England capitalise on short sightscreen

A short sightscreen at the Pavilion End here at Edgbaston nearly helped England enough to win the extraordinarily exciting third Test match. As has happened before at this ground, a number of full-length deliveries from that end arrived at the batsman entirely unsighted.

The problem, which is not a completely new one at the Birmingham ground, arises specifically for yorkers and full tosses as the ball that is delivered from above the angle covered by the sightscreen stays above the white background and in the line of the members’ dark jackets for longer as a result of their flatter trajectory.

On day one of this match the six-feet-and-five-inches Morne Morkel sent down a ball from his delivery height of nine feet which the left-handed Alastair Cook knew nothing about. When I say he knew nothing about it, I mean he didn’t even react to it. Fortunately for Cook, the ball was outside the off stump.

Jacques Kallis was not as fortunate in either of his two innings when he was dismissed by the fiery six-feet-and-four-inches Andrew Flintoff. Kallis’s second dismissal (which really was his third as a plumb LBW to a full-length Flintoff delivery was turned down on day two) was the most unusual of Flintoff’s sightscreen related scalps – a full toss which Kallis ducked as he thought it was a short ball. The ball hit him on the top of the pad, trapped LBW and swung the match in England’s favour. Kallis was furious.

Earlier when Neil Mckenzie was out LBW to a full Flintoff ball from the Pavilion End, South African coach Mickey Arthur went running to the match referee to complain. But nothing could be done as the sightscreen flaw had been the same for both sides.

It does seem strange that all of this helped Flintoff on many occasions while only one Morkel ball appeared to go unsighted. Flintoff is marginally shorter than Morkel but I think the difference can be explained by the fact that his unusual wrist-on action makes it difficult to pick the length of his deliveries. Indeed most readers will remember his success with the yorker against Australia during the incredible Ashes series for England in 2005.

Is it bad sportsmanship to exploit such an apparent advantage? Should Vaughan have bowled Flintoff from the other end? Is it dangerous to do so for an accidental beamer could cause injury? Test match cricket is a highly competitive beast. It is ruthless and unforgiving and it can only be expected that a team will use any advantage within the rules to the maximum, especially if they are one Test down in the series with only two results outstanding.

I do however believe that when Flintoff bowled a bodyline full toss, which fractionally missed AB de Villiers’s back and his leg stump as he narrowly evaded the hard red leather, he should have apologised to the batsman.

I can see only two ways in which the Warwickshire County Cricket Club can solve this problem. One would be to do away the club’s best members seats. The other would be to instruct the ten or so members behind the bowler’s arm to don cream Richie Benaud style jackets.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in July 2008 during the third Test between England and South Africa.

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Great weather, dull cricket

Record snowfall in London, nearly two hundred dead in heat wave fires in Australia, and England bowled out for 51 in Jamaica. We should pay Al Gore some attention; this global warming business in serious.

In Sri Lanka however the weather is perfect. But the cricket has been a little dull compared to the excitement of the current series in Australia and the West Indies. India thrashed Sri Lanka 4-1 in the one-day series with the result of all five matches being decided by the tossing of a coin half an hour before a ball was bowled.

Sri Lanka went into the series coming off a terrific 2-1 away win in Pakistan but they have given their fans very little to cheer about at home recently. Historically very hard to beat at home, Sri Lanka have now lost their last three home one-day series. The last two were to India (4-1 and 3-2) and the one before was to England (3-0).

In Sri Lanka there are five religions: Buddhism (70%), Hinduism (15%), Christianity (8%), Islam (7%) and Cricket (100%). Sri Lanka is a small island with a population 20 million people. India is an enormous country with a population of 1000 million people. So it’s a wonder the Lankans have consistently produced such competitive teams at all.

New Zealand has a population of four million people and 40 million sheep. But that is a different story.

The proudest moment in Sri Lankan cricketing history was winning the World Cup in Lahore in 2006 under Arjuna Ranatunga. Their strategy of pinch hitting in the first 15 overs revolutionised the game. The chief protagonist then, Sanath Jayasuriya, turns 40 this year and is still playing with the same aggression for the national side. Although his quick reactions are fading he had a cracking IPL season last year and knocked up a fine hundred in Dambulla in the first match of this recent India series.

