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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Harmon on January 16, 2013, 10:51 GMT

    @GurSinghgur: Sad I wasted so much time on you. You are happy to read admissions in my points that don't exist and then you bases your whole argument on that straw man.

    I did not drag PMs age anywhere. I did not give it too much imp except a passing reference. It is you who has given it so much imp cos u got nothing much else to base your points on.

    And at least YOU admitted that other teams make pitches as per their needs - good, I take it as a +1 for me. And I take it as a +5 for me when you fail to see why Ind too should do so.

    Cricket or wars are not fought on principles of equality but opportunistically. You win a war/match when you defeat the enemy/opponent and you do that by exploiting his weaknesses and maximizing ur potential strengths and better tactics/strategy.

    Imagine the driver of a tank refusing to retreat his tank on the orders of his commander saying it was unethical for him to go back from battlefront.

    Your view of Fair Play is fantasy, not real. Take Care buddy.

  • gurudev on January 16, 2013, 10:21 GMT

    Oh dear, Harmony 111, oh dear. Of course a TEAM should fight on its strength. But that does not mean the home GROUNDSMAN should fiddle his pitch to aid the home team. You think he should, on patriotic grounds, and that PM was being unpatriotic and wrong not to agree to do so (which is, by implication, at least a welcome if belated admission from you that PM indeed WAS being asked to produce a pitch that would aid India). India isn't the only place it happens, I know, but that doesn't make it any better. It is against the spirit of fair play, and if you can't see that, or the difference between war and cricket ... well, you can't. Maybe you think the (apparently Indian) writer of the original article equally short on patriotism?

    Actually it was YOU who dragged in PM's age. As for my "not having much else to say", try re-reading the exchanges above; your charge is almost ludicrously untrue. I'll leave you now to your ignorant chauvinism and sad inability to argue straight.

  • Harmon on January 16, 2013, 9:36 GMT

    @GurSinghgur: Do you deliberately pretend not to understand or is it natural?

    Firstly, if Team A has fats bowlers and Team B has none then whose fault is it? If Team A's strength is fast bowling then should they plan to maximize its impact or not? Would it be wrong & unethical? Do you fight a battle on your strengths or on your weaknesses? I am absolutely shocked that you just can't see this obvious point. Tell me, when you passed out from college did you look for a job in the field related to your degree or outside it? Why? Wasn't it cos your degree was your expertise? So obvious.

    And PM does not know he is an Indian and Ind were playing Eng in a Test. Thus his patriotism is doubtful or at least diluted. What kind of a person refuses to help his own country against another nation?

    And show to me how a spin track would have been biased, had it been. What's with your Ind sportsmanship? What color that bird is? Is a fast n bouncy track example of sportsmanship?

    U got no leg to stand.

  • Harmon on January 16, 2013, 9:20 GMT

    @GurSinghgur: All you got now is a way to say nothing yet pretend as if you've said a lot. Nearly all of your comments have focused on my calling PM a 83 year old, which he is. Your failure to go beyond it is obvious. In fact you don't want to leav this point cos it is your safety jacket. Each time I make fresh point you go back to his age and then drag me there even when I've made it clear it was just a side remark, not my main point against PM. Had he been a 38 yr old I would've said the exact same things. And if you can't see that 83 is a no too big for age then I don't think you know much about human life. Keep flogging his age remark. I know you feel good doing it cos you can't say much else.

    And you've hardly proven anything here. I could say I proved to you that your so n so comment clearly showed your were wrong and then I could feel good about it even though I'd done nothing of note.

    You cudn't grasp Dhoni's explanation for spinning tracks - I told you yet u dint. Simple.

  • gurudev on January 16, 2013, 7:53 GMT

    Enough is enough. Let's suppose home side A has brilliant fast bowlers , and visitors B has none. Captain A orders a groundsman to prepare a pitch perfectly suited to fast bowlers. Captain B protests. And along comes a Mr Harmony (who just happens to be a fervent supporter of side A) saying "Whatever the request may have been from Captain A, it would have been the same for both A and B, so what's the problem?"

    Now that wasn't the situation at Kolkata, agreed. But everybody except Harmony 111 knows that Dhoni's demand was made to suit India. Indeed Harmony's own first comment made it perfectly plain that even HE knew it--why else his disgraceful attack in that comment on P Mukherjee's alleged lack of patriotism? Not lack of clear sight or groundsman's skills, Harmony. Your ugly libels on PM prove even you knew Dhoni's aim. Re-read them, and you might even try withdrawing them.

