India in Sri Lanka 2015 August 28, 2015

The fastest ground staff in the world

Sri Lanka's ground-maintenance workers use ingenuity, speed and clockwork coordination to counteract the problems posed by a home season that coincides with the monsoon
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By the truckload: Galle's ground staff uses heavy tyres to keep the covers from flying off © Sharda Ugra/ ESPNcricinfo

At one point after the 15th over on the first day of the third Test, the groundsmen on either side of the SSC square moved in. There was no rain, but they knew. In the media box with its views of the city, the construction cranes, scattered multi-storey towers, the white cupola of the town hall, and the slowly rising Lotus Tower were being obliterated by a curtain of grey.

The groundskeeping team was on standby five minutes before they made their first move. By the time the rain came, in slanting silver, the men had the pitch and the square covered. With the rain beating down fiercely, they next covered the bowlers' run-ups. In under nine minutes 80% of the field was under the large covers. The groundsmen, divided into four crews, dragging out waterproof sheets 100 feet square, were perfectly synchronised in their movements, much like an F1 pit crew. The cricket crew works over a much larger tract of land but their operation also requires speed of a relatively different scale and a sequential order of its own.

This high-speed ground-covering is a specialty of Sri Lankan cricket - brought about as a solution to having to play most of their home international cricket in what is traditionally the country's off season, when it rains - not in buckets but intermittently, like it threatened to during the Galle Test and at the P Sara, and like it eventually did after an hour on day one at the SSC. Sri Lanka play their home Tests in two batches - one lot in March and then between June and September.

The SSC ground staff get their splash on, 2004 © Getty Images

Anurudda Polonowita, a former national curator and head priest of Sri Lankan cricket groundsmanship, says a skewed season led to finding an innovative answer to keep the game moving. Sri Lanka shares its home season (December to March), according to Polonowita, with India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh. "No one is going to leave their home country because of TV [rights] and money. That's why they are coming to our country in their off season, in our rainy season. We have to play during that time, otherwise we won't get a fixture. We have to adjust ourselves to play these matches or you won't get the full play. So we started covering the whole pitch. We are the only country that do it."

For the last ten years or so, this logistical exercise has taken place before every big match in Sri Lanka. A few days before a game, close to 100 men are signed on as casual labour to add to the official ground-staff strength of around 15. They are then divided into four groups, each with a leader, usually an experienced groundsman. The groups undergo a simulated, timed exercise of pulling on the covers. The following morning the covers are pulled off to the count of a stopwatch. Every ground has around 10 to 15 giant rubberised canvas sheets, imported from India, each costing about LKR 800,000 (nearly US$6000). Since the 2011 World Cup, each ground in the country has its own set.

Forty shades of grey? Time for the covers © PA Photos

Jayananda Warnaweera, the Southern Province cricket association secretary, general boss, curator and caretaker of the Galle International Stadium, says Sri Lankan groundskeeping drills are "unlike any other in the world". Galle's groundskeepers need the extra assistance of used truck tyres to hold down the covers when strong winds come in from the sea next door.

When asked what the tyres weigh, Chamara and Sampath look at each other. They are part of the casual labour for the first Test, earning LKR 1000 ($7.44) a day. One is a tuk-tuk driver and the other a mobile phone repairman. With a straight face comes the reply, "Thirty kilos." Whatever the weight, these are substantial tyres, well over car size. Maybe 15-20kg minimum each then?

Before the 2011 World Cup new grounds were built in Pallekele and Hambantota, with improved drainage and sprinkler systems. The country's flagship ground, the R Premadasa Stadium in Khettarama, Colombo, was raised by 3.5ft. At the ICC World T20 in 2012, ten minutes was set as the benchmark for bringing in the covers.

Before every big match in Sri Lanka, close to 100 men are signed on as casual labour to help with the covers © Sharda Ugra/ ESPNcricinfo

This is a transformation from the early '90s, Polonowita remembers, when grounds in Sri Lanka had no rollers, and in some places the groundsmen would use lawnmowers on pitches. A former player, Polonowita is regarded as professor emeritus of Sri Lankan groundskeeping. He has a curatorship degree from the MCG and was involved in the construction of the Khettarama Stadium. In 2000, he signed on with Sri Lanka Cricket as national curator in charge of the country's grounds, and before his retirement he trained seven graduates fresh from agricultural university to work in curatorship roles at the major grounds.

"Our curators," Polonowita says of his younger successors, "do a great job because we take over the grounds only two months before a big match." The cricket grounds in Sri Lanka are used all year round for all kinds of matches - by schools, clubs, companies. P Sara, for example, he says, hosts ten to 12 matches every year, including on its prized centre pitches.