Sri Lanka is probably the loveliest country I have ever visited. It is similar to India in many ways but it is obviously much smaller and less economically advanced. It is less crowded and less polluted and the food is even spicier. Service levels are extremely high and come at good value with five star hotel rates at under one quarter of their Mumbai counterparts. One can swim in the sea in the capital city and see the stars, the moon and the sun, which is just as well as every full moon is a public holiday.

The coastal train from Colombo down to Galle is most romantic as it noisily clangs its way past endless white sand beaches and coconut groves. The sides of the train are open and the cool tropical air smacks of bliss. The three hour train journey in a comfortable leather second class seat costs 103 rupees (under a dollar). The historic Dutch fort town of Galle is home to what was once about the most scenic cricket ground in the world until it was flattened by the Tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004. With the help of cricket legends like Ian Botham and Shane Warne the stadium has been rebuilt. That Tsunami devastated the coastline, killing many thousands of people, and the cricket world’s charity in all manner of projects was the least they could give back to a nation that has given so much to the game.

The region makes for the best beach holiday destination I have ever visited. Excellent seafood, crystal clear water, terrific surfing, turtle conservation projects and scuba diving on dazzling coral reefs are just some of the highlights at places like Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna. All of this for less than the cost of a night out in Ibiza. Sri Lanka is a largely unspoilt and unearthed treasure and is thankfully yet to be discovered by the lager louts and Euro-trash that have spoilt so many a tropical paradise.

The 1864-built colonial Galle Face Hotel in Colombo is such a splendid old place that it employs a man in a dinner jacket with a catapult to ensure that guests can enjoy their high tea by the pool without being disturbed by the squawking crows.

Indeed the doom and gloom of the worldwide economic recession seem a million miles away from idyllic Sri Lanka. But there is one slight snag: this is a country at seemingly perpetual war with itself. While the violence is isolated in the North, it is of an horrific nature and sees innocent civilians killed everyday. The army believes it is in the final stages of finally crushing the terrorist LTTE (Liberation of Tigers Tamil Eelam or Tamil Tigers) but civilians without access to medical facilities continue to be trapped in the warpath. It is a little known fact that the Tamil Tigers have carried out more suicide bombings than Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and al-Qaeda combined. One such bomb killed 70 people yesterday.

Considering the Tsunami in the South and the war in the North it is remarkable that the people of Sri Lanka remain so positive in their demeanor. While Colombo has been the target of Tamil Tiger attacks it seems a very peaceful city and is a pleasure to travel around so long as you don’t mind occasionally being stopped at army roadblocks by soldiers waving AK47’s around. In many ways their presence is reassuring.

Nor is Sri Lanka is without vicissitudes when it comes to its cricket administration. Arjuna Ranatunga was fired in December 2008 as chairman of the SLC interim committee. The sports minister had decided that change was necessary after Ranatunga had just fired 16 SLC staff members. It is believed he was fired because of his firm stance against the IPL, an obvious cash cow for the country’s players and an opportunity to scratch the back of the all powerful BCCI.

“People who run cricket here don’t know anything about cricket. Do you think they love the game? No they don’t,” said Ranatunga a couple of days ago in the capital.

The former captain blames the administrators for the ODI series loss to India, pointing out that the pitches prepared were better suited to the tourists in that they didn’t offer enough assistance to spinners Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis, who the Indians found unplayable last winter at the Asia Cup in Pakistan. His point is valid in that spin-friendly pitches would have negated the obvious advantage of winning the toss and batting first in evening matches where the ball swings under lights.

It was dull that four of the five ODIs were played in the Premadasa stadium. Add that to the poor performance of the local side and it was no surprise that the last few ODIs attracted very poor crowds, running as low as 30 percent of the 25 000 capacity ground.

