YOU SPOT him first rolling the centre wicket. Just as he’s about to turn around for the second time though Sharad Naik has to abandon the task. The ominous grey clouds that have been hovering over the Holkar Stadium since the early hours of Wednesday morning have finally shown their true colours and suddenly the entire ground-staff is scurrying to get the roller out of the way and get the pitch covered. Naik is at the forefront directing traffic before joining in the cover-up process. From a distance it all seems like routine work for a curator dealing with the preparation for an international match with the monsoons still not having completely left the horizon. It’s only when he gets closer that you notice his right hand and realize how there’s metal where flesh should be.
Often recalling an accident can be as gruesome and painful as the accident itself, especially if it has changed your life forever. And it’s taken the 63-year-old quite a few years to get used to narrating how he lost his right arm—nearly from the elbow down—on that fateful afternoon 25 years ago.
Back then Naik was a wily left-arm spinner who was very successful at befuddling batsmen in Indore’s club cricket during the 1980s. He still needed a day job and was an operator at the Malwa Cotton Spinning Mills.
“The mill would shut at 3.30 pm. So at 3 every afternoon we would start removing the cloth from the machine. Since the cloth would be really hot, we would then have to cool it down. So there was always a lot of moisture on the ground below,” he says. Naik then takes a pause as if the scene’s playing out all over again in front of his eyes. He then looks up and continues.
“Unfortunately my leg slipped and my right arm ended up stretching forward and getting stuck in the machine. I somehow used my other hand to stop the machine and started screaming. Other operators came over but didn’t know how to get my hand out. Somehow I wriggled it out,” he says. By now you’re squirming but Naik has a smile on his face as if he’s trying to ease your nerves. “I was rushed to a hospital, and they cut my arm off the same night. Amazingly, I was back home in four nights,” he says his eyes glowing now.
Days of struggle
Being handicapped all of a sudden was a shock that left Naik confined to his house for close to a year. Family members tried their best to help him get over the sadma. His younger brother started a tea stall just so that he could shift the focus from his hand. But it didn’t help. Soon came a realisation, Naik reveals, that there was only one place which could provide solace.
“So I returned to the maidaan. There was an U-16 camp being held at this very ground (Holkar Stadium then known as the Maharani Usharaje Trust ground) and the secretary asked me to just come and observe it. There I sat on a chair,” he says pointing to his left. Though it did hurt to know that he could never play the game like he used to, Naik’s life suddenly started making sense again. Before long he began tending to the pitch here, and the division cricket officials offered him a job even if the income was meagre of Rs 300 per day.
The following year he travelled to the Military Hospital in Pune with some help from a few well-wishers and got himself a prosthetic arm. It wasn’t easy at first to get around having a metallic arm in place of the real one. But his confidence began to grow once Naik started cycling, using pretty much just his left hand, to and fro from the grounds in Indore.
Naik kept his job at the mill till the turn of the century before taking a VRS. But the money he got then was spent in paying the dues accumulated in the aftermath of the accident. With a family of four to feed, he had to find another way to supplement his income. The maidaan provided him an opening again as the Holkar Stadium was starting to take shape as Indore’s newest international stadium in place of the erstwhile Nehru Stadium. By 2006 when the venue hosted its first ODI—India vs England—Naik was on the ground staff but still not an official member. Samandar Singh Chouhan, who’s been the chief curator here for years now, though saw him as an able assistant and the pitch that they laid out came in for high praise from everyone including captain Rahul Dravid and Suresh Raina.
“That match changed my life forever. I was given a fixed job and I haven’t looked back since. I got my two sons married and our fortunes changed forever. I bought a bike and I have even learnt to use my prosthetic hand to turn the accelerator,” he says. According to Naik though what impressed Chouhan the most was the hard work he put in during days when he and his senior colleague would have to drive away grazing cows and cut off knee-length grass to get a ground ready for a Ranji Trophy game.
Away from limelight
While Chouhan has gone on to earn renown for having prepared the pitches that saw the first two ODI double-centuries in international cricket, Naik played his role too though he’s always preferred staying away from the limelight. His stint with the MPCA officially ended in March this year. But by next month he was at president Sanjay Jagdale’s office requesting the veteran administrator to reinstate him. Indore was now a Test venue. “I had dreamt of this day. So when I heard that New Zealand had been given a Test match here, I just couldn’t sit at home. He was kind enough to get me back, and I am no longer thinking of retiring,” he says gleefully. Naik doesn’t consider himself to be handicapped anymore but does wear his prosthetic arm in public to ensure that he isn’t stared at much. He excitedly tells you about the time he played in a benefit match with other MPCA officials and took a catch with his left hand at mid-on. Last year he even sat in for the curators’ course entrance exam but unfortunately couldn’t pass it.
“When I was at home for a year I started practising writing with my wrong hand, the left. But then I lost touch. I wrote the exam paper with my left hand but I wasn’t fast enough and couldn’t answer all the questions,” he says. “Accidents like the one I suffered toughen you up though,” he quickly adds insisting that he no longer has any regrets in life. He has played a good hand after all and for now is happy to bask in the glory of getting to prepare a ‘Test’ pitch. The rain has stopped now, and Naik is summoned to help taking off the covers He smiles at you and says, “Dekho, you’ll see I’m as able as any of those youngsters out there,” before beginning to direct traffic again.
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