Sadagopan Ramesh was about to make his Test debut in front of his home crowd, in Chennai, against archrival Pakistan in 1999. His illustrious team-mate Sachin Tendulkar was practicing in the nets on the eve of the match with S. Vasthirayutham, a groundsman, bowling off-spin to him. Ramesh, perhaps wanting to impress Sachin, got the ball from Vasthirayutham and was about to bowl to him. Sachin wasn’t impressed. He asked him to return the ball to Vasthirayutham. Ramesh, after all, was a batsman. And, Vasthirayutham, well, he had declined an offer to be a Test bowler.
When New Zealand was training in Chennai during the 1987 Reliance World Cup, coach Glenn Turner was bowled over watching Vasthirayutham bowl in the nets. The groundsman wasn’t more than 5 ft 5 in but bowled with a springy action, looping the ball, with his fingers revving it up. After taking its time to pitch on a good length area, the ball hurriedly turned – the deceptive variations made it hard to guess the direction — rushing the batsman.
Turner couldn’t believe Vasthirayutham was a groundsman. He should’ve been a cricketer… if not one in India, then he will be one in New Zealand, thought Turner. He asked the curator K. Parthasarathy to convince Vasthirayutham to come with him to New Zealand.
But Vasthirayutham never saw himself as a cricketer. Neither did he see off-spin as an intricate, elaborate craft that required a sound technique and skill. It was something fun he did while he wasn’t involved in ground work. And it came naturally to him. He learnt it by watching a few players bowl in the nets. He didn’t need a coach. But now New Zealand’s coach needed him.
The 22-year- old Vasthirayutham wasn’t sure, though. He wasn’t sure if he should leave his family and go abroad. He wasn’t sure if he should represent another country. He wasn’t sure if he would be allowed to return once he joined them. He wasn’t sure if he could speak their language. He wasn’t sure if he could be a cricketer. But, above all, he wasn’t sure if he can stay away from the M. A. Chidambaram cricket field.
He turned down Turner’s offer.
Vasthirayutham’s father, a fruit dealer in Chennai’s Zam Bazaar, passed away in 1963, leaving behind his wife, a five-year-old daughter, a 10-year-old daughter and a son, who was less than one.
Young Vasthirayutham then grew up in his father’s village, Vizhikkam, about 200 kilometers from Chennai. He roamed around in the tiny hamlet full of lush fields, huge shady trees and small Murugan temples. He studied and sung well at school and enjoyed the company of his mother and two elder sisters. Then his uncle, an army officer, put him in a boarding school in a nearby town so that he got better education, which would help him join the army.
“I didn’t like it there. I missed home. It was a new place. I felt arrested. I wanted to run away,” says curator Vasthirayutham, 51, standing near a boundary rope inside the 100-year-old M. A. Chidambaram stadium.
He was reminded of his mother telling him about his father and Chennai and some of his relatives, who lived there. An idea sparked for the 13-year-old Vasthirayutham.
On a Diwali day in 1977, he ran away from one of his aunt’s place, where he was vacationing.
“The buses were different then… it was slightly curvy. I had ten rupees which I got from my aunt. I got myself a half-ticket and asked the conductor to tell me when my destination arrived”
Vasthirayutham reached a relative’s house in Zam Bazaar. A worried mother left behind her two daughters in the village to call her son back after learning about his escape.
“I refused to go back with her. I was adamant. I told her that I don’t want to study anymore. And, amma didn’t want to leave me alone. Fearing that I might run away again, she decided to stay with me.”
Vasthirayutham then joined a fruit merchant as a porter. “It was a job that required strength and stamina. The more I lifted, the more I earned. I got around Rs. 100 to 200 a week, which was a lot back then.”
He still has the “very expensive” 400 rupee HMT watch his mother gifted him and the Hero bicycle he got off his first salary for 500 rupees.
“Possessing a radio, a watch or a cycle was a big thing, then.”
He spent some of his salary watching movies in Devi Paradise and Paragon theatre. “There were no malls then. You had to go to these theatres to watch movies.”
He frequented the movies not only for the spectacle that unfolded on the big screen but also for the one that he saw outside the hall.
“It (Chennai) was nothing like it is now. There were hardly any crowds in the evenings back then. It used to be like a village. To see a large gathering of people, you had to go to movie theatres. People smoked cigarettes, ate puffs or drank coffee from the shops around the theatres.”
He was 18 by now and his mother worried that he didn’t have a steady job. The income wasn’t stable and the job didn’t promise long-term security.
“That’s when my mother knew a neighbour who worked at the Chepauk cricket stadium. She requested him to take me along with him for work.”
Sri Lanka was scheduled to play its first Test against India in 1982 in Chennai. The Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) hired labourers to prepare the ground. Vasthirayutham was among them.
“I entered through the MCC (Madras Cricket Club) gate,” Vasthirayutham recalls his first visit, “It was my first time inside a cricket stadium. It (the stadium) was huge. It looked terrifying. It was as if I had been transported to a new place.”
A vast green playing field welcomed him from the entrance. The grass reminded him of the fields and trees in his father’s village. He wanted to work there for a long time.