However the Colombo faithful proved the mind boggling popularity of Twenty20 cricket in the subcontinent as an estimated 40 000 crammed into the same ground for the one-off match. They came to see runs aplenty and old man Jayasuria gave them 33 of the things from only 17 balls to get the ball rolling. But the 171/4 they posted proved a few runs short as India chased up the target with three wickets and four balls to spare.

Lasith “Slinga” Malinga returned to cricket a year after he took a bump on the knee that led to excruciating pain. An operation in Australia helped the pain but didn’t fully heal the injury and it was then that the president of Sri Lanka introduced Malinga to a special quack that miraculously cured him.

“The president introduced me to Dr Eliyantha White. He works with supernatural powers and herbs,” Malinga told Sriram Veera of Cricinfo.

“I don’t know what he does and how he does it but it works. I am very grateful to him and the president.”

Veera reports that Dr White has since successfully treated Sanath Jayasuriya for a long-standing back problem. I’ll certainly be coming back to Sri Lanka to see Dr White whenever I next develop any physical ailment.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in February 2009.

IPL would be a coup for SA

Beware Potchefstroom, Kimberley and Paarl. Rumours have been doing the rounds that the big-time Bollywood Banjoree that is the IPL could be coming to town. Unlikely venues the Afrikaans South African backwaters would be to host the glitz and glamour of one of world sport’s richest tournaments, but maybe it would be a good idea.

Yesterday Cricket South Africa chief Gerald Majola said: “There have been no talks. It is definitely a rumour.” And when a mate of mine from SkySports got through to IPL boss Lalit Modi, he gave one of those answers that doesn’t actually answer anything at all. Today Majola put out the following statement: “There has been no official approach by either the BCCI or the IPL and we don’t know where these rumours are emanating from.”

But South African Cricketers’ Association chief Tony Irish told Cape Town’s Weekend Argus newspaper, “I understand that discussions have been taking place and these appear favourable”

“Reading between the lines, I think it will happen.”

Wanderers, Centurion and Potchefstroom would be the likely venues if South Africa takes over the tournament, the newspaper said.

In the marvellous press box at Newlands as we watch South Africa annihilate debutant Bryce McGain against the backdrop of the enticing SAB brewery and the magnificent Table Mountain, the media are talking about little else. Except for Stuart Hess from Independent Newspapers – he is singing “Everybody have fun tonight!”

The Indian government has so far rejected all scheduling proposals by the IPL. Time is running out for the tournament that is due to start in three weeks and continues to be threatened by security fears. The Indian government’s chief concern is that the tournament is due to coincide with general elections, already a major security headache in a country of a billion people and in a sub-continent where terrorism is out of control.

The Mumbai blasts in November 2008 led to the cancelling of the BCCI-back Champions League and only a few weeks ago the Sri Lankan cricket team bus was directly attacked in Pakistan. It was long believed that cricket would never be targeted by terrorists but that has certainly changed.

Cricket is undoubtedly India’s favourite thing and the IPL is a plaything for India’s super-elite, the very people who were targeted in last year’s Mumbai blasts. Indo-Pak tensions are as strained as ever and Pakistani players will not be playing in the IPL, should it go ahead. It would be naïve to believe that the IPL would run without incident, should it go ahead in India next month.

It may seem ironic that South Africa be deemed a safe haven for such an event but temporarily moving the tournament to these shores could be an efficient solution to a problem that just isn’t going to be solved.

South Africa’s cricket grounds are good for Twenty20 matches in that they have nice bouncy pitches and are spectator friendly. The month of May is a bit late for cricket but the weather is generally still okay. Accommodation, transport, practice, media and broadcasting logistics will all be easier in South Africa than in India. There may be a little rain but April / May is the hottest season of the year in India and it is a gruelling time of year to play such a hectic tournament there.

It would seem a bit trivial if the Indian Premier League were played in South Africa. Imagine the Bangalore Royal Challengers playing a home game at Buffalo Park in East London. But moving the tournament could offer a quick fix for the IPL. Expensive contracts would not be broken, players’ lives would not be put at risk and the show would go on. And what a coup it would be for South African tourism and cricket.

