Rashi Kakkar speaks to Sunil Chauhan, Chief Curator, Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association about cricket and the art of curating pitches
A pair of fitted jeans, sunglasses and a BCCI polo t-shirt. At the hotel lobby he did not get mobbed by people but he most definitely commanded attention. Eyes turned. He may have actually walked with a slight swagger.
It has been close to nine years since he made his “international debut”. It was in 2007 that he interacted with a player from outside India for the first time. Very fondly he goes on to narrate an anecdote involving Dale Steyn:
“In 2007, Steyn was playing for South Africa A in a match against India A at Dharamsala. Steyn didn’t have an opportunity to bowl on as the three-day fixture was curtailed due to rain. But Steyn saw Ishant Sharma bowl who was getting the ball to do some remarkable things on this pitch. Steyn was astonished and he told me give me one hour here, and I will show you what fast bowling is. He said he didn’t know such wickets could be prepared in India and gifted his entire kit and an autographed cap to me.”
Since then he has met innumerable international cricketer that he has lost count.
A firm handshake and a warm half hug. His eyes looked sleepy and his body must have been tired. After all he had been on the road for close to three months since the beginning of the T20 World Cup. The previous day was his last IPL game for 2016. But as soon as we started talking cricket he lit up.
“Now my body has got used to this schedule. In a year for about 6 months I stay away from home, travelling on work.” And this schedule has been on for multiple years.
For over 50 years cricket has been an integral part of Sunil Chauhan’s life. He is the Chief Curator at Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association and one of the two curators on the BCCI pitch committee from the North Zone.
As a child Sunil Chauhan dabbled in various sports right from karate to TT, cricket, Hockey and Football. As he grew older he remained passionate about sports in general but it was cricket in particular that he fell in love with. A leg spinner and opening batsmen, Mr Chauhan played club cricket till he turned 30.
“My elder brother is a doctor. There were always comparisons. In the beginning my elder brother and mother used to be very frustrated with me. They could not understand my passion for this sport.
We came from a typical middle class family. Very few people played professionally and no one had heard of the other administrative and ancillary professions that could emerge from cricket.
I was made to study engineering. My brother even opened a sports equipment shop for me and told me to quit cricket. But I would open the shop and then run away to the ground and spend my entire day there. I have a mad love for this game.
Once they figured that there was no way to get me away from this sport then they completely supported me. I am blessed to have had my mother and two older brother’s full support.”
Once his playing days were over, Mr Chauhan became Secretary with the Bilaspur Cricket Association, Himachal Pradesh for the next 15 years.
Post this he was appointed as an admin manager, Dharamshala. In May 2007 BCCI was holding its first pitch curation seminar. “Mr Anurag Thakur ki soch bahut aage ki thi. He wanted the Dharamshala pitch and ground to be number one. He told me to go to Mumbai and understand more about this pitch curation course. Waha meri aankhen bhi khul gayi aur dimag bhi. That is when I realized for the first time that pitch curation is a very scientific activity and it was something that I wanted to know more about.”
The pitch curation workshop conducted by Daljit Singh had such an impact on him that he decided to give up his administrative post and become a full time pitch curator.
Though with a boisterous laugh he tells me that “Back in the days when I used to play juniors were not taken directly into the team to just play. We were made to work on the pitches. Those days turf pitches were not common, matting used to be there. Seniors would make us pick up the pitch and place them. So technically, that was my first interaction with making a pitch. Even now I do a lot of rolling for many matches with my very own hands.”
He repeatedly mentions what drew him to pitch making was the science as well as the complexity involved in it “To begin with it is very important to have knowledge about the clay (miti) we use. Clay content determines the nature of a pitch. It ensures good binding, hardness and bounce. We use black cotton soil brought from Ludhiana, Punjab. The Agricultural University in Palampur gives us a report and a reading. Once we get this done only then we can move to the next step. Agar uski knowledge nahi hai toh aapka saara ka saara kaam bekar hai. (If you don’t know enough about the clay then all your work will go waste”
India was the only top cricket playing nation where till sometime back there was no course for either pitch curation or staff management. “We put pressure on the board that just like there is a course for umpires, physios etc there should also be a course for pitch curation. This was held for the first time in 2012 Mohali where a total number of 31 men took part. There was a written exam, practical and viva. I stood 3rd.”
From taking an exam in 2012 Mr Chauhan has now progressed to becoming a faculty. He was recently appointed by the BCCI as a faculty member for training new pitch curators in the subject of pitch construction.
Mr Chauhan reiterates how the difference between a good pitch and bad pitch mostly just boils down to the processes followed. “In Delhi people now say the pitches have improved. But I have not done any great magic – same pitches, same ground staff, same equipment. The only thing I did was implement the right process of getting things done – how much water to give, when to roll, how much to roll etc. If you give time to the pitch only then will it give you results. From International matches to IPL, Ranji and even club matches my preparation is 100% - I take no shortcuts. The pitch has to be A1”
His other passion is encouraging fast bowling. “I always wanted to create a fast bowler friendly pitch because our ground’s atmosphere favors fast and swing bowling. The other reason why I like fast pitches is because it brings out the character of the batsmen. Only a fast pitch does that. Especially in a test match, which is the ultimate test for a batsmen. My favorite pitch is Perth, Australia”
And then he goes on to discuss his theory on why India does not produce enough fast bowlers “India did not have enough pitches that were conducive to fast bowling. The concept of grass on pitches has just happened in the last 2-3 years. See the issue was that most of the Indian captains have been batsmen. The first thing they would want was to get the grass removed from the pitches. They would tell the ground staff “Ghass kat do”. By cutting the grass you were also cutting the spirit of junior fast bowlers. But things are changing now.”
He feels the IPL has been one of the biggest positives that his career has seen. It was because of the IPL in 2009 that Dharamsala shot to prominence. It was also the IPL that made him more stylish “Prior to the IPL I used to mostly wear track pants. It was during the IPL that I first time saw all these sports management men and women, people from IMG and the franchises. That is when I decided that even I should have my own unique style. The world we live in you have to carry yourself well for people to take you seriously and respect you. Else they feel that you are someone on the sideline who does very insignificant work”
Now that he is on a short break from work I ask him how he is going to spend his next few weeks. He shoots back with “I will watch cricket on TV. But I only watch the pitch report with a lot of attention. I love to see how someone else has prepared the pitch.”
Knowing that I am completely bewildered by his response he goes on “Look I have a mad love for the game. You need that to build a profession through it. Today everything that I am is because of this game. It has given me a name, income and some amount of fame.”
He pauses, takes a deep breath and says “My family always wanted me to become an engineer. I studied to become an engineer. Dekho mai ban gaya engineer. Pitch ka engineer.”