February 19, 2012

Cricket basks in the badlands

Anantapur's provincial location and violent politics make it an unexpected location for a beautiful international-quality ground

For most of India, Anantapur is what it is, where it is. A "mofussil" town in south-western Andhra Pradesh, paid attention to on only two occasions: the onset of drought or the appearance of another victim in its bizarre decades-long familial blood feud involving land and politics, which spawned a movie called Rakta Charitra, too violent to be seen.

Anantapur lies just off India's longest national highway. Ignore it and keep going north on the old NH7 and you will eventually hit the Ganges in Varanasi. Turn around and head in the opposite direction and the highway reaches the end of the Indian mainland in Kanyakumari.

But stop right there, instead, 200km north of Bangalore. In Anantapur's heart, on rocky, red earth, under a pale, almost white sky, always thirsting for rain, stands a facility that represents the riches of Indian cricket. Not in price, but that other vital intangible - value. Its formal name is the Rural Development Trust (RDT) Stadium, but it is now called the Anantapur Cricket Ground (ACG), and it has staged 11 first-class games.

Its main ground is one of Andhra's Ranji home venues, complete with a pretty club house, wrought-iron "lace" frontage, weather-vane-topped scoreboard and an honours board. Two honours boards, actually. They flank the corridor that leads to the field, and they tell of Anantapur's real treasure.

The list of centurions at the ACG is shorter than that of medium-pace five-fers. This is quite obviously India's version of quick-bowling heaven. Only three batsmen from visiting teams - which have included Baroda, Hyderabad, Railways, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh - have scored centuries in Anantapur: Amit Pagnis, Mohammad Kaif and Joginder Sharma. In 41 first-class innings so far, teams have crossed 300 five times and 400 only twice. The highest first-class total here is 447. Yet on only one occasion was a first-class team all out for under 100 in Anantapur. Six out of 11 matches have had outright wins.

Locals refer to their ground as "our Perth". When Venkatesh Prasad turned up here, in his contemporary avatar, as coach, he wanted to run out and bowl on the wicket. Kaif said he'd never seen a track like it in India. Praveen Kumar, Sudeep Tyagi and Zaheer Khan (who came within a wicket of making it to their honours board) would like to roll the pitch up and put it into their kitbags. It has grass, bounce, healthy carry, and life that holds through a first-class game.

The general lamentation about the deadening of India's pitches may well be true, but dotted around the country, particularly in the moffusil, like in Vapi and Valsad in the west and Lahli up north, there lie some gems; wickets that are exceptional in their originality and distinctive in character.

Like in Anantapur, where the wicket is created and sustained methodically out of a desire to be exceptional.

Cricket here is a part of the RDT Sports Village, which has football and hockey fields (hockey astro-turf is awaited), a set of tennis courts, inaugurated, as their plaque states, by "Rafa" Nadal, and an indoor games facility coming into shape.

The centrepiece ground is supported by two smaller grounds, with proper turf wickets laid out at the centre of an oval largely made of bare earth. It is where centre-wicket practice and smaller matches can be held. In between the three grounds is a set of seven practice strips. The Sports Village has a residential academy for 30 young cricketers and 50 hockey players. There is enough accommodation around the Village for first-class teams during Ranji season.

Ten people work on the main ground every day to keep its grass as green and weed-free as they can, and to maintain the wicket like it were about to stage a Test match the following day.

When Ferrer talks of his wicket, he is half pedologist, half poet. He wants curators to be innovative and creative, and explains the importance of letting the earth breathe

It is extraordinary that all this attention is being given to a place far from the spotlight, minus glitter, bereft of superstars. Yet Anantapur's distance from centre stage is why this ground and the sports facility exist here. "Why shouldn't rural children and the poor have better facilities?" says Moncho Ferrer, president of the Anantapur District Cricket Association.

Anantapur is one of the largest, most arid districts in India. Its population of four million is the same as New Zealand's - and until now, it had the barest sporting infrastructure. Ferrer is the Anantapur-born director of the Rural Development Trust, an NGO set up by his Spanish father and English mother four decades ago.

Until recently RDT's work largely focused on rural education, health, ecology and women's issues. Sport, and now cricket, is at present both tool and medium. "Our ground's main intention is that our children have the best playing surface they can get and they can move up from there," says Ferrer.

