Groundsmen Tambe,Jaiswal have followed Tendulkars career from the start and will be there at the finish
In the fading light at the Wankhede Stadium,a couple of ageing men in khaki circle the field,dragging a water hose along the boundary line. It turns out to be the last lap of the day for the old hands,who are only months away from their retirement. After their hard day at the office,Vijay Tambe and Lalsuram Jaiswal,both approaching 60,worry about their forthcoming pension-less days before the conversation inevitably veers off to the present days most talked-about departure.
Around most maidans and among Mumbais tight-knit cricket fraternity,Tambe and Bhaiyya (Jaiswal has UP roots) are as well-known as the Tendulkar-Kambli duo,having prepared several tracks for the world-famous pair since the time they were curly-haired child prodigies.
Jaiswal points to the empty Divecha Stand where workers are busy hammering nails. Long back thats where Sunil Gavaskar was sitting when Sachin was on the pitch playing for Shardarshram against Anjuman Islam. Udhar se uska India team mein entry hua, he says.
On Thursday,the first day of the Test,the scene will have a familiar ring to it. Gavaskar will again be in the stands and Tendulkar on Jaiswals pitch.
Of course,there will be one significant change: Tendulkar will be moving towards the exit. For close to three decades,there arent too many playing surfaces in Mumbai that Tambe and Jaiswal havent watered or outfields they havent trimmed. Incidentally,thats what they have been doing all day.
The Indian team hasnt yet turned up at the Wankhede,and the first Test result wasnt the kind that compels the home captain to send an SOS to the curator at the next venue.
It can be said with reasonable certainty that instructions havent yet trickled down to ground level. But this tag team has made enough Tendulkar pitches to know what their old mate needs.
The pitch looks green but its a given that it will soon turn brown. Though both Tambe and Jaiswal are secretive about the details on their duty chart over the next few days,there are enough tell-tale signs on the outfield to know what the 13-member strong ground-staff has been up to. Long hours of watering and a tight trim of the blades means the ball will fly off the bats on the ground.
Over the last few years,with age,Tendulkars strokes have changed. The checked punch has replaced the forceful drives. The limbs that have regularly gone under the surgeons knife now use the pace of the bowler to guide the ball past square or paddle the spinner past the fine leg fence.
With this in mind,rivals lay out a thick grassy outfield,as was the case in Mumbais away game against Haryana at Lahli. It was an obvious ploy to deny Tendulkar full value for his strokes. Things were to change for Tendulkar in his next game. At Kolkata,Tendulkar got the kind of outfield he likes. Balls went screaming over it,aided by the practice pitches near the boundaries. But ironically,he made 10 at Eden Gardens while at Lahli,he might well have scored a century if Mumbai were chasing a bigger target.
Basing their predictions on pure goodwill and not gut feeling,both Tambe and Jaiswal say that Tendulkar in all likelihood will score his final hundred at the Wankhede. I was here when he played his first Ranji Trophy game and he scored a hundred then. In those days he was a very aggressive batsman, recalls Tambe.
While recalling Tendulkars highs,the two also talk about their most satisfying days on the field. Jaiswal remembers the mad rush to get the ground ready just before the 2011 World Cup and the ‘mission impossible in 2007,when they needed to make the turf match-fit days after MS Dhoni and his boys were feted on the swampy Wankhede outfield post their World T20 triumph.
There have been times when we havent gone home for days, says Jaiswal,and adds that he will move to his village near Azamgadh once he retires. Hearing his old friends retirement plan,Tambe gets pensive. Actually,I left a Railways job to be part of the ground staff here. My wife sometimes tells me that I made a wrong choice. She complains that if I was in railways the family would have travelled around the country free and we would get paid after retirement, he says.
From the uncertain future,they return to the happier near future. When Tendulkar walks out for nets tomorrow,Tambe says they will hand him a guchha,thats what they call a bouquet on the other side of the tracks. Tambe says Jaiswal happens to be Tendulkars favourite groundsman. The statement brings a big smile to Jaiswals face. As soon as he comes he will put a hand around me, gushes the old man. Its going to be an emotional last lap for many at Wankhede this week.