Field of Dreams

The story of an improbable cricket stadium off NH 48 near Bangalore
Innovation
THE GROUND FORCE Syed Hussain (centre) and Ganesh S are part of a four-member unit that looks after the cricket ground (Photo: VIVEK MUTHURAMALINGAM)

MAHADEVPURA, KARNATAKA ~ On a slightly overcast morning recently, nestled between greenhouses growing gerbera flowers and surrounded by banana and papaya plantations, four men dressed in whites stood on a ground that was once a field. A coin toss, ‘heads’ call and a firm handshake later, a cricket match was underway. As the National under-19s (‘B’ team) took their positions on the field and batsmen of the Karnataka under-19 team took stance,  43-year-old farmer Venkatesh Chinnappa and  42-year-old construction worker Syed Hussain watched anxiously from the sidelines.

Two years after the two men started transforming 10 acres of fertile farm land on the outskirts of Bangalore into a cricket field, they watched the match with a sense of pride and relief.

“Just the look in everyone’s eyes when they walk onto this field makes it all worthwhile,” says Hussain, who is now a self-taught groundsman at the privately owned Aditya Global Sports ground in Mahadevpura village, some 35 km from Bangalore on the Mangalore highway.

Two years ago, Chinnappa was growing bananas on this land, part of the 30 acres that his family has owned for generations. A long-distance runner and cricket enthusiast in his college days, the Bangalore-based Chinnappa always rued the unavailability of space to play. After years of farming and trying his hand at floriculture, he decided to create a sports village on part of his land.

“The idea was to build a small ground for friends and local youth to play,” says Chinnappa, as he oversees the demarcation of the 15-yard circle before the match. “And so I went online and started reading up about how to make a pitch, create the perfect outfield and turf maintenance.”

It was around the same time that the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) was building three grounds near Mahadevpura and got in touch with Chinnappa to source material for the ground. “As I helped them, I also started work on my own ground,” says the commerce graduate. “What was meant for friends grew into a full-fledged cricket ground that has already hosted Ranji Trophy matches in the six months since it was ready for play.”

Chinnappa says that being a farmer, the one thing he knew was how to check soil fertility and grow grass. Once he had got the soil tested and selected a plot with good drainage, he started what he describes as his most ambitious project. Aware of how expensive it would be, Chinnappa used all his farming instincts to cut costs. And so he began with a small nursery, planted sods, grew the grass, and square foot by square foot built the outfield that most coaches and players describe as “beautifully even”.

“The outfield is one of the best I have seen in a while,” said a coach for the National under-19 team, as he briskly walked around the ground watching the boys play a form of rugby with a tennis ball. “Cricketers need this kind of outfield where they feel confident and don’t hesitate to dive and throw themselves at balls.”

Operating on a tight budget that resulted in the use of coconut trees doubling up as poles to hold up the pavilions and a water tank being tiled to create a swimming pool, the ground was completed in under Rs 50 lakh.

Today, off National Highway 48, a bumpy mud track where cattle have a right of way leads to large iron gates that open into the Aditya Global Sports campus. The slightly elevated ground, named after Chinnappa’s five-year-old son, is surrounded by trees. A cool breeze blowing across the outfield is a permanent feature.   

“The breeze and scenery surrounding this ground makes it special,” says Karthick CA, an all-rounder with the Karnataka team. “We never get this feel inside stadiums.”

For Ravikant Singh, a fast bowler from Kolkata whose favourite ground will always be Eden Gardens, playing cricket surrounded by trees is a first.

“This ground has a feel of grounds abroad,” says a physiotherapist accompanying the under-19 teams. “It is good if our players get used to playing in the open, where you have an overcast sky at the beginning of a match and clear skies later.”

The weather and scenery aside, it is the five pitches that have impressed players and coaches alike. These “true pitches”, which Chinnappa says will always ensure result-oriented matches on his ground, have been made using clay sourced from Tumkur near Bangalore.

“This is one of the fastest wickets in the state,” says Sriram Kasturi Rangan, a member of the KSCA and the curator who helped Chinnappa make his pitches, adding that they were looking to make a “lively wicket since there are not too many bouncy wickets in India”. Son of G Kasturi Rangan, former chief curator and chairman of the BCCI’s Pitches and Grounds Committee, Sriram adds that his father felt it was one of the best soils he had seen in a while, and even that “it will get better over the years”.

“The centre wicket is outstanding,” says a National Cricket Academy fielding coach. “And we appreciate it even more because it is being maintained singlehandedly by one man.”

The ground is actually maintained by four people. Besides Chinnappa, who oversees everything, and Hussain, the ground staff includes Ganesh S, a 20-year-old cricket enthusiast from Karwar, and Mahalakshmi, one of the farm hands who now confidently places markers to indicate the inner circle.

 “We have all learnt on the job,” says Ganesh, a fast bowler himself. “We have made mistakes and learnt from them.” 

This ‘idyllic’ ground, which saw its inaugural match in January, has slowly won admirers in both the state cricket association and the BCCI. It has also thrilled local teams, who now hire out the premises for ‘friendly matches’.

“It is the best thing that could have happened here, even if we assume that he is doing it only to secure his son’s future,” says local lad Prasana Kumar.

While Kumar spends most of the week manning the toll booth managed by Lanco near Mahadevpura, he uses his off-duty hours playing for Star Cricketers, a local team. “And now we have a ground that top Indian players play on to improve our game.” And for those few hours, employees manning the toll booth wave Chinnappa’s car through without waiting for him to pay.

“Where else would locals  get a chance to interact with Srinath or watch [under-19 captain and Delhi Daredevils] player Unmukt Chand or Karnataka’s Mayank Agarwal play?” asks Chinnappa, who advises cricket enthusiasts from nearby villages to “steal tips” from coaches and players who have now started frequenting the ground. 

Sitting on the slopes surrounding the ground, Saddam Hussain does just that. Before he heads out for his night shift at the nearby Cadbury factory, Hussain hangs around the ground, watching boys his age joke about the IPL and shake a leg to the latest Bollywood hits being belted out from a laptop that later records the match and analyses player performance. He also watches them transform into a cohesive team as the match starts. A batsman himself, Hussain watches keenly, hoping to impress onlookers in the next match he plays with friends over the weekend.

Meanwhile, Chinnappa is busy planning ways to improve the infrastructure at the ground. “Besides the one dozen practice pitches under construction, I need to get a kitchen up and running, rooms for the players to rest, more toilets. A few tennis courts maybe,” he mumbles. “A lot more needs to be done, what you see is just the beginning,” he says, tossing a ball back into play.