Venkat Sundaram: Pay the curators well

In a freewheeling chat, Venkat Sundaram spoke on a range of issues that have remained under the carpet all this while.

A file picture of Venkat Sundaram.

The allegations of Pune pitch curator Pandurang Salgaonkar accepting to ‘tamper’ pitches have once again brought the focus back on pitch curators.

While the fans are in a state of shock, former BCCI pitch committee chairman, Venkat Sundaram, says it is time to take the curators seriously and address their financial issues.

Read: 'How did Salgaonkar let it slip?'

In a freewheeling chat with Sportstar on Wednesday, Sundaram spoke on a range of issues that have remained under the carpet all this while.

Excerpts…

The cricketing world is abuzz with Pune’s pitch curator Pandurang Salgaonkar accepting to ‘tamper’ the pitch ahead of the second ODI between India and New Zealand. How do you react to this?

If an individual is corrupt, that doesn’t corrupt the entire fraternity. When a media group did the sting operation, that poor guy (Salgaonkar) must have been susceptible and could have agreed to play ball. No money has been exchanged, there has been no fixing. It’s a sting operation, and therefore he stands exposed. If he is guilty, then law will have to take its course. But then, (there is another angle to it).

What is that?

The curators, as a community, are paid less. Look at the amount of money a physiotherapist or a masseur or a video analyst get and then compare that with the curators.

When I was the chief curator, I brought this issue in a few meetings. N. Srinivasan was the Board president. I told him about the curators. They must be former cricketers, who get pension from the BCCI and wouldn’t be desperately looking for money. But the groundsmen could be easily lured and managed. There have been instances in the past where noted cricketers have tried to manage the groundsmen.

Recently in Kanpur it happened (where a groundsman served information to bookies), and they were sacked instantly. These are easy targets because they are not paid properly. There is no increment, no benefits.

Are you trying to say that lesser pay leads to these issues like tampering?

Let me tell you, the interference on the pitch comes from every level. Why only the bookies? Your team captain might want it, your team manager might want it, the Board president might want it; so many people might want it. A curator is often treated like dirt. Senior people like us could ignore them, but those with little education can’t even sit in a meeting with these people.

…and that’s how pitches are often bad. Are you trying to say something like that?

I can’t please the media or the people with a pitch. There is nothing called a good pitch or a bad pitch. Pitch is everything. One pitch in Delhi went bad in 2009 (ODI between India and Sri Lanka), and the venue was banned for a year. So, when things go wrong, people wake up. Otherwise there is no news. If Salgaonkar said, I would not do anything, the matter would have ended there. It went big because he agreed to play ball.

Many are surprised by the way the strangers were allowed to enter the pitch. One remembers former CAB curator, late Prabir Mukherjee, had not allowed former England captain Michael Atherton to inspect the pitch at the Eden Gardens. Here, how could strangers be allowed to visit the pitch?

I agree; nobody should be allowed to go. I myself have never allowed people to come closer to the pitch during international matches. You have to be matured in handling things. When we were preparing for the India-Pakistan game in 2005, which was attended by former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, a well-known political leader was not allowed to enter the arena because of his shoes. I asked him to remove the shoes and walk in. He refused to do so, and then there was high drama. But I was firm on my stand.

Then, how could such controversies be avoided?

The money should be doubled. All curators are not paid by the BCCI and by the State association. Only the BCCI curators — maximum five to 10 — are paid by the Board. The rest are by the State bodies. Half of them are not paid on time. That’s the situation we are in. They should be paid well. A curators’ job is far difficult than most. They should be paid as good as a State coach. If they are handsomely paid, they won’t get into all this mess.

Do you think that will serve the purpose?

A State coach works for six months, the curators work for a year. And then, a coach walks up and asks a curator to change the nature of a pitch. That’s why the BCCI has roped in neutral curators to prepare grounds for the Ranji Trophy today, because matches were tampered. Everyone wanted to make pitches their way, so that the team got victory and there were outright results. So, you should look at the overall picture and connect the dots. In England and Australia curators are all far smarter, they don’t listen to anybody.

You have played with Salagaonkar in the past. Do you think that being a seasoned curator, he should have been more careful?

Salgaonkar is a knowledgeable cricketer. These days, many cricketers do commentary and earn well, and this poor chap doesn’t even have anything. I am not supporting him, but all I am saying is that he comes with a fair amount of cricketing experience. He came from a small village, and was a very fiery fast bowler. He is arguably the fastest bowler India ever had. He is a fantastic cricketer, and we played a lot together. He toured Sri Lanka with the Indian team, with Madan Lal. I played against him.

But yes, he should have been extremely careful before speaking to a stranger. During my tenure, I had warned the curators and groundsmen not to fall prey to lucrative proposals. They are soft targets, and they might easily succumb. Curators need to work from morning to midnight, without any food, and also tolerate so much nonsense. It’s the curators who keep the game alive.

Where lies the problem?

They are sitting ducks. They don’t have gloves, helmets. It’s so risky, and there is no support. What happens if they die? Curators have suffered heart attacks while on duty. I had to take one of the curators who fainted in the middle of an international match. I had to send him to the ground at my cost. Another boy hurt his hand. These are all poor people, and they are under pressure to prepare good wickets. Even they want to hear praises. After all, they are as human as you and I.

So, you are saying, pay hike is the only solution to such problems?

How many people have made a pitch? Most noted cricketers won’t get their hands dirty because there is no money in it. You give Rs. 1 crore to a curator, then all the cricketers would show keenness in making pitches. That’s how it is.

ICC’s pitch consultant Andy Atkinson had once said, that you have a pitch in mind. Even if its 40 per cent closer to that, it is a great achievement. Making a perfect pitch is that difficult. It is a very technical thing and the situation needs to improve in a bid to avoid such uncalled for incidents.