Team management rewarding ground staff with cash an age-old practice in Indian cricket

Shiv Lal, the curator at the Green Park Stadium, rewinds to 2008, when MS Dhoni captained India in a Test for the first time and after winning the match against South Africa, sent a note of thanks and Rs 10,000 to the Green Park Stadium ground staff.

Further back in 1996, Chhotelal, the Green Park head groundsman then, laid out a turner for the India-South Africa series decider. Sachin Tendulkar-led India won and then head coach Madan Lal rewarded the groundsman with Rs 25,000.

Chhotelal had learnt from his mistake in 1983, when he produced a green-top allowing Malcolm Marshall to lick his lips. A snorter saw Sunil Gavaskar’s bat fall from his hands, as India suffered an innings defeat. Brickbats followed.

The press box announcement in Kanpur on the final day of the India versus New Zealand first Test offered a novelty. Never before had an age-old practice made public that way, that the current India head coach Rahul Dravid would reward the ground staff Rs 35,000 for preparing a sporting pitch. The Indian team showed its generous side in Mumbai also, giving a reward of Rs 35,000 to the Wankhede Stadium ground staff after the second Test.

They continued a tradition very Oriental. From Kapil Dev to Dhoni, via Mohammad Azharuddin, Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Dravid and Ajinkya Rahane; everybody has loosened purse strings to reward the maalis.

Being part of the circuit for long, players and coaching staff acknowledge the tireless work of the ground staff. They understand how an extra round of rolling or a little extra use of the mower can make a difference between winning or losing a Test. A cash reward is their token of appreciation.

Curators are well paid by their respective state associations. Maalis, who put in a real shift, aren’t. The cash reward is meant for them, men who do the physical labour. And the generosity is not limited to the Indian team or Indian cricket. This is a very subcontinental practice.

Back in November 1998, Mahesh performed a miracle in Dhaka. He was Eden Gardens’ head groundsman for 25 years and when Bangladesh hosted the inaugural ICC Champions Trophy (ICC Knockout Trophy then), then ICC president Jagmohan Dalmiya’s brief to him was to go and take care of the pitches. On the day of the final, Mahesh was fighting against the odds.

“The final-eve witnessed a downpour and when I reached Bangabandhu Stadium early in the morning on the day of the final, the ground resembled a large swimming pool. The Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) officials had given up. I asked for some extra buckets and additional manpower to do what looked like an impossible job. The stadium’s drainage wasn’t perfect. Things had to be done manually,” Mahesh, now 70-plus, recalls for The Indian Express.

He won the race against time and his work was impressive enough even for former India captain S Venkataraghavan – one of the umpires in the tournament – to shed his stoicism and appreciate it. “I told him, we are Indians and we believe that nothing is impossible,” Mahesh still remembers.

After the final, as he headed towards the airport, he was intercepted by the then BCB secretary. A few extra days in Dhaka and sightseeing had been arranged for Mahesh. But the latter was homesick. “The secretary gave me a hug and tucked a 100-dollar bill in my pocket.”

Curator Shiv Lal (third from left in blue cap) was overwhelmed by Dravid’s gesture.

Captains recognise effort

Mahesh and his colleagues have benefitted from Indian captains’ munificence after every international fixture at Eden – Azharuddin, Tendulkar and his very dear Maharaj (Sourav Ganguly). “Teams gave us bakshish after domestic matches as well,” he says. “See, we supervise pitch and ground preparations. But ground staff does the main job. Players know that and hence reward them. This has been happening for long. Sometimes, even foreign teams have done it,” Cuttack’s Barabati Stadium curator Pankaj Babu tells this paper.

Talking about foreigners, former Australia captain Steve Waugh has always been a cut above the rest. “I remember how Steve Waugh gave me the memento that he had received after winning 16 Tests on the bounce,” Mumbai Cricket Association curator Nadeem Memon recalls. He speaks about Kapil and Azhar, who always had time for the ground staff. “They used to often reward the staff, including the catering staff.”

Vijay Tambe, the former Wankhede Stadium groundsman who tended to the venue for 36 years, expresses his gratitude towards the likes of Dravid, Tendulkar and Rahane. “Rahul Dravid and Ajinkya Rahane are the two players who always used to ask about our whereabouts. Rahane even invited us to his wedding. Earlier also, Dravid used to give some money to the staff. When Tendulkar retired, he gave us Rs 50,000 and thanked us for all the work we did. It was a nice gesture. I also remember, whenever Kapil Dev played here, he gave us something. That helped many of us. Salary wasn’t that high. As groundsmen, we never expected anything from anyone.”

Coming back to Green Park, curator Shiv Lal was overwhelmed by Dravid’s gesture. “Green Park was hosting a Test match after a gap of five years. Hosting a Test match is huge, and maintaining this pitch for five years has been a massive challenge as well. We had worked tirelessly during Covid-19 also,” he says.

For the first time in Kanpur’s history, a Test match went to the last ball on the fifth day. Head groundsman Shiv Kumar’s reward was well earned. “The BCCI has always promoted curators, but this small step from Rahul Dravid will boost the groundsmen. They are the ones who produced a brilliant pitch, as we witnessed a thrilling draw,” says Lal.

Rahul Dravid, India vs New Zealand Indian cricket coach Rahul Dravid looks at the Wankhede pitch in Mumbai. (AP)

Money matters

Former BCCI chief curator Daljit Singh stresses upon the fact that the token of appreciation works as motivation to the ground staff to do even better. “This is a big thing for the groundsmen. They have always been overworked and underpaid. They come to the ground every day at 5 am and leave the venue around 8 pm. Their reward is minimal, although nowadays their salary has increased. I have seen them working for Rs 600 per month, but now the head groundsman at the PCA Stadium gets Rs 18,000, which is reasonable,” Daljit says, adding: “Giving money to the groundsmen has always been a practice in Indian cricket. I have seen it during my playing days also. This is meant for the groundsmen, not curators.”

Rewarding the ground staff is not restricted only to international cricket. As Maharaja Yadavindra Singh Cricket Stadium (Mullanpur, Mohali) head groundsman Vijay mentions: “This has been the norm after every four-day game in domestic cricket. Match officials will give around Rs 2,000-5,000 after the game. Sometimes winning teams will also reward the ground staff. During my early years at the IS Bindra Stadium in Mohali, one of the losing teams gave us money as well.”

In Bihar also, as curator Raju Vals says, groundsmen are handed cash rewards by match referees and umpires. “They get around Rs 5,000-10,000 after successfully conducting a match. It’s a regular practice in domestic tournaments.”

Salaries for the ground staff vary at different state associations. The Delhi & District Cricket Association and the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association are known to be good paymasters. Groundsmen are very well looked after by the Haryana Cricket Association as well. “We are paid Rs 18,000-20,000 a month and also have our medical insurance that covers our families,” Lahli head groundsman Pati Ram informs.

Eden curator Sujan Mukherjee calls for streamlining the process under the cricket board. “The BCCI giving a lump sum to the ground staff would be a nice gesture, from the revenue it earns from international cricket and the IPL.”

(With inputs Devendra Pandey & Ashish Satyam)

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