One fine morning, I had just returned from a long walk, when the phone rang. “Mr. Sundaram? Hello, Mr Jagmohan Dalmia would like to speak with you”. I was quite surprised – wondering why the big boss of BCCI was dialling my number. Anyway, there he was and, as usual with him, he came straight to the point. “Venkat, I have read good reports of your work on grounds and wickets. I feel our venues need careful attention. Will you be willing to help BCCI and become Chairman of the Grounds and Wickets Committee? I may add that the money is not very attractive, but we shall see how we can improve that going forward.” My reply was “I am always available for Indian Cricket and would deem it an honour”
And after a six months gap, at the next BCCI AGM, I was announced as Chairman with Daljit Singh, Anand Shukla, D.D. Parsanna, P R Vishwanathan and Prabir Mukherji as the other members. An eminent group of seasoned first class players, and in Prabirda an experienced campaigner who was in charge of Eden Gardens for several years. PRV in Chennai was also very capable and experienced.
So after assuming charge, I decided on two things. A get together of all curators in Kolkata; as well as a business plan- to assess all the venues and how they compare internationally, as well as what is required to modernize the venues. So began a journey of learning, as I learnt that it is not a bed of roses but …
The assessment of venues revealed that they needed to be completely refurbished, and modernised as well. It was going to be a herculean task. There were gaping holes everywhere. Barring a few of us, it was clear that the skills set had to be updated all round and present day methods of ground and wicket preparation were to be inducted.
So, first I interacted with all my colleagues, and chased world class agronomy experts. I learnt about different types of grass, understood soils, and learnt how outfields are maintained, how pitch blocks are established in Australia, New Zealand and England. I understood about the role of sand in pitch and outfield preparation; and thanks to my introduction to golf, I witnessed at first-hand how acres and acres of greens were managed and maintained using modern equipment.
Now how does one sell this package to BCCI? I met Mr. Dalmia and shared my views. He listened patiently, and said “Cricket has been going on in India for decades. Venkat, all grounds have mowers and rollers, what more do you need? And if you get new equipment, what do we do with the existing equipment?” Well you don’t help your cause by informing the President of BCCI that the existing equipment is outdated, and our present ground situation is primitive. Which was the truth!
Using diplomatic language, I impressed on Mr. Dalmia that it would be helpful if we have a get together of all curators and also collate a list of all equipments available in the country. I also suggested that a list of all curators and grounds persons be prepared. This was agreed and we had a group of 60 persons in Kolkata to meet with the President BCCI, and to deliberate on what needs to be done to improve our venues. Three equipment manufacturers were invited to display their equipment and show how they work.
The discussions were kicked off by a very impressive speech by Mr. Dalmia-who had done his home work and spoke knowledgeably. This impressed on me that we can do business with a person who is willing to research on ground and wicket preparation. So began 15 months of sheer persuasion where every month I would pester the President to consider introduction of imported high quality equipment. This period was extremely difficult, as the G&W Committee, felt constrained. Imagine the major venues had no data on when the blocks were first prepared, what method of preparation was used, when the blocks were updated, what soils were used and what were the chemical parameters of the soils. At that time most venues did not have high mast lighting, did not have modern drainage systems, or irrigation sprinklers and covers available were heavy, often burning the turf under the covers. Add the politics of each state wanting to reinvent the wheel! It was a heavy mix.
In this quagmire, I decided to loop in select members of my team for specific tasks. 3 of us would obtain data and pursue the equipment issue, 3 would overlook the training program, 3 again would select venues for rehabilitation and all of us would be jointly and severally responsible for our actions.
With this broad plan, we slowly patched the gaps, obtained data and pursued our goals diligently and determinedly. After 12 months on the job, seeing we were going nowhere on the imported equipment issue, I sought an appointment with Mr. Dalmia in Kolkata. He readily agreed and next day at 11 a.m. I was seated in his office sipping a welcome cup of tea. I started by saying “Sir, you have entrusted a huge responsibility on my shoulders, the upkeep and maintenance of our venues. I have been pushing for a modernisation program. Sir, in a year’s time I may or may not be here; but I want Indian Cricket to recall your name always as the first person who introduced modern mechanized methods in G&W preparation”
I then got up and extended my hand saying I have nothing more to add. Mr Dalmia said he would consider my request and we parted. Three months later, I got a letter from Mr.Dalmia saying that Chairman Grounds and Wickets Committee has been requesting for modern equipment and “ I have made a mistake in not approving this so far.” A committee was formed and soon the process was set in place that started the journey of modernizing our methods and becoming from “outdated” to “state of the art”!
In 2004 the media was agog with excitement at the prospects of an India-Pakistan ODI at the F.S.Kotla in Delhi. I was aware that the old stadium was dismantled and a spanking new venue was being constructed. While the pitch block was not then dug up, the venue was actually a construction site and debris was strewn all over, while there were no stands. Practice pitches were also dug up.
So how are you going to conduct an international match at such a “venue” in 3 weeks time? Again Mr. Dalmia called me and said “Venkat, Mr. Jaitley called me and requested that the Grounds and Wickets Committee helps DDCA in ensuring the match takes place, as Prime Minister Dr. Man Mohan Singh and President Musharraf will be at the venue. I am sure you can do the job, and I am making sure all other G&W committee members help you”
And so began another challenge that tested ones competence, experience and patience. It was a huge learning curve that deserves an article in itself. Till next time..