Creating that playing surface called for both the rigour of research and the zeal needed in a crusade. Ferrer first contemplated both natural turf and a drop-in wicket. When the outfield around the old turf wicket eroded after the first rain, he knew he would have to change the grass around it to have any chance of getting a ground fit enough to stage a first-class game. Hybrid, drought-resistant Bermuda grass was the solution, but it needed attention. In a region where the ground looks burnt by the sun, the deep green carpet of the ACG outfield looks both miracle and mirage.

The content of the ACG centre block was arrived at after a long period of homework, learning, and trial and error. Ferrer spoke to experienced curators like G Kasturirangan, a former BCCI chief curator, read about wickets and soil, and found the most scientific method needed to test the suitability of a fistful of soil in a laboratory. He identified the criteria and quantity of clay content needed to make a good wicket. Then all he needed was to find the soil that had it all.

Two months before the ACG's first competitive match, on December 22, 2004, Ferrer said he tested 20 kinds of soil. Only after a journey to the East Godavari basin, 800km from his hometown, did he find the soil that stood up to lab tests and promised to produce the wicket he was dreaming of. With a month and a half left for the match, the top four or five inches of ground were dug up, the soil from the Godavari was mixed into the ground, and fingers crossed.

"The wicket sailed through," he remembers with satisfaction. He says the ACG wicket, with 67 percent clay content, resembles tracks in South Africa and Australia, rather than those in England.

When Ferrer talks of his wicket, he is half pedologist, half poet. He wants curators to be innovative and creative, and explains the importance of letting the earth breathe, allowing a wicket to swell and shrink, rather than digging it up, in order to hold its moisture. He would like to send Madhu, his curator in Anantapur to Australia and South Africa to learn more about pitch-making.

"All India's grounds and outfields are getting better" he says. "Some are as good as anywhere in the world - the wickets are still left to catch up. But it is not necessary to change all Indian wickets. Our dust bowls too have something special in them. India is big and we can have a variety, not just one type."

Two thousand turned up to watch Anantapur's first Ranji match. In September last year, a game featuring the Telugu film industry's biggest stars - including the trio of Megastar Chiranjeevi, Superstar Krishna, Rebelstar Krishnam Raju - was held as a fund-raising exercise for women's groups in the district. Eight thousand were milling about in and around the ground. It was televised by a local channel, and the previously apprehensive movie stars felt at home in what was popularly considered an Andhra badland.

Cricket is in Anantapur's air: in the last two years, an inter-state women's event and a couple of Cooch-Behar Under-19 matches have been played at the ACG. Teams from the National Cricket Academy and Services have used the Sports Village to train in, the DV Subba Rao invitational was held in June last year, and the Anantapur District Cricket Association has launched its own Anantapur Cricket League - which consists of 50-over matches played between teams selected from the district's 12 main towns, which have formally instituted coaching centres and paid coaches working there.

The most compelling part of the district's cricket must be the frenetic three-week RDT Rural Cricket Tournament, which involves high-school teams only from villages. It is now in its 13th year but it has always featured 25-overs-a-side matches played all over the district. Last year 350 teams took part. The 30 "area" champions came to the Sports Village for the league phase and the final was held on the main ground. It is an event that is a monumental logistical exercise and a visual feast.

While cricket bubbles around the district, oddly enough Anantapur did not stage any first-class games this season. Andhra Cricket Association's (ACA) director of cricket MSK Prasad, the former India wicketkeeper, said that was because "by then the calendar was fixed".

Anantapur stands for the kind of quality that can be nurtured in Indian cricket's most uncelebrated regions. The ACA now wants to use the BCCI's steady stream of funds to significantly expand the facilities available in the three geographical zones under its jurisdiction.

Prasad says the ACA is buying land with a plan to set up an international stadium in each of the zones as well as quality first-class venues in each of its districts, starting with a new ground for Cuddapah, west of Anantapur. A second international-standard stadium after Vizag is being constructed in Mangalagiri, just outside Vijayawada.

Ferrer is philosophical about the past season, "We had a lean stretch last year but things always change." In the region, the ACG represents growing pride and incessant joy. "I am fine with Ranji and first-class matches," he says, "but people here now want more."

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo