His home is sandwiched between his two workplaces: the logo-littered, glass-heavy modern cricket stadium, the Rose Bowl, and the diligently manicured nursery ground. For Ian Tulk, a groundsman at England’s most-recent Test venue, it’s a thin line of tar that separates his porch and office.
The 50-year-old Tulk is perhaps the best man to write Hampshire’s new cricket ground’s biography — a Bildungsroman he has witnessed unfolding in front of his eyes ever since the first digging of this one-time forest land by the ceremonial spade in the mid-90s. Only, the prospect of a desk job won’t excite this man with soiled rough hands. In any case, he is too much in love with his vocation.
Still a semi-active club cricketer — he has played two games in the last couple of years — Tulk gave up managing a car company for his current job. “I have friends who are accountants and lawyers. When they get introduced to people, it’s merely a handshake and it’s over. But as soon as I say I am a groundsman at the Rose Bowl everyone wants to speak with me. They want to know about cricket all the time,” he says while pegging sharp hooks on the green that MS Dhoni and his boys will occupy tomorrow.
With the third Test starting this weekend and the Indians already in town, everyone wants to talk about cricket. More specifically, about the amount of grass on the Rose Bowl pitch. Tulk isn’t allowed to speak on these matters. Pitch data is classified information in modern cricket where the background check of ground staff, among other things, includes a magnifying glass on their betting habits. But the colour of the 22 yards on the central square is so overly green that even without an ‘official’ curator’s quote, it can safely be suggested that pacers will make the ball dance early on in the Test, as they did at Lord’s.
Back to Tulk, and to those more interesting stories that he is allowed to share. His house survived the development around the arena because of its age. “It belongs to the club. They couldn’t bring it down because they are not allowed to. It’s a heritage house. My senior didn’t want it so I moved in here 15 years ago. Somebody needs to stay at the venue 24×7. Some alarm might go off suddenly or the gate needs to be opened for some late delivery,” explains the amiable man.
He talks fondly of Rod Bransgrove, the current chairman at the Rose Bowl who repeatedly reached for his wallet to turn Hampshire around. Bransgrove parted with the millions he made in the pharmaceutical and animation industry to build this Test venue from scratch. “He is a cricket lover. If I request him I can have a drink with them. He loves talking cricket,” he says.
From the administrator he moves on to talk about cricketers he has watched from up close. The conversation starts with a question he poses: “Do you miss your maestros?” Thankfully, he doesn’t wait for the difficult answer and says, “I met VVS Laxman the last time the Indian team was here. He knew an Indian who used to play for my club team. So I took him there, very nice man.”
The Tulk tales become gripping with the entry a couple of intriguing Pakistani characters. “Once Inzamam-ul Haq was here for a match. His pre-match training was rather unconventional.” The story goes how Inzamam would sit on the chair waiting for his turn to bat and after his stint got parked again. “But what a player, he had so much time to hit a stroke.”
Next is Wasim Akram, who played for Hampshire towards the end of his career. He narrates an Akram-Robin Smith anecdote that adds to the legend around world cricket’s most skilful swing bowler. During one net session Smith was repeated getting hit on the pads by the shinning new cherry that Akram masterly swung into him. After the umpteenth miss, the English bowler picked the ball and told his nemesis, “It’s easy doing that with the new ball.” Reacting quickly, Akram picked a battered ball, and at this point over to the story teller from the Rose Bowl for the punchline. “He showed Smith the old ball and this time swung it out, beating him again.”
With Kevin Pietersen too having made the Rose Bowl his home once, you know Tulk will surely mention him. And he does. “KP was once facing Alan Mullally, who was repeatedly bowling big no balls,” he says. KP, in an evidently sarcastic tone, asked the left-arm pacer to might as well take a few more steps ahead. Mullally agreed, the next ball was fired from 15 yards. “Not too high, parallel to the ground, the ball rocketed and hit that wall,” he says showing a six-feet fence.
And what about Shane Warne, the Hampshire legend who has a stand named after him here? He laughs as he speaks about the demanding captain, the argumentative bowler and how a hole came up on the dressing room wall during his tenure here. You ask him about the hole and he says, “Smoke would emerge from that hole when Warne was there.”