  • gurudev on January 16, 2013, 0:50 GMT

    A final footnote, Harmony. You claim I offered no basis for my view that P Mukherjee was right to reject Dhoni's demand. In fact, I did so: at length:

    1. I said a groundsman must be neutral, like umpires. You replied that PM--as an employee of the CAB, which is a constituent of the BCCI, which appoints Dhoni--was bound to go along with Dhoni. I ridiculed this. 2. When you also argued that anyway Dhoni's demand WAS neutral, I replied that "everyone (including you, to judge from your FIRST comment)" knows this to be untrue. And I later cited your own words, to prove that point.

    You no doubt disagree with my reasoning. So be it. But it is nonsense to assert that I gave "no" reasons for my view. It's just taken me the entire paragraph above to set out the ones I gave, even in summary!

    Still at least/last you've now given YOUR (claimed) reason for dragging in PM's age: merely alleged "inability to see things clearly". Not quite how your first, sneering comment described him, is it?

  • Harmon on January 15, 2013, 23:13 GMT

    @GurSinghgur: Futile talking to you. Instead of giving anything concrete you simply stick to your usual style of saying YES or No to a point as per your convenience without saying anything in support and then you fele you have made a rebuttal. This is the 2nd time I am making this exact statement to you.

    You have hardly answered any of my points TBH. Whatever the request may have been from Dhoni - it would have been the same for bot Ind and Eng, so what's the problem? Isn't a fast n bouncy pitch hailed as a sporting track and said that it was the same for both the sides? Can't you see the duplicity in standards here?

    You really gave that example of breaking the law or cheating as a point? The 1st time you said anything substantial it was this weird point !!! You've not even proven if Dhoni's request was fair or not and you compare to a case of blatant cheating? Running short of proper points huh?

    Define sportsmanship 1st then talk about it. We shall see if a spin track is in it...

  • gurudev on January 15, 2013, 21:44 GMT

    Harmony 111: If you can't see there's no parallel between an IBM office boy's status v an IBM director, and that of P Mukherjee v Dhoni, too bad. As I said, if you can't argue straight--I could have added "honestly"-- don't argue at all.

    When India next tours Australia, and some Oz bowler is told by his captain to cheat any way he likes, so long as the umpires don't spot it, and it is spotted, and some Aussie hyperpatriot writes to Cricinfo to say "What has the bowler done wrong?", well, no doubt you will rush in to back this Aussie, arguing that the bowler was merely obeying his captain (who at least IS his "commander" as Dhoni is not P. Mukherjee's).

    No, on second thoughts, maybe you won't. The last sentence of your outpourings reveals where your ideas come from: no concern for fair play, merely from an overdone love of your own country--a perfectly respectable feeling, until it becomes indeed overdone.

    You stick to your--unIndian--notion of sportsmanship. I'll stick to mine.

  • Harmon on January 15, 2013, 19:14 GMT


    What PM's employment with CAB/BCCI has got to do with ICC beats me. If you think making completely misplaced points is equivalent to rebuttals or even replies then pls don't try any further. If by chance you meant that CAB:BCCI::Ind:ICC then you should sip some more coffee.

    You'd said ... " What I actually said was that PM was right in refusing Dhoni's demand." ---- Where is the basis of you saying this? You gave none. You say Yes to something and No to something without giving any reasoning and that means rebutting? Excellent.

    I did not mention his age to say he was honorable or not. I'd said it in relation to his ability to make sense of things. Senility has a direct linkage to age. You can add 1+1 yourself now to see the point.

    I'd also said that even if Dhoni had asked for a rank turner to assist ONLY Ind spinner he still would've been justified cos this was a Home Test so your whole castle goes down. You ignored this too.

    Dhoni is IND's Captain i.e. MY CAPTAIN.

  • Matrix on January 15, 2013, 18:29 GMT

    The reason for MS Dhoni asking for a square turner is that a square turner is both result producing like such as the one produced at The Wankade for the 2nd test match between India and England in November. Square turner with a good bounce favors both seamers and spinners alike. So its only fair of Dhoni to have asked for a square turner from this old timer. Mr.Mukherjee is an old timer and so inflexible and out dated in thinking. Mr. Mukherjee has much to learn from Dhoni himself , who represents a new class of captains wanting results from boring test matches which usually gyrate towards a draw in the sub continent. Dhoni's asking for square turners make much sense when one looks at the number of drawn test matches in subcontinent pitches. What is wrong with asking for a test match pitch which would produce result ?