“Trees fall, grass doesn’t fall.”
In one line, PR Viswanathan has summed up the state of the MA Chidambaram Stadium and its readiness to host the final India-England Test despite the rest of Chennai still reeling in the aftermath of Cyclone Vardah.
He’s seated in the shade of the ‘groundstaff only’ area behind the sight screen at the V Pattabhiraman Gate End. Next to him on a cart is placed a still-steaming tray of burnt coal. The tray had been used earlier in the morning to dry the excess moisture on the centre wicket. Viswanathan is quick to add that the hot coal wasn’t brought in direct contact with the track — lest it get burnt — with a stump used as a wheel beneath it.
Behind him are pictures and idols of numerous deities and holy men. From Ganpati to Sai Baba, the Chepauk groundstaff has them all covered.
“Curators tend to be a religious lot generally. At the end of the day, whatever effort we put in, we have to leave it to him,” Viswanathan, the BCCI zonal curator, says pointing towards his makeshift kovil.
Chennai has been making headlines these past few days. It’s less than 10 days since Chennai lost its Amma and the late Jayalalitha is immortalised in posters that line almost every wall leading into the city. They are interspersed with tens and hundreds of uprooted trees. Chennai on Wednesday resembles the setting for Michael Jackson’s epic ‘Earth’ Song, the latter half anyway.
But you wouldn’t say there was a cyclone around just two days ago as the flight descends into the city. The Chennai sun is harsh as ever even if there are a couple of dark clouds hovering on the horizon. So the airhostess can be pardoned for welcoming you to ‘Chennai’s Kempegowda Airport’ rather than the Kamraj Domestic Terminal.
Traffic is as slow-crawling as ever in Chennai where often vehicles tend to move diagonally rather than anything resembling a straight line.
And the scene’s hectic at the Chidambaram Stadium as well. While a handful of groundstaff are busy propping up sight screens ravaged by the cyclone, most of the other work is rather routine. Viswanathan is busy handing out instructions. He asks one to fix the middle stumps on either side of the pitch to help the Hawk Eye technicians go through their testing process. He then debates with another khaki-clad member of the team whether it was wise to get the plastic covers off the ground so that the heat generated by them doesn’t turn the grass manjall, Tamil for yellow.
The practice wickets are in complete disarray, which means the two teams will prepare for the fifth Test with no net sessions. Vairamuthu, the guard who was in charge of the practice area, wasn’t in his spot on Monday when Vardah arrived.
He was instead at home sorting out the issue of his neighbour’s roof having landed on his own thanks to the strong winds. He shows the damage that the torrential downpour, which followed the winds, have caused to the series of pitches, with the nets left topsy-turvy. Viswanathan reveals that the teams might attempt facing throwdowns if the condition improves but there was no chance of them batting.
“The English might use it for Stuart Broad’s fitness test tomorrow, but they can’t bat on it against proper bowling. They might get hit,” he says.
Viswanathan has been on a sabbatical from Chepauk. This is the first time since 2012 that he’ll be preparing a wicket here. The last time he set foot here was during the Ranji Trophy final between Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan, which the visitors won after scoring 621.
“I wasn’t very happy with that pitch. I will take that regret to my grave,” says Viswanathan, whose father played in the first ever Ranji Trophy game for Madras against Mysore, that finished in one day back in 1934. He himself was part of the Ranji squad that had the likes of VV Kumar and S Venkataraghavan but never broke into the playing XI.
He drifted away from cricket for a while once his playing days were done before returning at the turn of the century to take over the mantle of making pitches. Viswanathan calls himself a bad weather expert, having dealt with a number of challenges that nature has thrown whenever international cricket has headed in Chennai’s direction. Not to forget the ingenious methods he’s used to counter them.
He recalls a Test match against West Indies in 2002 when the run-up area was extremely wet. He had then used diesel to immolate the area despite others discouraging him. He proudly recalls how bowlers from the two teams had no trouble whatsoever and the match went on smoothly.
There was another time he had to remove the top-surface of the pitch at the last minute to ensure that a domestic match wasn’t affected. There were other matches, like an ODI against South Africa in 2005 that were completely washed out and the 2004 Test against Australia, where an excitingly-placed Test ended anti-climactically thanks to a last-day washout.
When ingenuity saved the day
Last year, he employed everything from a hair-dryer to an actual hot-iron to allow the India-South Africa Test to start according to plan at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore before unrelenting rain made play impossible on the following four days. According to Viswanathan, the best time to play in Chennai is the end of January, which is around the time the Pongal Test used to be scheduled back in the 70s and 80s.
There’s a buzz even on the periphery of the stadium with kids inquiring about tickets for the match.
Seated on one side of the gate is R Baskaran, a cobbler who has rubbed shoulders with Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni while calling David Warner and AB de Villiers his acquaintances. Baskaran has been answering SOS calls from cricketers of all levels from 1993 — or from the time ‘Azhaaar’ used to play as puts it — whenever they’ve had torn gloves or worn pad buckles. After taking over from his late father-in-law, Baskaran, though, has earned rave renown and is presently a regular fixture during every match played at the Chidambaram Stadium.
The cyclone hasn’t affected him much except forcing him to the other side of the Pattabhiraman Gate. He’s seated on a tarpaulin with IPL advertising and is surrounded by pairs of worn gloves.
“But on match days, you’ll find me outside the players’ area inside the stadium always on-the-ready to mend gloves, pads or helmet straps. The last thing I fixed was Dhoni’s pads during last year’s IPL,” he tells you while showing off a picture of himself with Tendulkar.
Back inside, the groundstaff is taking a breather inside the shaded area as the afternoon gets hotter and steamier. It is a well-deserved breather after the 25-strong group has spent most of the two previous days sweating it out in getting the stadium ready for its first Test in nearly four years.
They talk about their own experiences, which included getting the ‘stadium’ dog’s dozen puppies to safety and also tending to the covers to ensure the pitch doesn’t get overly affected by the incessant water. They point out the part of the roof over one stand made of acrylic which has been shredded and torn into pieces by winds that, according to them, reached 190 kph.
They also had to deal with regular phone calls from Viswanathan but reveal they could go home that night after making sure that the stadium could withstand Vardah’s onslaught.
“That’s been this venue’s greatest strength, to stand up and deliver whenever nature makes it tough for us and be creative about it,” says Viswanathan but quickly adds, “We do get scared when it’s December though.”