January 13, 2013

Kolkata's octogenarian 'gardener'

The Eden Gardens curator is a fiercely proud custodian of his turf - as MS Dhoni and his team found out recently

In his 83 years, pitch curator Prabir Mukherjee has seen plenty of upheavals in the city of Kolkata, from the pre-Partition riots of 1946, to the state's counter-measures against Naxals in the 1970s, and the end of communist rule in West Bengal.

Recently he encountered turbulence closer to home, when there was much talk about his role as the chief curator at Eden Gardens during the third India-England Test. It resulted in a duel where his long-held principles were questioned and pressure was brought to bear on him to change. In the end, his resistance won out.

India wanted a square turner, Mukherjee gave them a track like the ones he has prepared in Kolkata throughout his tenure - "very firm, with even bounce". India lost, but it was the drama that preceded the Test - Mukherjee's outburst at being asked to change the nature of the pitch, then going on medical leave amid rumours he was pressed to resign, before returning to have his track ready in time - that sparked interest.

I meet him the day after the Test at 6.45am at Deshbandhu Park in north Kolkata after his morning walk - a routine he has maintained for 22 years, since he retired as an accounts officer with Southeastern Railway. As I sleepily wait outside the park's gate, I see Mukherjee, aka Prabirda, step out with an army of friends, geriatrics mostly, in dhotis and trackpants. He is easily the oldest among them.

"He's come from Bombay just to spend some time with me," Mukherjee tells his friends in Bengali as we are introduced. We drink sugarless tea as Mukherjee, wearing a white hat and black Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) tracksuit, talks, always energetic and cheerful.

The morning walk is usually also inspection time for Mukherjee, who is in charge of the club-level strip and field at Deshbandhu Park, one of three venues in Kolkata under his supervision; the others are Eden Gardens and the Jadavpur University Ground in Salt Lake.

His involvement with cricket administration and pitch preparation dates back to 1951-52 with Suburban Club, four years after an accident ended his playing days as a fast bowler and a football goalkeeper. "I was in bed for the whole of 1947, [because of] a motor car, just here, in front of my house," he says as we proceed to Salt Lake in a chauffeur-driven car the CAB has given him to travel to and from his ground inspections.

"Then Karthik Bose, the chief coach of Cricket Club of India and the chief coach of CAB, helped me. He was our idol in our younger days."

Mukherjee says Bose taught him the art of pitch-making. "If you are not honest to the purpose, you can't get this thing [pitch preparation]. It's not the money, [not about going] to England, Australia, or South Africa. What will they teach me? They don't know the ABCD of my climate, the soil condition. Every state has a different atmosphere and condition."

On our way to Salt Lake we stop at Balaram Mandir, owned by the Ramkrishna Mission, a socio-religious movement that Mukherjee is part of, together with several of his morning-walk companions. "I lost my wife and daughter in a space of six days six months ago," he says. "I never bow down to anyone, only my father and mother, maata and Ramkrishna." I begin to form a clearer picture of where he derives his stubbornness from. "My father told me to never adjust if someone's making things difficult."

Mukherjee's first stint at Eden Gardens came in 1964, after he became secretary of the Bengal National Railways Club. He moved to the CAB in 1979-80, went on to manage the Bengal and East Zone teams and served in an official capacity as secretary of the CAB committee. He prepared his first Test pitch at Eden Gardens more than two decades ago and helped make the pitch for the 1987 World Cup final. In an earlier interview Mukherjee said he was "not directly involved" with the pitch preparation for India-Sri Lanka 1996 World Cup semi-final, but described it as a "collective failure".

He is eager to remind me that since the 1990s only two out of 12 Tests at Eden Gardens have been drawn, and points out that Sachin Tendulkar scored his first hundred at the venue in the draw with West Indies in 2002.

But his proudest achievement in his six-decade long involvement with the game has nothing to do with his time as curator at Eden Gardens.

In 2002, the Jadavpur University Ground was allotted to the CAB. "The secretary asked me to have a look. From here to there, there was a huge concrete slab under all this. All around was a jungle - snakes and everything," Mukherjee says as we walk around the ground, which now has six practice wickets, a grass tub, and is part of a secluded campus, the main pitch covered in preparation for a Ranji Trophy game between Bengal and Railways.

