Ravindra Jadeja and Cheteshwar Pujara are two Kathiawadis from Rajkot who the Englishmen would have no doubt thought about, and even fretted. But there is another local man – potbellied, with just three teeth left that protrude at an awkward angle but produce a heart-warming smile, perennially short of breath, pinned down with blood pressure, and struck with a debilitating case of diabetes that the tourists have to be really wary about. In some ways, even more than R Ashwin.
Rasik Makwana is 67, has tended the pitches here for over five decades and is easily the most dangerous man for the overseas teams in these parts of Gujarat. He is the man singlehandedly instrumental in reviving the sagging career of Jadeja, and helping him make his India comeback last year, by producing sand pits that helped Jadeja to get 38 wickets in four Ranji games. He is also the guy who perhaps was the most responsible for the Indian cricket board to shift Ranji games to neutral venues from this year.
He smiles when asked about the state of the pitch for the first Test in Rajkot. The occasion of the inaugural game seems to have restrained him from laying out another Jadeja special.
On Friday, the pitch was decently hard, was beige in colour, and shouldn’t worry the batsmen. As of now that is. It can change anytime if someone higher up has a quiet word in his ear.
He wasn’t at the new stadium on Friday, as he was overseeing the pitches at the old stadium for the U-19 Cooch Behar tournament. The history here, though, suggests it would just need them two days to inflict a character change of the soil. Read that slowly, Cook and Co. Just two days.
The trick is pretty simple. Water on the good length areas, let it soak in to 2mm depth, and just wait for the magic potion to do its bit. In two days, those areas would go softer, and an odd boot pressed on it on the first day would dent it enough to produce decent rough patches to aim for. Jadeja knows how to land them there, and Ashwin can cause enough heartbreak without curator’s help but won’t mind such assistance. Would the locals, however, desire a five-day Test for their historic first Test? The Indians have arrived; would someone in the team management have a quiet word or two to Rasikbhai?
November 9 is a big day for Rasikbhai— it would be his first Test, and his last cricketing wish. For sometime now he has been yearning to host a India-Pakistan match and it seemed last season it could materialise but the Indo-Pak tie eventually went to Dharamshala. He was upset but the news of Test-hosting had cheered him up.
Rasikbhai is one of those gentle souls who can be often found in the (anonymous) world of Indian cricket. A smile on his face, and twinkling naughty eyes, he is dedicated to his job. Lest it not be misconstrued that he always produces diabolical pitches; it’s only when someone higher up eggs him on. He knows more about Indian tracks than most, and can roll out dead batting tracks to turners depending on the need.
He has had a relationship with the mitti, soil for decades now. Even before he began to create cricket pitches. As a teenager, he would work on a dus bheega zameen (plot of land), which he eventually came to own. “We would produce baigans (brinjals), mirchi (Chillies), and I was very interested in kheti (agriculture). My hands were used to playing with soil, and creating something useful”.
We went down to the old stadium on Friday to see him in action at the Cooch Behar tourney. His size and gait makes him an unmistakable figure. As you enter the nondescript stadium, you walk past murals of cricketers on the entrance wall. One is almost untraceable, some aren’t of great quality but there is one of Ravindra Jadeja with his arms up as he does during his first-pump celebrations. Adjacent to him, for some reason, there is a mural of Michael Jackson holding his crotch, and a line reads – If you stumble, make it part of the dance. If England stumble on a Rasik bhai special, Jadeja would undoubtedly make it part of the dance.
Rasik bhai is a good raconteur of tales and understandably at his happiest best when he talks about the likes of Viv Richards and Kapil Dev.
Once, apparently, Richards wasn’t sure whether the morning showers would allow the game to start but not only did Raskibhai tell him it would but also told him to just go “maaro!” (hit). “Richards hit Ravi Shastri for a six into the swimming pool that is beyond the pavilion.” He points his finger at the far distance and chuckles. “Good wicket, Good wicket! He told me later!”.
There is also the story of Kapil Dev who was impressed with a batting beauty that Rasik bhai had laid out for a game against Sri Lanka that Dev, who was then the coach, called him out at the end of the game that India narrowly lost.
“He was standing at the stairs there, below the pavilion, and called me, ‘Chacha idhar aao!’ When I went near, he said he was very pleased, and emptied his pockets and gave me everything he had.”
Rasik bhai stands behinds the stumps as his helpers work on the pitch. Somewhere near square-leg, watching Saurashtra under-19 kids train before their Cooch Behar game, is his son Kamlesh. From the time he was 10, the son would love to be at his father’s work place – the Race Course ground. The way to his father’s office had a park with swings and slides; inside there was always a game on. Kamlesh had a dream childhood.
He loved to ride the mechanised roller his father drove, an incentive for running errands all day. He seemed destined to be a groundman like his brother, till one day a senior Saurashtra Cricket Association official intervened. “Give a ball and bat in his hand not spade and sickle, I was told,” says Rasik bhai recalling the stern advice that changed his son’s life. Kamlesh till date has played 78 First- class games, his forceful off-spinners getting him 212 wickets and his stubborn batting getting him 3 hundreds down the order.
The 33-year-old has a lean frame and looks much younger than his age. Naturally shy, he looks pensive. The Saurashtra team is playing a Ranji game at Eden Gardens, a couple of team mates – Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja – are preparing for the Test; as for Kamlesh, he is bowling to unknown teenagers at a ground where he moved from preparing pitches to bowling on it.
You soon find out that life will come a full circle for Makwana Jr. A few months back, Kamlesh was called for chucking during a Ranji game. He went for action correction at Chennia and is now waiting for the verdict. “I was told things looked fine but you can’t say anything before the report is out,” he says. There also happens to be another examination result that he is eagerly awaiting. Once again coaxed by local officials, Kamlesh appeared for a BCCI curator’s test. “If my action gets cleared, I would want to complete playing 100 first-class games. After that I would concentrate on pitch preparation. Trust me, the kind of experience I have no one can match,” he says.
As Rasikbhai’s son, he knows when exactly those thin cracks on the Rajkot pitches would turn into an ever-mutating rough. As a first-class off-spinner he was aware how to exploit the natural wear and tear of the surface. However, it has been his spin-partner, Jadeja, who benefitted more from those crumbling brown carpets laid out by his father. “He has a flat and fast trajectory while as an off-spinner I need to throw the ball up to exploit the roughs. So he was more accurate and could land the ball consistency at one point,” he says, reminding you how he has consistently got three-four wickets in most innings Jadeja has scalped a fiver or more.
Kamlesh underplays the role the pitches prepared by his father have played in Jadeja’s return to India’s Test side last year. “He is a very sharp bowler. He is very quick to understand what length he needs to bowl to a particular batsman. That’s the key to his success,” he says leaning on the heavy stationary roller. The wheel will soon turn, the kid getting free rides will soon be in the driving seat.
On the morning of November 9, as he has done for some time now, Rasikbhai would walk out of his house on an empty stomach and get to the ground nice and early. He won’t have tea or coffee, and wouldn’t eat till lunch in fact. “Diabetes hai na”. He would wear his blue official shirt from the Saurashtra Cricket Association and walk to the 22-yard strip. Sometime earlier this season, he had already lit an agarbathi (incence stick) and did his pooja of the pitch at the new stadium. His lunch would be bajra rotla dipped in milk with some sabji from home. By then, England would know what fate awaits them from the hands of Rasikbhai.