It hosted the 1932 and 1984 Olympic Games. When it hosts the 2028 Olympics it’ll be the first stadium to have hosted the event thrice. It is indeed a National Historic Landmark.
Americans pride is visible on this magnificent structure. It has hosted three NFL Championships and two Super Bowls, many world leaders and dignitaries ranging from US Presidents to Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela and Pele have graced this venue.
It was here that PT Usha very narrowly missed the bronze medal in relay in the 1984 Olympics. That morning, frankly, I imagined Usha’s feelings. Looking at the tracks I thought of the 1984 Games – of Carl Lewis who emulated Jesse Owens bagging four gold medals in track and field at the same Olympics, Sebastian Coe emerging victorious in the 1,500 metres, Soviet Union boycotting the event, China entering the Games for the first time, and a dazzling opening ceremony befitting the home of Hollywood.
Epsom Downs Racecourse
Even as our team bus drove into Epsom, the beautiful market town south west of London, I had decided I was not going to play the day’s match. We were on a cricket tour to England and parts of Europe and Epsom was one stop. This was indeed a perfect destination to explore, a gorgeous part of Surrey teeming with history and heritage.
Once the game got underway I set out along with one of my team mates on a walking tour with hardly any info about the place. The only thing we knew about Epsom was that it was renowned for Epsom Salts (magnesium sulphate) which is considered a ‘cure all’ for health problems ranging from indigestion to poor skin. Epsom is today an exclusive and popular spa town and leisure destination.
At the Market Place, we saw the striking clock tower built in 1847 and the Assembly Rooms, built in 1690. Itt was not just used as meeting rooms, but was also the town’s principal tavern, coffee house, billiard room and gaming rooms. It is now a pub with vintage photographs and details about the history of the town.
Epsom is surrounded by green open spaces, a perfect walking trail. We were headed towards Epsom Downs seeking directions on our way. We crossed old bridleways, private roads, and wooden bridges over narrow brooks, beech forests, meadows, undisturbed landscape. Occasionally, an elderly couple walked past wishing us. Cozy inns, huge country houses with a winding road leading to it, stables where hostlers were busy grooming horses – it was a scene right out of a Victorian English novel. Then, we saw the famous Epsom Downs Racecourse, home to the historic Epsom Derby.
The racecourse, with its iconic grandstand overlooking the track, has been the venue for the famous flat race since it was first started in 1780. On the gates that leads you into the racecourse there’s an artwork, a tribute Lester Piggott, the champion jockey who rode his first winner aged 12, won his first Epsom Derby at 18 and went on to it a record nine times. After the event , we saw the horses being guided back by the groomers, a few of them grazed peacefully in the meadows beyond, while the staff were busy putting the place back in place.
Among notable stadiums are the famous Lord’s cricket Ground and the MCC Cricket Museum in London, the amazing facilities in Copenhagen, the picturesque Galle cricket stadium in Sri Lanka, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, venue for the famous Wimbledon tennis championships, Old Trafford football stadium, home to Manchester United, the intimidating Eden Garden where cricketers and fans dream of playing or visiting, M A Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai, formerly known as Madras Cricket Club or simply Chepauk and the iconic Bombay Gymkhana, established in 1875 where India played its first Test match at home, against England, in 1933 and of course, The Collosseum.
The Colosseum is an egg-shaped amphitheatre is the prototype for modern stadiums. What we see today is only part of what was a magnificent structure. Climbing the steps, standing in the galleries along with innumerable tourists and looking down at the arena is a sight that one will cherish forever. Imagine a crowd of over 50,000 Romans sitting according to their social hierarchy, the emperor sitting on the imperial box at the centre of the long northern curve of the stadium, where every action of his could be watched by the audience as the gladiators stepped out for battle.
It must have been such an impressive sight when it was opened, originally covered in blocks of white marble, which has been scavenged piece by piece over the centuries. The only original marble pieces that remain are a few scattered pedestals and pillars. What we see today are remains of the concrete core, the brick superstructure and with miles of vaulted corridors. Yet it is a sight to behold.