Mohammad Ashraf - legacy and professionalism
After a four-day finish in Karachi, Pakistan and South Africa Test squads resume their battle in Rawalpindi, the twin city of capital Islamabad.
The playing square of Rawalpindi (referred as Pindi) Cricket Stadium, consisting of 13 pitches is in the hands of Head Curator Mohammad Ashraf.
The 55-year old is an understudy of his father Haji Mohammad Bashir, a long serving curator at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore, who passed away recently. Ashraf, having been in charge of the venue ever since it hosted an ODI against Sri Lanka in 1992, is an engaging character, fully dedicated to his job and clearly rejuvenated with the return of Test cricket on Pakistan grounds in 2020, after eleven year drought.
Within a year, Ashraf and his team has been asked to prepare three Test pitches, against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and now South Africa. Sadly the worldwide pandemic caused by coronavirus will keep away the crowd in the 18,000 capacity venue. The high-level of security promised by Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) to the visitors, understandably puts the ground staff, more so for the one staying overnight at the venue, under more scrutiny than before.
With a cooler climate compared to central and southern Punjab, the pitches over the years in Rawalpindi with less cracks in its compact soil and fast outfield has witnessed some great cricket contests between bat and ball. The venue has previously hosted 10 Tests, 24 ODIs, 3 T20Is and 8 PSL matches, all under the watchful eye of Ashraf, whose outstanding career was acknowledged by the PCB, last year.
Ashraf recalls, ‘My official letter for an appointment as a head groundsman at Pindi Cricket Stadium was dated March 10, 1992, few weeks prior to Pakistan winning the World Cup in Australia. Tounge in cheek, I jokingly said to Professor Ishtiaq Hussain Shah, President of Rawalpindi District Cricket Association (RDCA) that we shall not have any extra pressure from the top, for the next 3-4 years. We can all relax now. Almost three decades later I am still in Rawalpindi and by the grace of Allah, very grateful for the appreciation of my work by Pakistan and all visiting teams. ’
Of the challenges, Ashraf picks 1996 World Cup fixture between South Africa and UAE, ‘A few days prior to the group match, we had 12-18 inches of rain water and all the experts and journalists of international media had little hope of any play. I was called, ‘crazy curator’ after my reassurance that I shall get the game going on the reserve day set aside for such eventuality. My determination was met with equally positive response from Deputy Commissioner Javed Iqbal Awan. We summoned 60-70 municipal corporation staff for additional help and in no time furnished them with 200 bed foams and 40 water buckets. I returned to the ground around 5.30am the following day to see most of the water disappear. We also hired a helicopter for a ninety minute session which cost us Rs.85,000 to speed up the drying of the outfield. We really were pushed to the limit in the days of manual working practice without the modern day ‘super sopper’ but we did it and we did have a complete 50-over match.’
As someone who wanted to expand his horizon, he had U.K. in mind, Ashraf explains, ‘Dennis Silk, Chairman of TCCB, who was in pindi during the 1996 World Cup, appreciated the ground staff for their frenetic efforts to host a 50-over game between England and South Africa. I also accompanied his son William, on my first ever visit to Gilgit and Hunza. Dennis was kind enough to get me through the visa hurdles and my wish to see the cricket grounds of UK was fulfilled in 1996. I was invited to watch all five days of a Test match at Lord’s that Pakistan was playing and I also got to meet the head groundsman Mick Hunt and his team, who was happy to share their knowledge and experience. I used to pick one ground to study on each of my summer visits which lasted till 2005 and was most impressed with the English working style, their equipment and management of the ground.’
Ashraf further added, ‘On my following visits I also picked The Oval and then country grounds such as Bristol and then Northampton, primarily for the reason that my friend from Rawalpindi, Mohammad Akram, had been offered a contract with the county in 1997. At all the grounds – Test or otherwise - every procedure was followed and you could not find any fault in the system. There was a year when I was invited for one-month training, conducted by ICC-approved Andy Atkinson, one of the leading curators in world cricket. In stark comparison to England, in Pakistan, we still to this day have not quite got it right. On my return to Pakistan, I would feel distraught for our working conditions, were embarrassingly of such low standards.’
‘For instance, the ground staff at Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium, having to attend the needs of the square and the outfield for domestic and club matches all the year around, often in harsh weather, have still not been provided with the environment, they could feel they are both valued and rewarded appropriately. A job security to go with a tea room and a washroom, exclusively for the ground staff, would go a long way in the quality of work, we perform as a team.’
Looking back at his working career, he said, ‘My father – Haji Sahib - was a permanent Board employee at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore and I joined him as an assistant at the age of 13. One day in his absence, accompanied by Taj Masih, I ventured by taking out a mini tractor for grass cutting and grew in confidence. In 1986 despite Rs.600/month salary, my father insisted me to serve my apprenticeship in Gujranwala and that was the beginning of my career as a groundsman. I didn’t settle in there and upon my request to Yawar Saeed, was send to work in Peshawar for an England-Sri Lanka match in the 1987 Reliance World Cup. At 22, it took a little while for me to convince Maazullah Khan, Director Sports Board, Peshawar, that my appointment was merit-based. I have managed to store all the knowledge and advice passed on to me by Haji Sahib in my mind and that will continue to guide me.’
‘In 1988 I went to Saudi Arabia but returned to Lahore after 6-8 months. At the end of 1991, Shahid Rafi, the Board secretary, head hunted for me to come and take charge of the newly-built Pindi Cricket Stadium. My friends tried their best to persuade me to stay in UK but my heart was in Pakistan and after few months’ unpaid leave, I would return home. Besides that I also declined an offer to join Khan Research Laboratries (KRL), although I am happy to advise on the preparation of their pitches, particularly when they have hosted 3-day matches against the touring teams. In 2003 I was called by Saleem Altaf, General Manager Emirates Cricket Board, to assist in the pitches of a newly-built Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi but decided not to take up a full-time position offered to me. Lately, whenever asked by the Board, I have also worked in Abbotabad and Mirpur but it seems Rawalpindi shall remain my home.’
In the end, ‘Finally I would also add that ground staff remains on a knife’s edge, whenever Pakistan is playing because a defeat is not taken very well by the players, spectators or the ground officials. I remember back in 1994, had it not been for skipper Salim Malik’s double hundred, Pakistan after following-on, would have certainly lost the Test match against Australia. It was a great relief for the whole ground staff, when pitch played true to the very last day, enabling Pakistan to earn a draw. We were not so fortunate when, three Test defeats in a row, against Australia, Sri Lanka and India, in the 1998-2004 period, brought lot of criticism though I am convinced we were simply being used as a scapegoat for Pakistan team’s downward graph.’