An affair to remember

Venkat Sundaram

By:- Venkat Sundaram



An India Pakistan match, in any discipline-Hockey, Kabaddi, Soccer, Tennis- is a huge spectacle. The “asking rate” immediately climbs sky high as speculation, and jingoism, kick in and rational thought is thrown out of the window! Even in sports, when it comes to these two countries playing a game of Cricket, the pulse immediately scales dizzy heights. I read that India was partitioned as the Muslims wanted a Cricket team of their own! Well, whatever, the sub continent has produced some of the finest cricketers in the world, and when these two teams clash, in any sports, the quality is always the highest.

In spring 2005, a India Pakistan ODI was quickly agreed to by the two boards. It was scheduled at the Ferozeshah Kotla grounds in Delhi, and it was scheduled to coincide with the visit to India of President Musharaf of Pakistan. It was likely that the leader would meet with Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, while watching a Cricket match featuring the two national teams. The entire media was agog with speculation, the Cricket venue being in the limelight as it was a construction site, full of debris, bricks, sand, cranes, broken stands and not even a level surface. “Venkat, I am sure you can do it, and Mr, Jaitley,( then Delhi Cricket President) will give you full cooperation” Mr. Dalmia the bCCI President informed me.

“Venkat, hi, when and where can we meet?” Mr.Jaitley was on the phone within minutes. I suggested we meet next day at 11 over a coffee. And so we were sitting at Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel at The Chambers. I informed Mr.Jaitley about my apprehensions that it would take a miracle to transform a raw construction site into an International venue in, effectively, 12 days time. Mr Jaitley, an eminent lawyer, quietly suggested I give it my all. He, also, said that Delhi would raise a sum of 15 crores on the day, that this money would go into stadium construction. I suggested that I will need complete authority, no interference and full support, this was readily agreed. I then updated Mr. Dalmia, and suggested that an alternate venue close by, say Jaipur, be also prepared just in case.

Next day I visited Kotla and I was overwhelmed by what I saw. It resembled a battle field a day after it was bombed. Media was scampering all round and I was careful to camouflage my despair. I had started my love affair with the game of golf a year ago and I had a clear idea of how we were to proceed. I would get grass and technology from golf to prepare an outfield of international standards in a week and three team members and I will outline a plan to ensure a pitch is ready to play on. The security drills commenced next morning and we found ourselves sitting on the pavements skirting the ground!

My golfing partner suggested that we get technical help, grass and other requirements from an abandoned golf course in Punjab. The financial aspects of this exercise were completed in a day, and orders placed in 24 hours. Delhi, or for that matter no other Cricket venue in India, had ever seen anything like this. Truck loads of grass were excavated, and rolled up. The grass was used to ‘carpet’ the outfield as against the traditional sprigging method- where cultivars are implanted and the root system slowly grows up. The media was excited, and I was asked umpteen questions. A crane, and several levelling and excavating equipments as well as rollers, back hoe machines, were mobilized and the work of levelling the outfield preparing the soil by way of spraying insecticides, pesticides and fertilisers began in earnest.

The ground was divided into quarters; and work commenced, simultaneously, in all sections so that the work is completed in 6 days; leaving another 4 days to water, roll and stabilize the outfield.

Meanwhile, Prabir Mukherji and Daljit Singh joined me and local curator, Radhey Shyam, in preparing the centre pitch for the match. There was not a blade of grass on the pitch so we were unsure of the bounce, and we knew it would play slow, and low. The challenge was to ensure that the match lasted close to 100 overs. It was a nightmare- and for sure no one in the grounds staff slept peacefully.

Importantly, we prepared two nets so that the teams get a feel of the conditions, and this was a huge headache as, again, basic conditions were non-existent. In record time, working against the clock, we did manage the preparations in a methodical manner; and it was heartening that our combined efforts were showing some green shoots of success. The outfield was improving every day and after a week, there it was –green and resplendent, with the sprinkler systems adding a touch of their own. Indeed, the miracle was unfolding before our eyes.

The pitch was a major problem, as the black cotton soil was mixed with construction debris and yellow alluvial soil. Any amount of brushing was unproductive, and the top soil had been damaged. We had huge experience in our team, maybe over 150 years in all, but this time we were at our wits end. The pitch was not stabilizing, and each day produced unforeseen problems. The pitch was not even and it was not compacting at all. The top soil was patchy and there was no grass on it. The bowlers, with long spikes would, certainly, tear up the pitch. When we watered it on the eve of the game, I said my prayers and hoped that we could avoid an unmitigated disaster. It was then that I had a quiet word with Radhey Shyam. I shared my doubts with him, and suggested we use heavy covers overnight as it may bring up residual moisture. He agreed, the covering was done and we parted for the day.

I was fearing the worst next morning, when I reached the venue at the crack of dawn. The covers were removed and, lo and behold, a flat surface was visible. My prayers had been answered and we were in for a game. I met Rudy Kirsten, the umpire officiating in the match and brought him up to date with our preparation, and our fears. I requested that bowlers should be warned not to run on the pitch in their follow through, that we may be allowed to repair any damage due to spike marks on the pitch, and that we would repair the follow through at every interval. He agreed to these points.

The two heads of governments arrived to a hearty welcome, huge crowd welcomed them with banners wishing them the best for peace in the sub continent. The world media joined sports journalists as Pakistan won the toss and decided to bat. Soon cover drives and off drives flowed, as pulls and pushes kept the score board moving. The match lasted 90 overs and Pakistan, who scored over 300 runs, were deserving winners.

As I uncorked a bottle of bubbly that night, I felt elated that I had won a big battle with the eyes and ears of the world following my every step over the past 15 days. It was a huge learning curve the like of which I may not see again.

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