Getting a ground ready in time for a big match is "about practical experience," he says. That practical experience, along with a sense of innovation, has turned Sri Lanka's off season into its international season.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 31, 2015, 20:18 GMT

    But why cant the staff be given raincoats to wear? Poor guys get drenched

  • Andrea on August 31, 2015, 11:06 GMT

    @culpuw. Firstly I wonder about those that you say they use a tractor (?) in Aus. It doesn't have anything to do with pulleys (note the "s" I never wrote about one pulley but four, maybe 5). Indeed I had never even thought to a more inefficient way to pull tarps in a short time as is by using ... a tractor! The characters allowed in these posts do not permit an adequate explanation of pulleys for tarping and untarping. I may only guarantee that your doubts would be groundless with the adopton of pulleys. Possibility of bubbles and not proper laying is a risk if humans do not impeccably pull tarp (which however is not the case of Srilankan staff which truly proves to be really super efficient and accurate). On the other hand, a pulley pulling tarps that have a bar on their border would do a better job than relying only on human coordination. What I miss to know is if the ground is slightly "donkey-back", as in international soccer fields, or it is gapless from one border to the other.

  • Chandana on August 31, 2015, 10:06 GMT

    @ AndreafromItaly : wonder if u have seen the operation live - at ground level. not sure of exact measurements of these sheets but for the naked eye they looked like at least 20 x 20m. mechanical methods have failed (Auzzy did tey using an improvised tractor but with shorter sheets) is becoz there are lot of other variables. 1st the rain comes in very fast AND they cannot go in until the umpires ask them. then first u have to cover the pitch and make sure the ends are tight, else water will seep during the rain or after. then the layer is a very systematic process so that each new sheet goes under the previous one (people who have asbestos sheets will know this), so that water will be sloping towards the edge of the ground and not middle. then there is the need to evade air bubbles, else the sheets will fly away with the accompanying wind, hence the tractor tyres. when taking off if there is a lot of water they may use a sopper and then uncover the pitch.

  • Andrea on August 31, 2015, 9:10 GMT

    @ephee. I undestand your observation. You deserve I better articulate my thought. When monsoon comes you have to react in a matter of minutes, even seconds are material. As I said: the effort of all the staff is commendable, but a pulley would make it definitely faster and more effective. When the monsoon has finished showering, you do not need to remove tarps hurrily in terms of minutes or seconds. To remove water you may use the same pulleys by elevating them just a few metres (still a manual mechanic operation requiring no power and limited labour). By this way water is 'canalized' within the tarp and is let to flow gently by gravitation in a rubber pipe out of the field in a drainage area. Then you may easily remove tarps with 10 times less weigh than when they carry water on them. Frankly, by leaving on the other side of the Earth, I'm not qualified to provide an explanation on why Australian engineers have failed on this or if they have not attempted the way I suggest.

  • leftyb7421825 on August 31, 2015, 7:37 GMT

    The rain keeps coming at the appointed time and how well these guys complete their drill by covering almost the entire ground within minutes!!!Definitely the unsung heroes without whose efforts the entire series would have resulted in a damp squib!!

  • Hemaka on August 31, 2015, 5:59 GMT

    @Andrea and others who think this can be easily mechanised and automated, thanks for your valued opinion, but guess you have not had to run around a cricket ground to understand the size and scale of this issue. Yes you can get a machibe to pull the sheets down when the rain is about to hit! BUT trying pulling them out with all the water that gets lodged on these huge sheets. The sheets are needed to be taken out over the boundry ropes without spilling any on the pitch or playing area! This is done by the men holding around each sheet and moving them out in a coordinated and synchronised way. Each of these sheets weigh over 100+ Kg without water and almost 5 - 10 time more with the amount of water they can hold. Machine pulling these out would leave all the water back defeating the objective. Machines were tried and are still being tested in Australia and other countries. But the reason nobody is still doing it is due to that issue. We ahve men and more men so lets keep them employed!

  • Andrea on August 30, 2015, 13:22 GMT

    I counted today some 100 staff pulling tarps. My congratulations on their commitment but I can't no to express my thought: what a foolish waste of staff. Same result in same time (or less) might have been achieved by having 4 mechanical pulleys, each operated by 2-3 persons. Building and manually operating pulleys is something definitely feasible in Sri Lanka at immaterial cost. However, to make it feasible it firstly calls to avoid to make the classical dumb question: then what do we do with the remaining 'useless' 90 staff? Do we have to fire them? Absolutely NOT! You may use all 90 in several other areas of the stadium by creating value added services, making therefore a venue in Sri Lanka an even better place to watch cricket.

  • Dummy4 on August 30, 2015, 3:29 GMT

    PARAKUM... Well said ..pity these uninformed Indian fans have no clue about Sri Lanka ..cricket or otherwise ,,,they have to say a negative comment. ..cannot read a good comment about Sri Lanka .

  • Chandra on August 29, 2015, 20:50 GMT

    Well done Lankans! I think there is a lot of scope for technology improvement to help them. Why no one is investing?? Also How about ground covered with advertisements, make every second and inch pay.

  • wasim on August 29, 2015, 15:13 GMT

    This has been a wonderful Test series no doubt and so has been the work of Mrs.Ugra. Jarrod Kimber and Sharda Ugra have to be the best on Cricinfo.

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