"This is like a road. This is not a pitch for fast bowlers. This is a surface for batsmen like me," Sunil Gavaskar beams while presenting the pitch report for the first ODI between India and New Zealand in Dharamsala in October 2016.
What happens next? Pacers Hardik Pandya and Umesh Yadav run riot after MS Dhoni opts to bowl. The duo scythe through the top and middle order to restrict the Kiwis to 190. India go on to win the match by six wickets.
Everything was on offer on the chilly morning on the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association wicket: Swing, pace, seam movement and bounce. It bamboozled everyone, especially after Gavaskar's analysis of the 22-yard strip. He might have misread the pitch and even the Kiwi batsmen. But there is one man who didn’t and generally gets it right most of the times: Sunil Chauhan, the HPCA chief curator.
It’s 10 o’clock on a chilly night in Dharamsala, and I’m wandering alongside the fence near the HPCA Pavilion on the eve of that India-New Zealand ODI, trying to catch hold of the curator Sunil Chauhan. Finally, I get a glimpse of a tall, burly figure clad in a BCCI T-shirt sporting shades and a cowboy hat walking towards me gingerly. I haven't met him before but it's not hard to recognise his personality. The legs seem weary, eyes look tired, you can sense it's been another hard day's work but he offers a vigorous handshake. He goes on to say that the pitch will have good bounce, carry and lateral movement early on. The fast bowlers will have a say.
The pacers did make merry the following day as Hardik and Umesh combined to take five wickets, with the former bagging the Man of the Match award on his ODI debut. Chauhan knows it all. He is one of the most knowledgeable figures in the cricketing circles when it comes to pitches. The obsession for 22 yards is evident as the tired eyes lit up trying to explain the science behind the pitch preparation, on the stroke of midnight.
It's this unbridled love for the sport that converted Sunil from an administrator into a curator. From a treasurer to admin manager to the chief curator, Chauhan's metamorphosis has been nothing short of fascinating. It all started during his teens when the passion for cricket turned into an obsession for 22 yards.
"My love affair with pitches started from my college days. In those days, we used to play on matting pitches. But our main focus was to make sure the surface under the matting should be such that there shouldn't be uneven bounce," Chauhan tells Firstpost. "I myself got hit in the teeth a couple of times. Earlier, the seniors used to make us lift the mat, to spread the mat and lining but we wouldn’t get to play a match. We got one only on Sundays," he adds.
The early rigors planted the thought of becoming a perfectionist. The dream took off and there was no looking back. Sunil was wading against the tide, the journey was difficult but he was ready to go any distance to achieve his dream.
"In my house there are two doctors and a teacher. My elder and younger brother both are doctors. My mother was a teacher. They all had an allergy to my cricket," Chauhan says. "I had a sports shop and a readymade garments shop. I used to open it and then run away to the ground for the rest of the day. Because of that, the business flopped. I was told to carry on the business and not worry about the investment but they said just forget cricket. I said I can't leave cricket," Chauhan adds.
The journey commenced as Chauhan took up the job of secretary at Bilaspur Cricket Association, in his hometown. He played a crucial role in helping the district get its first ever cricket ground.
"I had a dream that we have a good ground in Bilaspur. We made it happen. I have done the work with my own hands. I prepared the first pitches there," Chauhan beams.
Chauhan worked in Bilaspur Cricket Association for 15 years before taking up the job of admin manager of HPCA. In 2007, his dream started to inch towards becoming reality. HPCA chief Anurag Thakur advised Chauhan to attend a pitch curation seminar conducted by the BCCI.
"Anuragji told me, I want the HPCA ground and pitches to be the No 1 in the world. So I attended the two-day seminar in Mumbai. Daljit Singh took the classes along with the veteran PR Viswanathan. When I attended these classes, my mind completely opened up. I got to know how much science is involved in cricket. What is soil and the importance of grass,” Sunil says. “Then we put pressure on the board to introduce a course for curators just like coaches and physios. It was only in India that there was no turf management course. So then finally, in 2012, the BCCI introduced it in Mohali where 31 curators attended the three-week course from all over India. I cleared and qualified with 3rd rank," Chauhan adds.
The learning process continued and three years later, Chauhan was appointed as chief curator of the HPCA Stadium. Since then he has received plenty of accolades from international captains and coaches. But it's the interaction with Dale Steyn back in 2007 that he fondly remembers.
"Back in 2007, Steyn was a part of the South Africa A team that played against India A in a rain-affected four-day match at Dharamsala. On day one, Ishant Sharma was rampant, his deliveries were whizzing off at shoulder level. Steyn had just come down from Delhi having played on a low, slow wicket where the ball wasn't bouncing over the knee level. When he saw Ishant's deliveries he straight away said, 'Wow! India too has some fast pitches! If I get one hour on this pitch, I will show the entire world what real fast bowling is all about.' But unluckily, he couldn't get to bowl as the rest of the three days were washed out. But afterwards, he called me to the dressing room and gave me his kit. He didn't believe that such kind of pitches were present in India," Chauhan adds with giddy excitement.
Throughout the conversation, Chauhan makes it a point to repeatedly describe the importance of grass on the wicket. Situated 1,317 meters above the sea level, while the picturesque Himalayas dominating the skyline are a sight to behold, the prospect of getting pace and bounce on the track has the pacers salivating. It is one of the very few pitches in India that assists pacers. Chauhan encourages fast bowling and while he has brought about sweeping changes since being appointed as the chief curator, it's his attention to minor details that stands out. Even when he was in the admin job, his mind was engrossed in pitch curation.