Thirty-three years later, Vasthirayutham is still attracted to the vast field of grass and the brown patch, a little over 22 yards, in its centre.
His day starts at four in the morning when he walks his two dogs to the stadium. As the dogs run around the stadium, he prays to Murugan, Sivan and Ambal till five in a small temple he built 23 years ago in Chepauk’s practice ground. After walking back home with his dogs, he returns at six to begin the day’s work.
“After that, the ground’s the only thing on my mind. It’s not my dogs, it’s not my family, it’s not the gods or the temple… only the ground,” he says.
Apart from 23 workers, he has over 15 machines, including grass cutters, rollers and super soppers, to help him with ground duties. The machinery, however, is recent. Two decades ago, most of the work was manual.
“A group of us used to cut the grass with long scissors, then. It used to take about 30 days. With the grass cutting machine, it now takes a day at most,” he says.
Vasthirayutham also recalls the pre-super sopper days, when he and his colleagues had to run around with a bucket and sponge to dry the ground when it rained during a match.
“It would take about forty-five minutes to an hour (for the game to restart) even for the briefest spell of rains. But the spectators would wait for the game to resume soon. So we had to work very hard to get it ready.”
Like off-spin, nobody taught Vasthirayutham how to be a groundsman. “No experts can teach you these things. It comes through experience and understanding. It’s like taking care of a kid. You have to take care of its wants and needs,” Vasthirayutham says about the ground. “You see that portion? It seems as if it’s crying,” he says, pointing to a patch of dying brown grass in an otherwise green playing field. “I don’t like to see brown in the outfield. This will bother me until it becomes green again.”
When TNCA decided to rework the ground in February 2013, the then academy director Bharat Arun, former India bowling coach, recommended Vasthirayutham’s name.
TNCA was reluctant and tested him by asking him to rework the practice ground before working on the main ground.
“They were really happy with my work with the practice grounds and gave me all the resources and support I needed for reworking the main ground,” he says.
Of 33 years at Chepauk, Vasthirayutham spent 10, serving players in the dressing room. He has seen a quiet Sunil Gavaskar glued to his music player; has joked with Krishnamachari Srikkanth; has bowled to Sachin Tendulkar; has learnt English from the English, and has clicked a lot of pictures with Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Despite knowing quite a few cricketers, Vasthirayutham’s family don’t ask him for an autograph of Dhoni or a picture with Sachin. Apart from his 23-year- old son, who has played second division cricket, his family isn’t interested in cricket.
“They don’t follow the game. But they understand what my work means to me and don’t disturb me from doing it. For instance, if a relative has invited our family to a wedding, my wife won’t expect me to come with her.”
Vasthirayutham wants to send his son to Dubai and marry his 25-year- old daughter off to a nice family. Once he finishes his “familial commitments”, he wants to concentrate more on his work.
“I just like being with it,” he talks about the ground again. “I will probably have to retire in another 10 years but before I go, I want to make sure someone else is there to take care of it. You don’t just do your part and leave. That’s selfish. Your soul won’t rest if you die, leaving your family without having anyone to take care of it, right? It’s like that.”
It’s easy to know if an IPL match is happening at the M. A. Chidambaram stadium. The Walajah road that leads to the stadium is clogged with cars, autorickshaws, motorcycles and scooters. The closer you get to the stadium, a buzz increases. The entrances are packed. Faces are painted. Trumpets are blown. Outside the stadium, the line, ten times longer than the world’s longest snake, moves slightly quicker than a snail. Inside it, it’s all yellow. Clumps of yellow-clad people are strewn everywhere.
It’s been more than a month since the ninth edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) began. But the MAC is vacant, silent. No buzz. No painted faces. No lines. No cheers. Because no CSK and hence no IPL.
CSK has made it to the semifinal/playoff in the previous eight editions. This time, it can’t even play the first round. The R. M. Lodha committee appointed by the Supreme Court suspended CSK and RR for two years for spot-fixing.
“Our colours are unique,” says Vasthirayutham about CSK. For the past eight years, he has rarely missed an IPL game and hasn’t missed one featuring CSK. He hasn’t watched any IPL game this season.
“I can’t watch it (IPL) this year. I am someone who used to watch all the IPL matches. Now, even my colleagues have stopped watching them. IPL is dull with CSK’s absence. It seems like some ordinary league; not the IPL. We don’t care about it anymore.”
Vasthirayutham used to get Rs. 30,000 to 40,000 after every IPL. “Our families are more disappointed about the suspension than us. It used to happen every year, and we have been using that extra money to buy jewellery and clothes or to help a relative with it,” he says, “We really hope it comes back. I even do a special puja for CSK’s return.”
It’s quarter to eight and Vasthirayutham realizes he is late for his evening prayer. He revisits Murugan, Ambal and Sivan in the small temple shrouded with trees and bushes in a corner of Chepauk’s practice grounds. The prayer’s duration varies. The more satisfied he is with his work, the shorter the prayer session. It usually takes about half an hour but there have been a few days when it has taken four hours.
“Maybe this is why I didn’t go to New Zealand. I was probably meant to stay back, take care of the ground, build this temple and pray in it every day… I don’t know.”
You can read an edited version of the copy here. Copyright © 2016 Sportstarlive