At one point after the 15th over on the first day of the third Test, the groundsmen on either side of the SSC square moved in. There was no rain, but they knew. In the media box with its views of the city, the construction cranes, scattered multi-storey towers, the white cupola of the town hall, and the slowly rising Lotus Tower were being obliterated by a curtain of grey.
The grounds keeping team was on standby five minutes before they made their first move. By the time the rain came, in slanting silver, the men had the pitch and the square covered. With the rain beating down fiercely, they next covered the bowlers’ run-ups. In under nine minutes 80% of the field was under the large covers. The groundsmen, divided into four crews, dragging out waterproof sheets 100 feet square, were perfectly synchronised in their movements, much like an F1 pit crew. The cricket crew works over a much larger tract of land but their operation also requires speed of a relatively different scale and a sequential order of its own.
This high-speed ground-covering is a specialty of Sri Lankan cricket – brought about as a solution to having to play most of their home international cricket in what is traditionally the country’s off season, when it rains – not in buckets but intermittently, like it threatened to during the Galle Test and at the P Sara, and like it eventually did after an hour on day one at the SSC. Sri Lanka play their home Tests in two batches – one lot in March and then between June and September.
Anurudda Polonowita, a former national curator and head priest of Sri Lankan cricket groundsmanship, says a skewed season led to finding an innovative answer to keep the game moving. Sri Lanka shares its home season (December to March), according to Polonowita, with India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh. “No one is going to leave their home country because of TV [rights] and money. That’s why they are coming to our country in their off season, in our rainy season. We have to play during that time, otherwise we won’t get a fixture. We have to adjust ourselves to play these matches or you won’t get the full play. So we started covering the whole pitch. We are the only country that do it.”
For the last ten years or so, this logistical exercise has taken place before every big match in Sri Lanka. A few days before a game, close to 100 men are signed on as casual labour to add to the official ground-staff strength of around 15. They are then divided into four groups, each with a leader, usually an experienced groundsman. The groups undergo a simulated, timed exercise of pulling on the covers. The following morning the covers are pulled off to the count of a stopwatch. Every ground has around 10 to 15 giant rubberised canvas sheets, imported from India, each costing about LKR 800,000 (nearly US$6000). Since the 2011 World Cup, each ground in the country has its own set.
Jayananda Warnaweera, the Southern Province cricket association secretary, general boss, curator and caretaker of the Galle International Stadium, says Sri Lankan groundskeeping drills are “unlike any other in the world”. Galle’s groundskeepers need the extra assistance of used truck tyres to hold down the covers when strong winds come in from the sea next door.
When asked what the tyres weigh, Chamara and Sampath look at each other. They are part of the casual labour for the first Test, earning LKR 1000 ($7.44) a day. One is a tuk-tuk driver and the other a mobile phone repairman. With a straight face comes the reply, “Thirty kilos.” Whatever the weight, these are substantial tyres, well over car size. Maybe 15-20kg minimum each then?
Before the 2011 World Cup new grounds were built in Pallekele and Hambantota, with improved drainage and sprinkler systems. The country’s flagship ground, the R Premadasa Stadium in Khettarama, Colombo, was raised by 3.5ft. At the ICC World T20 in 2012, ten minutes was set as the benchmark for bringing in the covers.
This is a transformation from the early ’90s, Polonowita remembers, when grounds in Sri Lanka had no rollers, and in some places the groundsmen would use lawnmowers on pitches. A former player, Polonowita is regarded as professor emeritus of Sri Lankan groundskeeping. He has a curatorship degree from the MCG and was involved in the construction of the Khettarama Stadium. In 2000, he signed on with Sri Lanka Cricket as national curator in charge of the country’s grounds, and before his retirement he trained seven graduates fresh from agricultural university to work in curatorship roles at the major grounds.
“Our curators,” Polonowita says of his younger successors, “do a great job because we take over the grounds only two months before a big match.” The cricket grounds in Sri Lanka are used all year round for all kinds of matches – by schools, clubs, companies. P Sara, for example, he says, hosts ten to 12 matches every year, including on its prized centre pitches.
Getting a ground ready in time for a big match is “about practical experience,” he says. That practical experience, along with a sense of innovation, has turned Sri Lanka’s off season into its international season.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo