At 70, Mhamunkar is a top-notch pitch curator
Les Burdett was considered one of the world's finest curators of the cricket pitch. He looked after the Adelaide Oval for 41 years. He took the final bow as the Adelaide Oval curator ten years ago. Burdett was known to international cricket teams and officials the world over as 'The Pitch Doctor' or 'The Pitch Whisperer'.
The quality of the pitch plays an important part in the outcome of a Test match and also in other forms of the game. Burdett was called upon to prepare the pitch for the 1987 World Cup matches at the Eden Gardens, Kolkata. The South Australian Cricket Association made him an Honorary Life Member (HLM) of the association, just like the Australian province had conferred the HLM to Donald Bradman and Ian Chappell.
India has its famous curators like Rasik Makwana, who tended to the pitch and ground at Rajkot's Race Course Ground and Khanderi Stadium together for nearly four decades; Prabhir Mukerjee, who was the Eden Gardens curator for two decades; Sitaram, who prepared batting beauties at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi; and Arjun, who spent many decades at the Wankhede Stadium.
In the last decade or two, the cricket ecosystem in India has provided opportunities for club cricketers to show interest in other aspects of the game. Mumbai's Ramesh Mhamunkar could not make the big headway as a cricketer, but he did so as a curator for two decades at two Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) facilities -- the Wankhede Stadium and Bandra Kurla Complex ground.
Mhamunkar's pithy comment “If not cricket, why not wicket" encapsulates his passion for the noble game of cricket. He is a unique all-rounder so to say. He was a serious practitioner of the googly, which in England was invented by Bernard James Tindal Bosanquet.
He played for Emerck as an employee and as a professional for Colgate, Dr. Bhandari XI, H.R. Johnson and Morarji Mills in the Inter-Offices Times Shield tournament in Mumbai, for New Hind in the MCA inter -club competitions, donned the white coat for six years and coached Raja Shivaji for twenty years from 1989 to 2009. While he made his presence felt in whatever he did, it was as a curator — preparing the pitch -- at the Wankhede Stadium and tge BKC that he was able to achieve his singular goal of furthering his career in the game.
Mhamunkar called the big bluff on the batsmen on many Mumbai maidans for 30 years, mainly in the 1970s and 1980s. He was called for the Ranji Trophy trials in 1981, but Lady Luck did not smile on him, and so he was not destined to carry his leg-spinning trade forward it to the next level.
At the behest of Naren Tamhane, the Vice-President of MCA, he reported for the Ranji Trophy trials at the Wankhede Stadium. “No one tossed the ball to me for two days. I did not get to bowl a single ball. Mumbai was a solid team, full of stalwarts. There was no one to guide me. I fielded for two days, and did not go again,” Mhamunkar recalled the eventful and yet not-so-exciting experience in flannels at the ‘D’ Road venue.
Ramesh was in the news recently when the BCCI CEO Hemang Amin and Chairman of the Elite Panel of Curators, Ashish Bhowmick, asked him to prepare the pitch at the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Ekana Cricket Stadium in
Lucknow for the India-South Africa women’s white-ball series featuring five one-day internationals and three Twenty20 internationals.
As a qualified and experienced person — he has passed the BCCI-certified course with distinction — he did not make it to the Elite Panel of Curators. That is because he is 70 years old. The BCCI chose Cricket Club of India’s Prakash Adhav as the West Zone Representative in the Elite Panel.
But the BCCI recognised his talent and expertise by nominating him for the women’s internationals. It was a feather in his cap. A very pleased Mhamunkar said: “I may be 70, but I am fit. I was in Lucknow for almost a month. I was told that not a single match was played at the stadium for one year because of the pandemic. I started from the scratch to prepare four black soil and five red soil pitches. Both the teams were happy.”
Mhamunkar's tryst with pitch preparation began as an apprentice under Polly Umrigar at the BKC. "When the BKC was ready, Prof. Ratnakar Shetty persuaded me to spend two hours every day with Polly Kaka and after two years or so, I became very interested to prepare pitches. After Polly Kaka, I and M.S. Rao worked at the BKC. I was at BKC for almost ten years, before the MCA transferred me to the Wankhede Stadium in 2010. It’s been eleven years now that I have tended to the Wankhede pitch.”
The BCCI is gearing up for the IPL Season-14, and Mhamunkar will coordinate with the Elite Panel curator from Bangalore, K. Prashanth to prepare the pitch and tend the ground at the Wankhede Stadium. With nine ground staff members of the Wankhede returning positive for Covid-19, seven days before the start of IPL season 14, he has his task cut out to manage with a depleted staff.
Whom does Ramesh consider his guru? “It’s always been Sudhir Naik sir. He is my guru. He will always be. I have worked with him for five years at the Wankhede Stadium including during the 2011 World Cup,” revealed Mhamunkar, quite happy to continue doing the most essential aspect of the game.
The pitch prepared by Mhamunkar for the ICC World Twenty20 in 2016 got an A+ grade from Match Referee David Boon. He has also received good marks for IPL matches.
G. Viswanath is an independent sports journalist based in Mumbai. He has been associated with The Hindu Group for over 36 years and has covered domestic, national and international cricket.