Of course the downside to shifting the tournament would be that many matches would be very poorly attended. While the IPL would be able to retain the large revenues from broadcasting rights, it would no doubt lose some of the appeal that makes it such a successful television product. You just can’t compare an Eden Gardens crowd of 100 000 people to a handful of South African wrapped in blankets on a grassy bank for entertainment value.

Either way, I hope there is some truth in the rumour mongering. Though the Caribbean would also be nice!

This article appeared on Cricket365 in March 2009.

Sad day in England, carnival time in Kandy

While the News of the World were breaking an extraordinary story about spot-fixing, I was in a press conference listening to MS Dhoni explain to the Indian media why his team had been so shoddy so recently. Hearing the esteemed captain’s views on “pitches that are no good for one-day cricket because teams are 80 all out” and how “Gambhir and Tendulkar could have made the difference” are one thing, but smashing a multi-million pound betting racket is far more interesting.

It always seems a great pity that a rotten tabloid like the News of the World breaks such a magnificent story. Of course it is because they have no shame in stooping to the same level as the criminals they are after exposing. Setting traps and laying cash notes out for Fergie or illegal bookmakers is all part of the job at such a place. But what a story! And well done to them for finally getting something tangible on the Pakistan side. We have all suspected that the Pakistani team is often up to something. “They are just so unpredictable,” commentators always say. Well, they are unpredictable if you are none the wiser in your arm chair but it seems that for those in the know they are very predictable indeed.

I can’t imagine the ramifications of this bust on a side that has been playing some stonking good cricket recently. Doing their country proud while a million or so are trapped in floods at home has added a special element to the summer’s action. Pakistan did themselves proud in the MCC “Spirit of Cricket” series against Australia and Asif and Amir, two men implicated in the fixing rig, have shown that they are as good as any other quick bowlers in the world. Probably better.

The ICC has just issued a press release that the fourth day at Lord’s will go ahead as usual. Millions will tune in to watch Pakistan be humiliated in a match where they had England on the ropes and then somehow let the game slip away from their grasp. It is maddening that this Test will be remembered for a reporter who put a lot of cash on a table to organise a few no-balls (what is it with no-ball scandals recently?) rather than the fairytale 332-run eighth-wicket partnership between Broad and Trott that represented one of the biggest match turnarounds in Test cricket history. Pakistani players appear to have tainted the beautiful game of cricket. Again.

It is nowhere near as interesting but I started writing this blog before the scandal broke so please allow me to finish it.

After travelling around Sri Lanka on the most threadbare of shoestring budgets, it was a great relief when my mum arrived on the island to spend a week with me. First stop, the Wallawwa hotel. Goodbye squalor, hello luxury. If you are considering coming to Sri Lanka in February for the World Cup or indeed at any other time at all then do not pass go, do not collect 200 quid, go directly to the W. It is no wonder that this oasis of a boutique hotel gets higher ratings on independent travel websites than any other hotel one can look up. It is about the nicest hotel I have visited, let alone slept in.

The secluded hideaway is a relaxing place to begin or end any journey to Sri Lanka, given its close proximity to the airport and the main roads to Colombo, Kandy or Galle. It is civilised and feels contemporary, despite being the oldest manor house in the Western Province of Sri Lanka – croquet lawn, secret swimming pool, top-drawer chef and staff, beautiful cocktails… you get the point. It was wasted on me but I’m not complaining. Go there.

It was also goodbye scooter, hello car and driver. Home was never like this! For the price of hiring a car in most countries, we scored a car and a charming driver who has been showing tourists around for 30 years. Hemadasa, a Sinhalese gentleman and proud grandfather has driven us everywhere for six days and takes pride in opening doors, fighting our corner at the bargaining table and stopping to buy us samples of the most wonderful exotic fruit. Did you know that red bananas contain far more vitamin C and beta-carotene than yellow ones and that there are over 500 types of bananas out there? Or that I am going to make my fortune by selling mangosteens in Europe? They taste so good that they make you tingle from head to toe.

