The groundsman who turned down Turner’s offer!

It’s over three decades since Vasthirayutham began working at the cricket ground in Chepauk, but he continues to be charmed by the vast field of green grass and the brown patch in the centre. Meet the 51-year-old curator for whom the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium is second home.

Turf management... curator S. Vasthirayutham enjoys his work at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium. "No experts can teach you these things. It comes through experience and understanding. It's like taking care of a kid," he says.   -  K. Pichumani

Groundsmen at work at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium.   -  K. Pichumani

The atmosphere at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium during the IPL was overpowering. "I can't watch it (IPL) this year… IPL is dull with CSL's absence. It seems like some ordinary league. We don't care about it anymore," says Vasthirayutham.   -  R. RAGU

Sadagopan Ramesh was set 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 practising 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 by Vasthirayutham, who was bowling in the nets.

Turner couldn’t believe Vasthirayutham was a groundsman. He should have been a cricketer… if not one in India then he will be one in New Zealand, thought Turner. He asked the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium 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 he did for fun, while he wasn’t involved in any work on the ground. 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, the New Zealand 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. Above all, he wasn’t sure if he could stay away from the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium.

So Vasthirayutham turned down Turner’s offer.

A HOME AWAY FROM HOME

Vasthirayutham’s father, a fruit dealer in Chennai’s Zam Bazaar, had passed away in 1963, leaving behind his wife, two daughters, aged 10 and five, and a son, who was less than one.

Vasthirayutham then grew up in his father’s village, Vizhikkam, about 200 kilometres from Chennai. He roamed around in the tiny hamlet full of lush green fields, huge shady trees and small temples. He studied and sang well at school and enjoyed being with his mother and sisters. Then his uncle, an army officer, put him in a boarding school in a nearby town so that he would get 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 Vasthirayutham, 51, who is now the curator at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium.

As a 13-year-old, he was once reminded of his mother telling him about his father and Chennai and some of his relatives who lived there. This sparked an idea in his head. So on Diwali day in 1977, Vasthirayutham ran away from an 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. Meanwhile his mother, learning that her son had run away, was very worried. She left her daughters behind in the village and went to Chennai to bring Vasthirayutham back home.

“I refused to go back with her. I was adamant. I told her that I didn’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” (Rs. 400) HMT watch that his mother had gifted him, and the Hero bicycle he had bought, off his first salary, for Rs. 500. “Possessing a radio, a watch or a cycle was a big thing then,” he says.

Vasthirayutham spent some of his salary watching movies at Devi Paradise and Paragon theatres. “There were no malls then. You had to go to these theatres to watch movies,” he says.

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 the movie theatres. People smoked cigarettes, ate puffs or drank coffee from the shops around the theatres.”

When Vasthirayutham turned 18, his mother was worried that he didn’t have a steady job. Besides his 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 says, recalling his first visit to the stadium. “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 green grass reminded him of the fields and trees in his father’s village. He wanted to work there for a long time.

WORK AND WORSHIP

Thirty-three years later, Vasthirayutham is still attracted to the vast field of green grass and the brown patch, a little over 22 yards, in the 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, until five at a small temple he had built in a corner of the practice ground in Chepauk 23 years ago. After walking his dogs back home, Vasthirayutham 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 in his 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 rain. But the spectators would wait hoping 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 on an otherwise green field. “I don’t like to see brown in the outfield. This will bother me until it becomes green again.”

When the TNCA decided to rework the ground in February 2013, the then academy director Bharat Arun, former India bowling coach, recommended Vasthirayutham’s name. The 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 on the practice grounds and gave me all the resources and support I needed for reworking the main ground,” he says.

Of the 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 the sport. “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 for a wedding, my wife won’t expect me to go with her.”

Vasthirayutham wants to send his son to Dubai and marry his 25-year-old daughter off to a boy from 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 (in peace) if you die leaving your family without having anyone to take care of them, right? It’s like that.”

CSK FANS COLD TOWARDS IPL THIS SEASON

It’s easy to know if an IPL match is taking place 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, the buzz increases. The entrances are packed. Faces are painted. Trumpets are blown. Outside the stadium, the queue is very long and moves slightly quicker than a snail. Inside, it’s all yellow — people clad in yellow 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 in Chennai.

CSK had made it to the semifinal/playoff in the previous eight editions. This time, it couldn’t even play the first round. The Justice Lodha Committee, appointed by the Supreme Court, had suspended CSK and Rajasthan Royals for two years after their top officials were caught for spot-fixing.

“Our colours are unique,” says Vasthirayutham about CSK. For the past eight years, he has been closely following the IPL. However, this year he hasn’t watched any IPL game since CSK is not playing.

“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 CSK’s suspension than us. We have been using the extra money (from the IPL) to buy jewellery and clothes or to help a relative with,” he say. “We really hope it comes back. I even do a special puja for CSK’s return.”

It’s quarter to eight and Vasthirayutham realises that he is late for his evening prayer. He revisits his small temple at the practice ground. The duration of his prayer varies. On days when he is satisfied with his work, his prayer session is short, takes about half an hour. But there have been days when it has taken four hours!

“Maybe this is why I didn’t go to New Zealand. I probably was meant to stay back, take care of the ground, build this temple and pray here everyday... I don’t know,” he says.