Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo
There will be a 42-year-old debutant in the first Test between India and England, which starts on February 5. He will also be part of the second Test, also to be played in Chennai, from February 13. In his hands could lie the script of the two Tests.
In the first week of 2021, V Ramesh Kumar got a call from the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA). He was asked to take charge as the curator for the first two Tests of the England series. Ramesh was taken by complete "surprise". He had never prepared a pitch for even a first-class match. In less than a month Ramesh now had to get Chepauk, as the MA Chidambaram Stadium is popularly known, ready to host two Test matches in a marquee series with World Test Championship points at stake for both contestants.
"I was surprised," Ramesh says, recalling the moment he was asked to be the curator for two Tests. "I asked TNCA for a couple of days because I needed to discuss it with my family because the big question was how would I manage my business if I took up the offer."
An accidental curator
There is nothing about Ramesh that matches the traditional profile of a head groundsman in India. Normally curators at most Indian venues have learned the art of pitch-making on the run and have evolved with experience.
In contrast, Ramesh, who comes from the textile manufacturing town of Tirupur in Tamil Nadu, is a businessman and runs two successful apparel companies: Cosimo International, a garment manufacturing company that exports to firms in Europe, and Allwin Colours, a dyeing company. Along with his wife Malarvizhi Giri, who is a chartered accountant, Ramesh manages over 700 people at both companies. Ramesh also has an MBA in international business in addition to an MS in psychology.
A successful athlete during his college days, Ramesh represented Tamil Nadu at the 110m hurdles and was part of the state's relay teams and even won two medals at the national championships in 1996. About a decade ago Ramesh launched the Tirupur School of Cricket as part of his dream to help young boys develop into good players. He bought land and constructed a small ground with two matting pitches, one turf pitch and 12 practice strips surrounded by "lush green" outfield. To manage the ground and pitch he would need to recruit groundstaff from Chennai, which was proving difficult, so he decided to learn the craft himself. Luckily for him the TNCA had a suggestion.
"I got a call from the TNCA, suggesting I attend the BCCI course on pitch-making," Ramesh says. "I wanted to learn it in a professional way. I want to do something for the sport considering I am taking care of 80 kids at my academy." The course was the brainchild of Daljit Singh, former Bihar cricketer and a well-known head groundsman at Mohali, who retired in 2019 as the head of the BCCI's grounds and pitches committee.
Ramesh started making pitches in Coimbatore, Tirupur and Salem, for Under-16, -19 and -23 BCCI tournaments after passing the BCCI course in July 2018. He also travelled to other Indian venues in the IPL to get more insights from senior curators. During IPL 2019, the TNCA wanted him to take charge at Chepauk, but business commitments did not allow him to.
Ramesh reckons the TNCA might have been impressed by his working style which might have influenced them to assign him such a key job, where pitches not just need to be result-oriented but are also assigned ratings by the ICC based on their behaviour. "Having been running businesses I can manage teams and time. Once I had committed to TNCA I decided I will do the job. Also I can segregate things which is key in running a business. I am a curator and have to work as a groundsman. My business is different."
People who have seen Ramesh at work including senior TNCA officials point out that man-management is his biggest strength. Ramesh says he has a strong team of about 26 groundsmen who have been working hard for the past few weeks to prepare for the two Tests, India's first international matches since the start of the pandemic last year.
To ensure that things fall in place the BCCI asked Taposh Chatterjee, part of the board's pitch committee, to base himself in Chennai to oversee the preparations and be the guiding hand and light for Ramesh.
'Chepauk pitch with English look'
Traditionally the Chepauk pitch has worn a bald look. However this time around it has been lush green across the square and the outfield. The TNCA had hosted a few practice matches at the venue ahead of the group phase of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in the first half of January.
"There is no open spot. The outfield has a soft bed and is lush green," Ramesh says.
There are eight pitches on the Chepauk square. According to Ramesh, he's working along with Chatterjee on four pitches, two each for each of the Tests.
The groundsmen are working on two different types of pitch with varying soil profiles. One is purely red soil, but its character is different to the red soil at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, which generally provides bounce and assistance to all bowlers. The red soil in Chennai, on the other hand, can become flat quickly once rolled. This is one reason - at the moment - the pitch will have a greenish cover on the first day. The second pitch has a mixed profile: a base with the local red soil of about three inches with a top layer comprising black clay. A final decision on which pitch will host the first Test will be made in the days leading up to the match.
The immediate past is bound to have a bearing on the nature of the pitch. The last first-class match played at the ground was the Ranji Trophy contest in January 2020 between Tamil Nadu and Railways. That game, which also featured India's main spinner R Ashwin, finished in two days. That pitch was understood to be purely red soil.
The last Test match played at the ground was coincidentally between India and England in 2016, with the hosts winning in the final hour on the fifth day. It was the match where Karun Nair scored a triple century and KL Rahul fell one run short of a double century as India amassed their highest Test score.
Ramesh is confident about what could be in store in the next two weeks. "We are working to get a sporting wicket," he says. "It will be a typical Chepauk pitch with English look. It will work for all three departments. It will be a keen contest between bat and ball. First day, there will be something for the fast bowlers. Second and third days will favour batsmen. Fourth day onwards there will be wear and tear and support the spinners."
Ramesh is aware that he might be an established businessman, but as a curator he is inexperienced compared to his colleagues, several of whom are not just senior to him in age, but have been preparing pitches in first-class and international cricket for decades. He understands he might have the knowledge but lacks the experience that will come handy in crunch moments during a Test match.
"Every day I am learning something now. I can't say I am a specialist. As a groundsman, you must understand there is a different microclimate, different soil, different grass. A lot of groundsmen here are the son of the soil. They have been living here, worked here for the past 20-25 years. I take all their inputs. I always listen to what all they say. But the final decision is mine."
Under the guidance of Chatterjee, Ramesh has been understanding the intricacies of pitch-making: from fertilising the soil, to rethatching grass, to rolling and watering the pitches in a fashion where the surface does not become a dustbowl and crumble from first day. Ramesh says he is confident. "It should be a good contest. I am expecting good cricket. Both teams should enjoy. We are in safe hands. Our preparations are on the mark. I am ready."
In the next two weeks Ramesh is bound to get introduced to the pressures of Test cricket. "Once I completed my course I did have the ambition of making a Test-match pitch one day. This is very early. I never expected the day will come."
And Ramesh is anything but nervous. "No. The only thing is there is only a three-day break between the first two Test matches, but I'm very comfortable. Simultaneously I'm working on pitches for both matches. I have a plan, I have a system, I have a schedule. I am not nervous. This is my first assignment, that is the only thing. Straightaway I am making a Test pitch."