Kandy is such a fine place that the whole city is a UNESCO world heritage site. The botanical gardens are regarded the best in Asia and boast over 4000 labelled species of tropical flora in 150 acres of paradise. A ticket to the Peradiniya Botanical Gardens costs twenty times more for foreigners than it does for locals. But I’d have paid twenty times that inflated rate for a stroll around. It is glorious.

Our trip to Kandy coincided with Poya, a national no-booze-allowed religious holiday and the climax of the Esala Perehera, a festival of the sacred tooth relic that was brought from India many moons ago and is housed in a large Buddhist temple. Basically, many thousands of dancers and a couple of hundred elephants dress up to the nines and slowly parade their way down the main drag. It was quite a spectacle and after watching men walk barefoot across hot coals we enjoyed a fine dinner in the wonderfully colonial and broken down but still resplendent Queen’s Hotel, sipped some scotch from my hip-flask and then got stuck into the action along with tens of thousands of other spectators.

I was too much of a cheapskate to fork out 100 pounds for the privilege of two seats on the side of the road so mum and I pushed our way through the crowds, waited and waited for the procession to begin and, once we felt we had seen enough of it, decided to make a bee-line for Hemadasa’s fine maroon Nissan sedan. But there was a catch. We were stuck on the wrong side of the road and the numerous police on duty wouldn’t let us cross it. Three hours later at 11pm we hadn’t moved an inch, our feet ached and there was no end in sight to the string of elephants and dancers coming from the darkness beyond the temple. We risked all and made a break for it, bravely dodging our way through fire dancers, men spinning plates atop poles on their heads, large splodges of animal droppings and even a terrifying five-legged elephant. For many onlookers, seeing us running the gauntlet it must have been the highlight of their parade. The police were not impressed but we hopped into our getaway car and were soundly asleep before the festival was over.

The white sand and blue water of the North-East coast beaches allowed us a taste of the good life and a cosy Italian-owned and run guest house on the beach kept our bodies rested and our stomachs full. A new highway has been built that way and it was most enjoyable watching a jittery Hemadasa refuse to drive faster than 40 miles an hour – clearly these fellows are used to non-stop traffic as he had no notion of putting pedal to metal.

The final of this limp tri-series was over-subscribed. If Sri Lanka hadn’t made it to the final, no-one would have come. But they seemed to have the gods (and umpires?) on their side and the 16,800 capacity stadium easily fitted in about 30,000 fans, half of them stinking of arrack and falling on my dear mum in the stands. She had Hemadasa on standby but stuck it through to the end, despite my advice to get away ahead of the crowds. God knows I’d have left when India were 100 for 5 chasing 300 if I had had the option! But fortunately for me, I was able to watch South Africa beat Australia at Loftus Versveld in a nine-try, 75-point thriller. David Scot, a Lankan-based Kiwi, had it going on his laptop next to me in the press box as the inevitable was delayed out in the middle. Don’t ever employ anyone who likes sport if it is as easy as that to watch it live from your computer anywhere in the world!

So that’s a wrap from Sri Lanka. It was a pleasure to see Sehwag score a hundred in the penultimate match against New Zealand. Justice was done after he was denied one by a dirty trick a few matches ago against Sri Lanka. Dambulla is not a venue conducive to close ODI cricket – all six matches were horribly one-sided and there was little by way of entertainment for the masses. Dilshan’s century in the final boosted the home side to 299 in 50 overs and India weren’t going to chase that under lights. The Indian team is tired and I don’t fancy their stars to take the CLT20 by storm on bouncy pitches in South Africa.

Let’s hope the cricket administrators work out what to do with the 50-over game. And I hope it isn’t this new-fangled split-innings nonsense they are about to trial in Australia.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in August 2010, during the tri-series between Sri lanka, India and New Zealand.

Down and dirty in Dambulla

Three matches into the triangular ODI tournament between Sri Lanka, India and New Zealand and the points table reads New Zealand and India with five points and Sri Lanka with four. Each of the three relatively evenly matched sides have won and lost a game at the host venue in Dambulla, central Sri Lanka. The teams will play each other once more before a single final is contested on 28 August.

