The excitement ahead of the first India-New Zealand Twenty20 International in the port city of Visakhapatnam is palpable as you touch down at the Indira Gandhi Airport. Two of the commentators on duty for the game on Saturday (September 8 ) are pleasantly surprised at the number of people wanting pictures with them. They are instantly drawn to the warmth and recognition that makes covering cricket in smaller towns a rich experience.
As we hit the highway towards the YS Rajasekhara Reddy ACA-VDCA Stadium, a good 20 kilometres away from the city centre, hoardings of the Indian team along the road as the stadium approaches can't be missed. But the one that attracts attention in a split second is a big banner just outside the stadium that reads 'Welcome back, Yuvi'. The build-up towards the game has reached fever pitch, given that Yuvraj Singh is expected to make his comeback to the Indian team following his successful battle against cancer.
"Tickets were originally supposed to go on sale on Wednesday, but we were flooded with queries after India won the Bangalore Test. "Hence we had to advance the sale of tickets by a day," said an Andhra Cricket Association Official. "Yuvraj's return has generated tremendous interest. Everyone wants to see him play. The demand for tickets has been phenomenal."
While the venue prepares to host its maiden T20 international, India have won each of their four One-Day Internationals here, a record that has further ensured a mad frenzy for the 17,000 tickets that will on sale. The stadium has a capacity of 27,000.
Preparations at the venue, which first hosted an international fixture in 2005, are on in full swing. "In terms of facilities, we are right up there in India," says MSK Prasad, former India wicketkeeper and Director of Operations, Andhra Cricket Association. "We've continuously strived to ensure the facilities have improved since we first hosted an international match. So far, the players have had no complaints."
With rains lashing Visakhapatnam over the last few days due to a depression in the Bay of Bengal, a majority of the ground was under covers, forcing both teams to call off their practice sessions on Thursday. "The drainage facility is state-of-the-art," added Prasad. "It is a quick draining ground, drainage was one of our priority areas while developing the stadium."
The stadium isn't just player-friendly, but addresses the needs of the spectators too, the roof providing relief from the scorching sun. "Our aim in the next two years is to become a Test venue. The Board of Control for Cricket in India have put us on a wait-list and we are expecting to get clearance by 2013," said Dr Gangaraju, secretary of ACA. "The International Cricket Council also inspected the venue after the IPL. They were extremely satisfied with the facilities. We should become a Test venue soon."
The ground is best remembered for Mahendra Singh Dhoni announcing his arrival with a swashbuckling 148 against Pakistan in 2005, his first ODI century. Virat Kohli too will walk into the ground with a feel-good factor, having scored two tons in as many ODIs, against Australia and West Indies in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
The stadium has hosted a few games in the Indian Premier League as one of the home grounds of Deccan Chargers. This season, 193 was the highest score at the ground, perhaps an indication of what bowlers from both sides can expect come Saturday.