"I renovate the pitch and outfield every year. Because throughout the year, there is so much compaction along with rolling of pitches and there is stress on the grass. So to make it healthy, renovation is necessary," Chauhan says.
“I brought in world class ground equipment. I witnessed their impact and the results in the workshops. So our first demand was to bring in world class equipment — super soppers, grass cutting machines. We have equipment worth Rs 2 crores at HPCA,” he adds.
Not just the main squares, the practice pitches also get the same attention from the man in charge.
"We provide good net facilities. People generally ignore nets but a player's first entry is in the nets when he arrives. A cricketer is made because of the nets. If you give them good nets with decent pitches then you will produce better cricketers," Chauhan says.
"We take care of the nets in the same way as the main pitches. Around the world, net pitches are overused. In a match both sides of the pitches are used but in nets only one side is utilised. There is one bowler at a time in main matches but in nets, four to five bowl at a time. There is no checking on the no-ball and people step on the danger area. The more pitches you have in nets, the more you can rotate which helps it get rest. Rotation policy is important and they should have the grass covering too. We have in all 20 turf pitches, 2 artificial and 5 indoor pitches," Chauhan adds.
A lot of credit goes to Anurag Thakur for giving Chauhan a free-hand and also Daljit Singh — the chief curator of BCCI — under whose tutelage Chauhan has flourished.
Chauhan also brought the knowledge of rolling patterns which was extremely important. The know-how of the amount of watering to be done. How much to roll, which roller to use at what time, has helped the stadium immensely.
However, all this takes a lot of hardwork, energy, time and dedication. It's not just physically demanding, but mentally too. Chauhan's day starts at seven in the morning and ends at 10 in the night.
"Jo air condition wale room me baithne wala shaukheen banda hai wo nahi kar sakta ye kaam," Chauhan quips with a smile. "Isme to dhoop me bhi khada hona padega, baarish me bhi khada hona padega aur sardi me bhi khada hona padega. Yeh andar se hi hai, kiskoko zabardasti ye kaam sikha nahi sakte aap," Sunil adds. (It's not a job for people who want to sit in air conditioned rooms. In this job you have to work in the heat, cold and rain. It's all about passion from within, it cannot be taught forcibly.)
However, for Chauhan, it's not just about him and this is where his humility comes into the picture.
"It's all about team work. Even before me, the real heroes are the ground staff. These are the people because of whom we get name and fame. We just guide them but they are the real workers. These are the people who do all the hard work day in, day out no matter what weather," Chauhan says.
Apart from the pitch, weather, outfield and conditions, Chauhan has to take care of his fitness levels too. He does a lot of diet control. He still plays cricket, a bit. He lives 3.5 km away from the stadium and walks the distance. In the evening, he does two or three laps of the stadium.
Giving up the cushy administrator’s job for an all-season, relentless pitch curator one wasn't a difficult decision for Chauhan. For him, it's all about satisfaction. "Jis kaam me dilko tasalli ho wahi hi kaam karna hai (I only wanted to do a job which gave my heart some satisfaction)," Chauhan says.
And what gives him real satisfaction in his work?
"I get real satisfaction when the pitch plays exactly the same way as we expected it to behave. Nothing is more satisfying than that. 75 percent of the time the pitch has behaved as we have thought. When it doesn't play the way we expected then we try and find the faults and how we can improve. There should not be frustration. Because you only learn from your mistakes. No one is perfect. No one can gain perfection until he works his a** off," Chauhan adds.
Saturday is a special day for Chauhan — a connoisseur of Test cricket. Dharamsala will host its first ever Test with India taking on Australia in the last match of the series. Chauhan will again be under the microscope with all the talk dominated by the pitch and the curator. But Chauhan has learnt to absorb pressure over the years.
"It's all about ability to handle the pressure. My thinking is simple, I have to work in my field and not peek in anyone's work. Whatever the heart says, I do that and don’t listen to outside interferences. The important thing is that there should be an equal contest between bat and ball till the last moment. It shouldn't be one-sided. It shouldn’t be that the batsmen score 500 and bowlers are totally knocked out or it has started turning from the very first ball. A keen contest between the two is important.”
It's a thankless, tireless and highly scrutinised job but Chauhan never loses sleep over it. "I enjoy it. I sleep tension-free and get good sleep," Chauhan says.
Chauhan feels like it’s his debut too and plans to prepare a genuine Test track but says that the pitch will 100 percent assist the fast bowlers.
"I am planning to prepare a pitch where the first session belongs to the fast bowlers, the second session becomes a bit batsman-friendly and the third day gets better for batting. Third day after tea, the spinners should come into the picture," he says.
It's his passion and hardwork that has earned him respect from cricketing circles. "Anuragji doesn't just enter the ground, he messages me first, ‘Chauhanji mai aarahahu, aaooyanaaaaoo.’ (Mr. Chauhan, I am coming, should I or shouldn’t I?).”
So how long dioes he plan on staying in the job? "Jab tak life hai tab tak (I will continue as long as I am alive). It's all about passion. If you are physically fit and can carry out the work on the ground then you can continue for as long as you want," Chauhan says.
And what about the two brothers who were against his cricket? "They tell me 'you have made a name somewhere or other. More than us. Who asks us?' Well, both are happy and I am in constant touch with them," Chauhan signs off with a smile.