The games so far have been one-sided on a tricky pitch. New Zealand thumped India by 200 runs and were then in receipt of a three-wicket win at the hands of the hosts with 55 balls to spare.  In the most recent game, Sehwag lambasted the Sri Lankan attack in reply to their limp 170 all out under heavy skies.

The initial talk was that the lights are rotten in Dambulla and that as all of the matches are day-night games, captains should just need to win the toss and they’ll win the game. Dhoni didn’t disagree when an Indian  journalist told him he’d have to improve his tossing after the first match (the Indian skip has been on the losing end of the toss at the warm-up match, all three Tests and both ODI’s on this tour so far – I wouldn’t follow him at the blackjack table just yet). But the New Zealand captain Ross Taylor was pretty quick to point out that “not more than 50% of toss winners have gone on to win in the history of ODI’s at this ground”.

The point is that while batting under lights is tricky in Dambulla, for the bulb-supporting pylons are so low down that their angle delivers an awkward light, there is also plenty on offer for the bowlers during the day. As well as swing through the air and movement off the seam, the pitch has offered more turn for the spinners than it has in previous series (New Zealand didn’t even play a spinner in their opening game, which is basically unheard of on this island). In three matches so far, the only big partnership was in the opening match between Ross Taylor and Scott Styris, who put on  190 runs after their team was shaken to 28 for three.

In last night’s game, India were 30 without loss chasing 171 when they lost three wickets for two runs. The mini-collapse brought the game alive and, for a minute, it looked like 170 might just have been a competitive total on the new deck. But a patient and increasingly brutal Sehwag then made the match his own, taking it away from the Lankans as he eased to a brilliant unbeaten century. Or didn’t he?

Now I never got scoring colours at school – that was left to the girls – but if a man is on 99 and his team needs one run to win and he smashes the next ball for a towering six then he finishes the game not out on 105, surely? But the answer is not so if the delivery is a no-ball. In that case, and this was the case, the batting team is credited with the penalty run from the no-ball and the match is technically over before the ball has hit Sehwag’s bat. Incredulous.

Sri Lankans are the loveliest people. Their team plays the game with a better best spirit than any other. But word on the street is that Mr Suraj Randiv bowled that no-ball on purpose to deny Mr Virender Sehwag a splendid and most deserved hundred and also, I assume, to ensure that only a maximum of one run is added to his figures. And if that’s true, which they say it surely is, then it is even more of a disgrace to the fine game of cricket than the strange rule that makes it so.

I am writing from the Kandalama Hotel, 10 miles from Dambulla. on a beautiful lake. It is a most serene and peaceful place and the hotel’s design is unlike anything I have ever seen,  built into a rock face in a jungle. It is a slice of heaven. Of course I’m not staying here – my bed is in a modest guest house on a busy road and sets me back a most reasonable 600 Rupees (5 USD) per night. This morning I was rudely awoken by the young children in the neighbouring house who have some kind of machine where you push a button and it plays you a tune.

I heard the music to “My Fair Lady” and the “Hokey Pokey” several times. But their favourite was the tune that accompanies the song, “Hitler, has only got one ball, Goering has two but very small. Himler is very similar, but Goebels has none at all!”.

I’m here for some peace and quiet, and an expensive cup of tea and to use the infinity pool – you know the kind that doesn’t have a wall on the far end and seamlessly appears to join up with the beautiful lake below it. Elephants stroll around the lake as if they are VIP guests.

On the table next to me five very official, presumably government minister-type men in safari suits are talking about building a road. On another table five nuns in full regalia and from different ethnic backgrounds are savouring ice cream sundays with cherries on the top. Then there is a Sri Lankan who lives in Newcastle, Australia, who is complaining to an aged Kiwi couple that there are too many rules down under: “Do you know our local government has passed a rule that you are only allowed to order singles after ten pm. They have killed the fun. And you’re not allowed to order anything straight – all spirits have to be served with ice. Whether you chuck the ice out after you have been served the drink is up to you, but the drink is expensive and you lose half of it with the ice!”

