Inside the dimly lit guard’s chamber of the Krishnagiri Stadium is a framed picture of St Dominic plunging his harpoon on a two-headed snake, three stubbed candles beside it, a slim wooden rod, a steel torch and two identical brown flasks. All these equip Rajeevan, the guardsman on night prowl, with the necessary courage to pass the night in the sulking wilderness of the stadium.
The brown flasks are his night-warmers — the peppery black tea brewed by his wife keeps him awake the whole night. He rarely wields the torch these days, only if the rumbling in the woods gets loud enough to suggest wolves or jackals raiding the premises for fowl or rabbits. But once when he flashed the torch, he saw a black moving mass amidst the teak groves. “It was an elephant, that too a loner male one. Fortunately, it walked away in the opposite direction,” he says.
When the stadium was being constructed, the guards carried drums with them, the local belief being that beats of drums drive elephants away. Some of them were trained at imitating the shriek of a leopard, another deterrent for elephants.
At the foot of the Kolagappara Hills, the stadium is now a regular Ranji Trophy haunt. Since its inauguration in 2014, it has hosted nine first-class matches, including a couple of South Africa A vs India A matches. But its 10th first-class fixture — the semifinal between Kerala and Vidarbha — perhaps is the biggest match the venue has yet hosted. And it could turn out to be historic if Kerala manage to spoil Vidarbha’s title defence. Traditionally, it has been a pacer-friendly venue, but Vidarbha players should know — as the hosts do — that terms like “venomous attack” can have literal, and not just idiomatic, connotations.
The wooden rod, with three sharp teeth at its bottom, is a localised snake-catching stick. Only once has Rajeevan used it, when a cobra entered his room. He, though, was careful not to harm or kill it — harmed snakes are believed to come back and exact cold revenge, the wrath of dead snakes considered to bring infertility.
Three years ago, South Africa A batsmen almost killed a baby krait that had slithered into the ground. The square-leg umpire and fielder Jiwanjot Singh scampered for their lives before the amused batsmen got down to the business of catching and killing it. But India A coach Rahul Dravid ran from the dressing room and requested them to leave the snake alone. However, the snake-sighting so freaked out the umpire that he stood at point rather than square leg for the remaining match.
He had a discussion with Wayanad Cricket Association secretary Nazir Machan, but the latter told the umpire: “It’s their home we are inhabiting, so technically we should keep away from the ground.”
But on a serious note, the officials rigorously check the pavilion, gym and the stands whether any crawlies are hiding under the warmth of the carpet. But there’s not much they can do about preventing snakes from entering the ground. For the tropical forests of Wayanad house, according to the forests officials, nearly 200 varieties of snakes including the endangered king cobra.
The locals even consider the spotting of a snake auspicious, so much so that they were jubilant when a snake slipped into the ground on the first day of the inaugural match at the venue, between Kerala and Goa in December 2014. “I don’t remember what snake it was but it was a monstrous one and we let it peacefully drift into the woods. The locals were happy and told us that the stadium would soon host an international match,” says Nazir. A photographer caught the snake in his camera and photo-shopped it into the Wayanad tourism advertisement, which reads: “Where cricket and jungle meet.”
The officials are more than happy with the publicity. The stadium has also become a tourist destination — the proximity to the ancient Edakkal caves makes it a convenient locale. Even if there are no matches, people drop by to roam around and take selfies with the imposing backdrop of the Kolagappara, a cluster of giant rocks. A literal translation is hills with spherical rocks (derived from the Malayalam word Golam which means a sphere).
The identity of Krishnagiri is the spherical hills — once moderately populated by the tribals before they relocated to Muthanga in the late 1970s. But until the Naxal upsurge in Kerala in the late 1960s, the town slumbered in the anonymity of the winding Kalpetta-Mysore highway, dotted with tea estates and teak groves. Though Pulpally and Thirunelli, 50-odd kilometres from Krishnagiri, were the epicentres of the movement at the peak of the clampdown, the Naxals sought refuge in the quiet foothills of Kolagappara. They mobilised the labourers in the tea estate to revolt against the plantation owners, but the fiery movement turned out to be fleeting.
However, the Naxal sympathy still runs deep. Engage the old-timers over dry-ginger coffee and banana fritters, and they will rattle out stories of Naxal figureheads hiding in their huts or waking up to gunshots of the police. “Even now, the police query us if they spot a stranger in the locality. But there is nothing now, only the romance of the past,” says Krishnan Master, who lives down the stadium road.
However, the movement opened up tourism avenues for Krishnagiri. A couple of tea shops and a hotel sprung up, a bus stop was assigned, and there are thriving home-stays and adventure tourism haunts. Now that there is a cricket stadium, the tourism profile of Krishnagiri is expanding.
It was in the late aughts that the Kerala Cricket Association stumbled on the piece of land, an overgrown bamboo grove put on sale. But as construction began, they were struck by the daunting challenge of flattening out a rugged, uneven terrain and building a stadium. It was an elemental tussle between man and nature, which is the story of the district from the time migrants thronged from central Kerala in the early 1960s, deforested the woods and rendered it cultivable.
Their biggest enemy, then and now, is rain — the district gets the highest rainfall in the state. By some estimates, it rains 300 days a year. So naturally, the drainage facilities had to be top-class. “That was among our primary concerns. We sought the inputs of everyone from engineers to experienced curators and locals,” says Nazir. So for the entire duration of the construction, Chepauk curator PR Viswanathan oversaw proceedings. The groundstaff was trained under him and made to intern in Dharamsala. Moreover, an artificial slope was made to facilitate the draining of water, so much so that no matter how hard the rain pounds, the ground could be readied in 20 minutes.
One of the engineers, CK Arun, ended up as the head curator. “Our first concern was to build a modern stadium without disturbing nature. That’s the reason we have just one stand, a grass bank and plenty of open spaces,” says Arun, who shifted to Oman as the cricket association’s head curator early last year.
Rain also ensures moisture, which means assistance for seamers. Not quite, says Arun. “The sun can be quite harsh here and the soil absorbs water quite rapidly. So as the day progresses, it can be a batting paradise, with nice bounce and pace for batsmen. In fact, the first three games were all drawn here. It all depends on nature,” he says.
Hence, one of the reasons the pitches have aided swing bowling this domestic season is the luxuriant rain it received this year. It was the wettest monsoon they had had in three decades and the coldest winter they’d enjoyed in 20 years. It’s heralding Kerala’s warmest Ranji season as well.