Chennai's quest for normalcy

Uprooted trees in front of the gate at MA Chidambaram stadium Sidharth Monga/ESPNcricinfo

It is little over a year since R Ashwin went in to rescue India's innings against South Africa in Delhi, while his hometown Chennai was ravaged by flood. His wife was trying unsuccessfully to get in touch with his parents, who were stranded, and he was feeling helpless, away from his beloved city and unable to help in its hour of need.

Now, even as Ashwin's side sealed another emphatic series win, cyclone Vardah hit Chennai, leaving in its wake destruction visible through felled trees, broken houses and uprooted electricity poles. This time, Ashwin and his team can help, in their own way.

A Test match begins on Friday. We tend to attach too much meaning to sport at times, but the successful hosting of this Test will mean a bit of a return to normalcy. Nothing represents normalcy in Chennai more than getting off at Chepauk train station and walking into MA Chidambaram Stadium for a Test match.

Two days out, inside the stadium, the groundstaff works hard to make that happen. Inside the groundsmen's shed, PR Viswanathan, BCCI's south zone curator and formerly MA Chidambaram Stadium's own, directs traffic. In a cart next to him lie two trays full of burning coal that have just been used to dry the pitch. They were kept on stumps so as to not burn the pitch.

This is not the most unnatural drying act Viswanathan has overseen. Last year, in Bangalore, he put up a tent and used an actual iron and hair dryer to get the pitch ready during incessant rains. Sanjay Bangar, the India batting coach, will remember how in 2002-03 Viswanathan poured diesel on the bowlers' run-up and burnt it to make sure it dried out in time for the Test against West Indies. India won by eight wickets.

Five years ago, Viswanathan rolled out an admittedly ordinary surface for the Ranji Trophy final between Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan. Rajasthan scored 621 runs, and took away the title. That was the last pitch he prepared at the Chidambaram Stadium. His father played in the first-ever Ranji Trophy match, which ended in one day; he says he will take to his grave the regret of a match that looked good to last 10 days.

Of all the gin joints in all the towns, Viswanathan is back at Chidambaram Stadium at a time of crisis. Quite possibly for one last time. He doesn't want to hang on for too long; he wants youngsters - better trained scientifically - to take over, but what redemption it will be for him if he can stage a successful Test in such trying circumstances.

Viswanathan, who was once a seam bowler who spent four matches with the Tamil Nadu squad without making the XI, has the support of a brave and committed groundstaff. They are the people who do all the hard work, he says. The people who come up with improvisations before the chief curator can. The people who sat through the cyclone on Monday to make sure the covers stayed in place.

Gates fell, roofs were torn, sight screens were ravaged, bulbs flew out of the flood lights, but these can all be repaired. The playing surface, though, had to be protected. The practice pitches were uncovered and the damage was such that they were unfit for training and will allow for only a few throwdowns, if at all, before the match.

Thanks to the groundstaff's bravery through the cyclone, and the modern drainage system, this is not even the biggest crisis Chidambaram stadium has gone through. The sight screens are erected and floodlights repaired through the day.

The groundstaff's shed is an oasis in the harsh Chennai sun. Their 25 lockers are adorned with images and cut-outs of gods and goddesses. A trunk and a rich blue cabinet stand at the other end. Statues and photos of more gods and goddesses sit there. Just before the Visakhapatnam Test earlier in the series, the groundstaff worshipped the pitch. Viswanathan says this groundstaff also does its best and then leaves the rest to the gods. And they carry out their worship at such early hours that you won't even notice. "You are not in control once the match starts," he says.

Behind the shed, Vairamuthu, in his 50s, guards the deserted practice pitches. The only thing they might now be used for is a fitness test for Stuart Broad; you can bowl on them but batting can be unsafe. During the cyclone, a neighbour's roof fell onto his house. Some things are more important than a fitness test, but it is also important to get back on your feet. Vairamuthu is on his feet.

Not on his feet is Baskaran the cobbler, who sits cross-legged 50 metres past the Pattabhiraman Gate. Past trees fallen outside. Past the posters of Jayalalithaa handing a yellow flower to friend Sasikala, which have suddenly emerged in the week after the death of the iconic chief minister, a symbol of moving on, of handing over the reins.

Baskaran sits on a plastic mat, tattered cricket gloves at one side and his photo with Sachin Tendulkar on the other. He claims to be a specialist in emergency repair on cricket equipment, especially those that need stitching. He began doing this for local matches, and over time he has become almost a dressing room attendant. The last time he was required in an international match was when MS Dhoni's pads needed a quick fix.

After the Test, Baskaran will go back to fixing shoes of the common public, but right now the cyclone and the destruction don't matter. He is there is his place - maybe 50 metres to the left because of fallen trees.

Over at Chemplast Cricket Ground in the IIT Madras campus, Vijay wouldn't move from his place despite a landfall. He lives in the pavilion-style structure with his three "hounds" - rescued street dogs Andy, Laddoo and Prabhu Deva.

Vijay sat in his veranda through the cyclone, looking at the beloved ground he takes care of, safe in the knowledge that there were no trees around it or tall structures that could fall. On Wednesday morning, at around 7am, he received a call from his employers if he could get the ground ready by 4pm. No other cricket ground in the city was available, and England needed one for Broad, who has been out with a foot injury, to run in and a pitch for him to bowl on. Vijay felt this was the least he could do two days before a Test. Perhaps the England team will understand and do without training, but somehow he had to help with the fitness test.

Vijay got down to the job, and at 4pm, out came England bowling coach Ottis Gibson and Broad, in a tempo traveller. Andy, Laddoo and Prabhu Deva are on guard as Broad bowls 36 deliveries in his fitness test. They both leave happy, hoping they can get such a damp pitch offering seam and uneven bounce for the Test too. They have been away from home for close to two months, they have not won anything on this tour, which makes you miss friendlier environs even more. Before they leave, though, they - along with the Indian team - have one final act left: help a ravaged city attain a semblance of normalcy.