The fifth table on the deck is occupied by Kyle Mills, Jeetan Patel and Tim Southee who are vocally teasing Scotty Styris, who is trying to catch a much-needed tan near two attractive bikini-wearing guests by the pool. “What you looking at there, Scotty?” “Keep your foot behind the line now!”

Better yet, Southee just asked Jeetan what procrastinating means. But it’s rude to eavesdrop, and even worse to pass on the fruits of doing so, so I shouldn’t have told you that.

By co-incidence the BCCI have just called a press conference in room 727 of this hotel. Pressers are normally at the ground, but the Indian team manager called one in the hotel, offered us lovely free sandwiches and tea, and told us that the Sri Lankan board has apologised to the Indian one for last night’s incident. And that Ranjiv went to Sehwag’s room last night and apologised to the great batsman in person. So that all bodes well for the countries’ diplomatic relations.

At last night’s post-match presser, Sehwag said that the no-ball was definitely deliberate, that Ranjiv never bowls no-balls, that in this case he overstepped by over a foot and that, “They[Sri Lanka] have done it because no team wants anybody to score hundreds against them.” Furthermore, it is not the first time that Sri Lanka have prevented an Indian from making a hundred on purpose. Last year at an ODI in Cuttack, India needed two runs to win the match and Tendulkar was on 96 and on strike. Malinga bowled two wides. After last night’s debacle, I don’t think we will see another bowler try this trick consciously, even though it is perfectly within the rules of the game.

With two free days between every match there is plenty of time to laze about and take in the vibe of this lovely island. The roads aren’t great but neither are the distances so between the second and third matches of the series, I decided to find someone who would lend me a motorbike and drive 80 miles up to the North East coast.

The owner of the only motorbike-repair shop I could find offered me his daughter’s little 3-speed Loncin for 1500 rupees a day. I got him down to 500 (4 USD) a day on the back of the fact that the indicators didn’t work and there were no wing mirrors. His condition was that I took it for a week and didn’t crash. I’m a novice on bikes and the fact that this machine is only a year old when it looks 14 years old didn’t fill me with confidence. But I had time to kill and fancied the adventure so I packed a clean shirt, sun cream, mosquito repellent and a toothbrush and followed the signs to Trincomalee.

Villagers laughed at me wherever I went and I wondered to myself whether it was because white men usually travel in taxis or because I looked ridiculous on the small bike, vibrating up and down like one of those machines road builders use to break down old tar. I am still not sure why Sri Lankans call this type of motorbike a “bicycle” – maybe that is their word for a scooter.

But all was going well, at 35 miles an hour, until  I realised that the juice was running low. Not that the two-litre tank (about 2USD) doesn’t get you far, for it does (about 60 miles) but she was only two-thirds full when I left Dambulla. And by the time I realised that the dial on her petrol gauge was menacingly approaching the red zone, I was equidistant between two towns. With little other option at hand I eased my aggression on the accelerator throttle and hoped for the best.

Although Friday the 13th had expired some 12 hours before, it was not to be my lucky day. Four miles before the town of Kantale, also on a beautiful big lake, my bike began to cough and splutter and, sure enough, came to a standstill in the middle of nowhere. The second time I had run out of petrol in as many months. Fortunately Sri Lankans are far more keen on helping the needy in such situations than the motorists on the M4 westbound from London town and it wasn’t three minutes before I was on the back of a fine 250CC motorbike with an empty plastic bottle.

Four more minutes and the empty bottle was full and I had hitched a ride back in the direction of my chariot on an inter-city bus bound for Colombo. Although the bus had no empty seats, it spent twenty minutes driving up and down the two streets of Kantale canvassing further potential passengers. The driver hooted his head off while the conductor hollered out of the open door with limited success as he coaxed a few pedestrians on board the crowded bus for the seven-hour drive to the capital. Without too much further delay, I was back under the hot sun and above two fine wheels.

