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Sports

When virus queered the pitch

May 22, 2020 05:54 AM

COURTESY HT MAY 22

When virus queered the pitch
22 YARDS: Cricket pitches need to be relaid for the new season before monsoon, but lockdown has made it hard to do

Sanjjeev K Samyal

sanjjeev.samyal@htlive.com

MUMBAI : The cricket pitch, the sport’s literal centre, has been impacted by Covid-19. And time’s running out.

Playing surfaces get a top dressing (manure, fertiliser, a special kind of soil) before monsoon hits in June. For India’s international venues, it’s a thorough 10-day process that infuses freshness into strips left weary from previous season’s matches. But the national lockdown to deal with Covid-19 has sent the usual work schedule for a six.

“For the last 10 years in the BCCI, we have had courses for the curators, in that we teach them off-season renovation,” says Daljit Singh, the former first-class wicket-keeper who was also the chief curator of the Board of Control from Cricket in India (BCCI).

“You play the whole year on it, roll it, wear and tear happens and, at the end of the season, the wickets are overloaded. It has dead grass, organic matter goes inside. We have to do some top dressing for the next season. (If) We do it before the monsoon, it settles down during the rains and new grass grows. If you are unable to do it, your pitches will (gradually) play slow next year. Your pitches will become tired,” says Singh, now working gratis for Punjab Cricket Association.

Samandar Singh Chouhan, chief curator of the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association, compares tending to the wicket with a visit to the salon. “It is like going to the beauty parlour and coming back fresh. Same way, the pitches get treatment before the monsoon and they behave well.”

Soil supply stuck

In mid-May, the maidans and gymkhanas of Mumbai would have a regular flow of trucks dumping laterite soil, which has high clay content and is critical for making well-packed pitches. Small rust-coloured mounds next to club pavilions or wickets at the centre is a common sight. The Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) places its order by end April, and supply usually comes from Padagha village, roughly 54 km from Mumbai, in the second and third weeks of May. The cost of soil for the outfield is borne by MCA while that for the wickets is paid for by the clubs.

With Mumbai the worst hit city in India by Covid-19, the supply of soil has not been possible, says Nadim Memon, MCA Apex Council member. “There is no transport to get the soil and the villagers are not allowing any vehicles to enter their area. We need around 200 truckloads of mud to cater to all the grounds from Churchgate to the suburbs,” says Memon.

Former Air India batsman Sachin Koli, whose family owns the New Hind Cricket Club at Matunga’s Major Dadkar Maidan, says they hope to make up after monsoon.

“There will be a problem next season,” Koli says. “Till the grass is there, the wicket will play true. After that, it will get affected (turn slow). We will try and make up after the monsoons, by pouring mud on top and keeping it wet for about two weeks.”

Labour lost

Ramesh Mhamunkar has a different problem. The curator at Wankhede Stadium has enough soil to last him a couple of years. What he isn’t getting is a 10-day window to get the work done.

He had hoped to get his staff back after May 17, and finish the work before the expected mid-June arrival of the monsoon.With the extension of the lockdown till May 31, the work has been pushed back further. Now, Mhamunkar is hoping for a five-six day window at the start of June. Most of Wankhede’s 14-member ground staff live in far off suburbs and are not being able to report to work.

“We will try and get work on the wickets done within five six days at the start of June. Side by side we will do the outfield work also,” says Mhamunkar.

Out of the total of 13 wickets at Wankhede, eight are used for practice. There’s always more wear and tear on the practice turfs, simply because they are used much more than the match ones. The turfs have to be filled and new grass sown.

“We have around four groundsmen who are going on alternate days to water the ground. Already they have managed to do some work on the practice wickets,” says Mhamunkar, who is using video calls to guide his staff. Mhamunkar says the process begins with cutting the grass, followed by shaving it to 1.5mm above the ground. Aeration then releases unwanted gases and allows oxygen and sun to firm up the roots, he says. “After light watering and top dressing, the surface is left for a week. After one shower, it settles down.”

Fresh tracks

Both the Sardar Patel Stadium in Motera, near Ahmedabad, and Indore’s Holkar Cricket Stadium source soil from MCA’s suppliers. “We have a little stock (of soil) which we will keep for maintenance after every match—fill the footmarks and wherever there is wear and tear. If lockdown ends, we will take a chance so that we get one or two trucks. Indore being in the red zone, we are facing some issues,” says Chouhan.

Motera has fresh tracks and Chouhan says the wickets at Holkar stadium too don’t need much work. “Last year, we carried out thorough renovation work and (have) maintained the Indore stadium really well.”

What is bothering Chouhan and his staff at MPCA more is the difficulty in procuring fuel. “Till now, we were managing with diesel we had in stock, so were able to do cutting and mowing with the machines. For other machines required in renovation, it will be difficult (till the lockdown),” says Chouhan. As the rains come later to north India, clubs and academies there have some more time.

Virender Sehwag’s childhood coach, AN Sharma, who runs an academy at the Government High School, Vikaspuri, West Delhi, says: “The monsoon hits Delhi around July-end. Before that we do top dressing of the wicket using clay soil brought from the Haryana border. I had got a truckload in January and have stocked it.” In Punjab, Daljit Singh says, curators and ground staff are on time because the administration is treating them as part of essential services.

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