"In those days they never used to speak to me in this fashion. Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Azharuddin, Ganguly, they never used to come and say all this nonsense"
Mukherjee on never being asked for tailor-made pitches till Dhoni did so last year

In less than a year since he got charge of it, he had the ground ready to host its first Ranji Trophy one-day game, in February 2004.

So what are the key ingredients that go into making a good cricket pitch? "Good soil, good water, free of sand. Fresh water is required, that's why when you plant the grass, rain water is the best."

Our conversation inevitably moves to what he considers a good Test pitch. "My policy is to prepare a wicket which will be very firm, with even bounce, with good grass cover. If you don't want that much grass, you can request, and that request I can carry out. But you can't think that I'll make a square turner. That is not my job."

I ask him if other captains ever asked him to prepare turning tracks. "In those days they never used to speak to me in this fashion. Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Azharuddin, Ganguly, they never used to come and say all this nonsense. They'd say, 'Thoda sa aisa maddad karna, thoda sa moving [Give is a bit of help, a bit of movement].' That is okay.

"And what is the meaning of home advantage? The atmosphere, the ground conditions, you are used to it. That is home advantage. The nature of the pitch is not home advantage. What do you require to play good cricket? A firm, even-bounce wicket."

Mukherjee doesn't keep a diary or make notes, and isn't particularly good at remembering dates, but his cricketing memories are vivid. He fondly recalls being part of a packed house on the final day of the 1974 Test when West Indies collapsed against Bishan Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar after having looked good to wrap the game up.

Gavaskar and Pankaj Roy are his batting heroes, and Javagal Srinath's 13-wicket haul against Pakistan in a Test marred by crowd trouble, in 1999, is one of his favourite bowling performances at Eden Gardens.

His lasting memory as a curator is the famous win over Australia in 2001.

"On the fourth evening, [Sanjay] Jagdale was selector, he said, 'Dada, chhodna hai?' [Shall we declare?]" I said a lead of 300 was not enough for the Australian team. Score some more runs, give them a little time, then they'll think, 'We are Australians, we won 16 consecutive matches.' After lunch, everybody said it will be a tame draw. I said, 'Let us see.'"

The pitch that has seen so much history is an object of reverence for Mukherjee. "I won't allow anybody to smoke inside the playing arena. Otherwise you are insulting the game. A player will be permitted on the day of the match from the popping crease to the bowling crease. Only captain and coach will go to the pitch, without spikes." He bends, touches the floor and holds up the Bengal doob grass that "makes the ground so smooth".

Mukherjee cuts a figure of gentle paternal authority with the people who work alongside him on the Eden square. "Not staff, they are my family," he says.

"I believe 'chief curator' doesn't mean anything, it is simply a maali [gardener]. These are my guardians," he says in Bengali. "They look after me but then they also abuse me behind my back. Isn't that so?" he asks them with a smile. They respond with smiles.

The conversation turns to an upcoming Ranji match. "During the Ranji Trophy, we'll give them practice here," Mukherjee said, pointing to a pitch. "Give them a single net." One of his colleagues wonders if the side will object to receiving just one net.

"Those who can't score even 100 runs, I will tell them to go practise on the road. It will be better for you," he says referring to Bengal's defeat to Madhya Pradesh. "They were supposed to get six points here [against Gujarat]. They couldn't knock down five wickets in one day. Just a lot of big talk." He feels the same way about today's India team. Referring to Virender Sehwag's run-out on the first day of the Test against England, he says, "It's not the pitch, it is you."

Mukherjee thinks money is spoiling the game today, and it is easy to see why. It was only two years ago that he signed a paid contract with CAB, and he still lives in his century-old ancestral home in north Kolkata. The Bangladesh board offered him a two-year contract, which he turned down, but he chose to help free of charge when the country hosted the Under-19 World Cup in 2004.

"I am a poor man, I am not going to anybody, asking them to send me here, send me there. Needs are few. Five percent of Indians don't have two square meals a day."

As we head out of Eden Gardens, Mukherjee is greeted by some England fans who thank him for not preparing a square turner. As they ask for photographs with him, I prepare to leave. His parting words to me are no surprise: "Remember one thing, never bow down to anyone."

Siddhartha Talya is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo