“COME, PLEASE come. You won’t be blown away. You’re not as light as paper, no.” It’s the fourth time in less than 15 minutes that G Gangaraju has used the same wisecrack to allay fears on the other side of the phone about the fifth ODI being a washout. And on each occasion he’s followed it up with a rambunctious laugh. We are in his plush office at the ACA-VDCA Stadium in Visakhapatnam, where three photos of the man himself — incidentally indulging in a similarly face-muscle clenching guffaw — adorn the walls with captions of ‘Our Leader, Our Patron’ to boot.
The 68-year-old is not only the Andhra Cricket Association secretary but also a vice-president with the BCCI. He is high on the list of richest MLAs, having won the constituency of Naraspuram by a whopping margin back in 2014. And it doesn’t take too long to realise where the power lies in these parts. He’s decked in that quintessential politician garb in this part of the world—a starched white shirt over white trousers.
Outside his office, the Vizag sky is gloomy though. So gloomy that that you could easily mistake it to be past 7.30 am even though it’s still not 5 yet. Cyclone Kyant was supposed to be on its way — recorded at just 320 km away from Visakhapatnam earlier in the day — and set to unleash its wrath on the coastal regions of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. But reports during the day have been more promising with the MET department confident that Kyant’s intensity has died down, almost into a depression, and even though heavy spells of rain might be imminent there is a good chance that it might affect the northern parts of Tamil Nadu with more fervour instead.
It’s already started drizzling in the central parts of the city—from the Jagdhamba market area to the serene climes of Beach Road which is almost a landscape doppleganger of Colombo’s Galle Face Road.
The rain is yet to arrive at the ACA-VDCA Stadium — located close to 12 km from the city centre — but the entire square is already under covers whose colour pretty much matches that of the sky, that ominous shade of grey. There is frantic activity all around with groundstaff and volunteers scuttling for position and trying to get their respective tasks completed before the inevitable showers. Elsewhere, the Indian and New Zealand teams have arrived in the city and the news seems to have hastened the tempo of the bustle here even though they are not scheduled to practise on Thursday, two days prior to the final ODI.
Local legend Prasad
There’s a lot of buzz also concentrated on the near side of the stadium, just outside the pavilion area, and there’s one man responsible for it. MSK Prasad has been probably the most recognisable face of Andhra cricket over the last two decades, even before he recently took over as chairman of the national selection committee. The stadium even has a gate named after him.
Though he landed here with the rest of the team, Prasad has rushed to the stadium straight from the airport to get the ground reality, quite literally. He is still conspicuously in his official BCCI attire. And that leads to even more handshakes, requests for photographs and congratulatory greetings. To his credit, he soaks in the attention without any fuss and obliges every single request. He’s everywhere. One moment he’s having a serious chat with the groundsman, the next he’s caught hold of another official to discuss final preparations for the match.
He constantly clarifies to those around him that he’s “100 per cent” confident of the work being done by the current administration and is here only in the capacity of a team official. But he also doesn’t shy away from admitting the concern he has over his association.
It is then that he gets a call from the office of the other most recognizable face in Andhra cricket. For, Gangaraju has just been informed that Prasad is in the house.
The door to the secretary’s office is perennially open and there’s a constant stream of people walking in and out. While it mainly includes the higher-ups in the association who walk in with queries and doubts, there are also those who walk in to simply pay their respects by touching Gangaraju’s feet. He simply holds his palm up and smiles as they thank him for the hospitality, or maybe just offering them his mere attendance.
The phone calls just keep coming. So do the jokes about the ‘cyclone blowing away’. He doesn’t sound too bothered when informed that only 60 per cent of the tickets have been sold, which is a rather low figure when you consider that the match is less than 48 hours away.
“It’s just because of these scary reports on TV. Very soon, all the tickets will be sold. It will be a great atmosphere with a full-house,” he says, waving his hand defiantly.
Vizag is also less than a month away from hosting its first-ever Test. But Gangaraju believes in being in the present and is more keen on seeing India win the tie-breaker and with it the ODI series against the Kiwis. It’s a busy schedule for him over the next two days. There’s a meeting in Vijaywada with union finance minister Arun Jaitley, and he’ll be taking an overnight train back to Vizag on Friday to be back at the ground in time for the match.
‘Not a wicked wicket’
The reputation of the stadium, and the pitch in particular, has taken quite a beating of late. Former India spinner and present Assam Ranji coach Sunil Joshi had expressed his grave disappointment about the pitch — in a story reported by this paper — that his team had lost a match on to Rajasthan here. Joshi had revealed that balls had kept as low as ankle-high on the final day of the three-day contest, which saw 17 wickets fall.
Later in the day, the lights are turned on and there are close to a hundred pairs of feet happily walking over the covered square. The motley crew includes local media, a whole battalion of policemen and pretty much the entire staff of the ACA and VDCA. Gangaraju is at the front of the gathering inspecting the various parts of the stadium.
Among the crowd, decked in a modest red t-shirt, is Nagamalliah, the head curator at the stadium. He’s not too bothered about the bad press that has come his pitch’s way and is in fact ready to take it in his stride.
“Sir, for every 99 good things, one bad thing will be there, no? It’s like a batsman can’t score a hundred in every match, no?” he says before going on to lament about how the pitch used for the Ranji game had been under covers for 21 straight days resulting in him getting only a single day to prepare it.
“We should see scores of 280-300 day after. But Test wicket will be different sir. I have been preparing it for the last month,” he adds.
Then the topic soon shifts to the weather and Nagamalliah points to the outfield saying, “Even if it rains, the drainage is good enough to handle it.”
The prospect of a looming cyclone is not a laughing matter or a brush-away subject for everyone present at the ACA-VDCA Stadium though. While the secretary is busy allying fears of potential audience, one senior official in the board has spent the last half hour trying to convince his concerned wife that he’s safe.
He recalls the horror of Cyclone Hudhud that left many dead in these parts back in October 2014 and how it came all too close to hitting home when he and some other officials sat huddled in a hotel room nearby. So petrified where they and convinced about not surviving that they decided to record farewell messages on their phones for their families.
“We just sat around recording messages for our loved ones, saying goodbye. Some of us couldn’t handle it and broke down. Luckily we were whisked off to the basement and remained safe,” he says.
“Today as soon as my wife saw news reports on TV of another cyclone approaching, she just called me and said ‘Leave whatever you are doing and come over right now. I don’t care match or no match’,” he adds sheepishly, his eyes constantly glancing nervously towards the phone.