A family innings
Meet the groundswoman who looks after Sri Lanka’s oldest Test and big match venue
By N. Dilshath Banu
It was the second day of the second Test between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka at the P. Saravanamuththu Stadium in Colombo. In the fading evening light while the small crowd of spectators cheered as the Bangaladeshi wickets tumbled, a small-made woman clad in faded red sari walked around the boundary, scrutinizing every ball being bowled.

“Today the pitch is in good condition and it’s good for the game. The match will go on till 6.30 p.m. After that I have to clean the ground,” said Saroja Vellayan, 53, one of the four women working as ground staff at the Stadium. “When there is a match, we don’t add water to the pitch. On other days, we examine the ground and add water. It takes nearly three hours to water the entire ground and the wicket needs more water. It takes time, but it’s not that difficult a job.”

The P. Sara Stadium is the only cricket ground in the country that has a history of recruiting women for a job usually considered a male preserve. The first woman to be hired for this job was Mariamma, who had the distinction of being appointed head groundperson in 1947. It was she who was taking care of the ground which was then known as the Oval when cricketing great Sir Donald Bradman played here in 1948.

In Saroja’s case, her entire family has been in this field, with her parents too having worked as ground staff. Saroja’s roots are Indian, but unlike many Indian Tamils, who came here to work on estates, Saroja’s father, Vellayan started his life in Colombo. He first joined the Municipal Council ground as a groundsman, and later moved to the Oval. Saroja’s mother, Palani Amma, began working in the same ground and met her future husband there.

The Vellayan couple had three children, Amarawathi, the eldest, now 55 years, Saroja, the second, and a younger son, known as ‘Junior’ Vellayan, who’s 46.
“We were all brought up in this ground. While our parents were engaged in work, we ate, studied and even played our own cricket matches in the backyard of this ground. We watched many players play match-winning innings and reach the top and suddenly fade away. We watched many young cricketers begin their careers here. They go away but sometimes return as school cricket coaches. Some who are settled down overseas drop in here for a jog when they come back on holiday,” said Saroja, flipping through the pages of her memory.

She recalls how she and her sister started to work as ground staff, while her brother helped them on and off. Their parents who witnessed the joys of victory and the pangs of defeat of many matches are no more. Her sister, Amarawathi, she recalls with pride, was chosen as a head groundsperson of the P. Sara Stadium and served in that post for 15 years.

Saroja meanwhile joined another ground in Havelock Town, and served there for nearly 18 years before she returned to the P. Sara Stadium. Not surprisingly, both Amarawathi and Saroja married groundsmen, who are now serving in different grounds in Colombo and suburbs. Amarawathi retired recently after serving four decades as a groundsperson at the P. Sara Stadium.

“Before and after matches, many cricketers greet me and say a few words, but as I don’t understand English, I just nod and smile. Murali is my greatest hero. I have spoken to him several times,” said Saroja, with a bashful smile.
Saroja and her family lives in Borella not far from the P. Sara Stadium. Her neighbours are her sister Amarawathi and brother Junior Vellayan.

“It’s like we are living under one roof in Borella. When we go home after work, all of us get together and talk about what happened in our grounds. My husband too is a very interested in the Sri Lankan team and I have to give him the news and scores very often,” said Saroja, adding, “I too support the Sri Lankan team, but if India is playing then I would go for the Indian team, as my roots are from India. But no matter what, I cheer when Sri Lanka wins.”

Proud of her generation and her parents’ contribution towards this historic ground where Sri Lanka played her first Test match, Saroja is sad that the next generation, her son and daughter and Amarawathi’s daughter are not interested in taking up this family job that’s been passed down through the generations. They are now working in different fields.

“My children tell me that this job won’t suit them. I am not very happy with their decision, but it’s their life,” she says, disappointment in her voice.
“But if there is a match on, my children and my sister come to the stadium to help me out. Once the match is over, we all sit by the pavilion and sometimes, I tell them stories of my childhood in this ground.”

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