He played to their pitch
A year from now, Lalsuram Jaiswal and Vijay Tambe, the longest serving pair of groundsmen at the Wankhede Stadium, will retire.
Walk around the ground and it's not hard to spot these two maalis, both in their 60th year, with a mop of snow-white hair, dressed in khaki. In their 30-plus years of service, the duo has seen some of the finest cricketers that Mumbai, India and international teams have had to offer. And then they have seen the finest: Sachin Tendulkar.
Jaiswal, the oldest serving groundsman working for the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA), has a twinkle in his eye as he recalls his very first memories of Tendulkar, as a kid and then as a youngster making his way into the Ranji Trophy team. It was at the Wankhede that Tendulkar played his maiden first-class match and though Jaiswal's memories do not always match the facts, they are vivid enough for you to get the picture.
Where he and Tambe do not go wrong is in recollecting Tendulkar's wishes for preparing the training pitches at the Wankhede and MCA's Bandra Kurla Complex grounds (BKC).
"He would always be open about his needs," Jaiswal says. "If he needed a hard pitch he would ask for one. Sometimes if the pitch behaved differently and the ball deviated sharply, he would ask to firm the surface."
Just like his approach to batting, Tendulkar has always been simple in his preparation, according to Jaiswal. "Woh humko pakata nahin tha (he would not trouble us by asking too much)," Jaiswal says. "If the surface was loose he would say make it hard. And if the pitch was too hard he would ask us to water it. Next day, he would come and say it was good. Unlike some others who would always keep saying things about the pitch, he never was fussy."
Tendulkar's team-mates have pointed out how precise and methodical he is during his training sessions but Jaiswal and Tambe, and other MCA groundsmen, have also seen him train when no one else is around. Like Ramesh Mhamunkar, the co-curator at Wankhede, who has seen Tendulkar train alone during the rainy season at BKC's indoor nets.
"From 2002 when BKC started, Sachin would ask me to keep the nets ready. He would be alone training in the rainy season in the indoor nets. He would ask rubber balls to be dipped into half a bucket of water," Mhamunkar says. "From mid-way in the pitch he would ask the guys to issue the throwdowns at fast speeds. That way he would hone his reflexes."
Sometimes when it was not raining Tendulkar would ask Mhamunkar and his team to sprinkle water on the pitch covers and ask bowlers to throw balls that would skid. Another way for him to prepare for skiddy bounce was to ask bowlers to throw rubber balls on the wet outfield where the grass was longer.
Tendulkar has never changed his routine when it comes to nets, says Mhamunkar, a former club cricketer for Dadar Union B. "Whether there was a tour or a series on or not he would always do his regular practice for two hours at least. He would quietly bat for an hour compulsory. He would barely talk."
As afternoon chaha (tea) arrives in little plastic cups, Jaiswal, Tamble and Mhamunkar start talking about their favourite cricketers. Sunil Gavaskar is a topic of discussion. The three men recollect the exact instances when Gavaskar would see off the new ball when facing some of the world's best fast bowlers.
And all three agree that the main reason why they like Tendulkar is because he has the same determination and work ethic that Gavaskar had during his younger days, when he would face several hours of bowling form the likes of former Mumbai pacer Vithal "Marshall" Patil.
Nothing gives Jaiswal more happiness than Tendulkar's punched straight drive. "Ek dum seedha maarta tha boundary ke paar (Perfectly straight shot to the boundary). His elbow was so precise."
It is now close to four in the afternoon. Tea is over. Tambe, mostly quiet, has been sitting on the iron railing of the sightscreen. He has mostly agreed with what his colleagues have said and says he is happy that Tendulkar is bidding goodbye this November and not the next, when he will retire himself.
Tambe has a final wish, though.
"He should ideally get a century in his 200th Test. It will be appropriate," he says.
Jaiswal agrees. "This is the ground where he started and moved on to bigger things. It would be nice if he can leave cricket with a century," he says as he gets up and prepares to go back to work.