The Loncin and I, now bonded through our joint misfortune, ate up the miles, jolting over pot holes and relishing the near death experiences of narrowly evading head-on collisions with trucks and tuk-tuks. Knowing that a refreshing swim in the Indian Ocean was only 20 miles away kept us going – the thought of that cool blue water powerful enough to make the pain in my shoulders all but disappear. That was until a policeman had the temerity to pull me over.

I had passed scores of road blocks on the journey thus far and the only reaction I had received from police or army so far was smiles and waves all round. So this seemed an outrage. Especially as the sight of a smiling, waving army man with a semi-automatic machine gun around his neck was really beginning to appeal to my quirky sense of humour.

“Documents please, sir,” this unfriendly-looking moustached Mr Plodd pleaded. But I was ready for this one as on hiring my beautiful three-speed puppy dog I had ensured that the owner of the bike had furnished me with her license papers and insurance contract. I unfolded the mountain of paperwork from my wallet and smugly handed it over with a photocopy of driver’s license, making sure to call the man sir repeatedly and to comment on the hot weather. But I had unfortunately overlooked the fact that the Loncin’s annual license had expired a week prior. A schoolboy error. Mr Plodd and his colleague were not amused. Longing for the cool ocean, I had little difficulty in choosing between the options he offered. Come to the police station and have bike impounded or… pay a spot fine and carry on safely!

Using some different-division sleight of hand trickery, I slipped 6000 of the 6500 rupees in my wallet into my pocket and showed him that I had only 500 rupees (5 USD) to my name. Enough moolah for two large beers in a sensibly-priced bar. He and his equally beautifully moustached peer were just satisfied by my low offering and I was once again back on the road, which was deteriorating fast in width and surface, as I wondered whether there was a skinny cop to found by the roadside of any developing nation.

A headache joined stiffness, dehydration and sunburn on the list of ailments causing me angst but I had little to cause me worry given that the cool ocean was only half an hour away. Well that was the case until the Loncin’s front tyre was punctured by some or other offensive debris and we were forced to limp in first gear for twenty minutes before I could find a friendly fellow with the materials and skills to repair it.

In the meanwhile, his wife’s cousin passed us by in their village. A woman who had once worked for “white people” in Cyprus, earning “two thousand of rupees an hour”. I therefore was obliged to come and eat in her house. As the front wheel’s tube would need twenty minutes to fix and I was starving, I accepted her offer and enjoyed the spiciest chicken curry ever made as we sat on the floor and laughed with her children and other cousins, none of whom spoke English, who popped in to catch a glimpse of me.

The woman, middle aged, large in size but and with a face that had seen too much sun but boasted a a beautiful smile and perfect teeth, tried desperately to get me to marry her unattractive daughter and I noted that this was a very different scenario from the villages of India, where young women are usually hidden away from, rather than promoted to, foreign men who somehow land up at their house. The puncture cost 100 rupees (less than dollar) to repair and we were now within striking distance of the beach.

I had read that the most beautiful stretch of sand was north of Trincomalee, a bustling town built on an historic and deep natural harbour that attracted seafarers like Marco Polo back in the day. Tourists haven’t ventured this way much in recent years as the beaches were a bit too close to the nerve centre of the civil war that ravaged the region until the Tamil rebels were wiped out by the government a year or so ago – hence the still-heavy military presence. But in recent years tourism in the area has regenerated and a variety of resorts have popped up along the coast, which at this time of year enjoys far better weather than the beaches of the South and  West, that are so much busier on account of their proximity to Colombo and the island’s only international airport.

I was after a beach hut and a hammock next door to a beach bar. And maybe some Bob Marley music. But I had no idea whether such a thing existed. Everyone told me I needed to go to Arugam Bay, the ninth best surf spot in the world or something, but that was too far away for me and my little bike. Not having seen another foreigner on the road, nor met one anywhere else who had come from the Trinco area, I wasn’t too optimistic about what I would find.

But a few miles north of harbour-town I saw a magnificent hand-painted sign, “Shiwas Restaurant and PADI Dive Centre” it proudly declared. A foot-break turn and 500 yards down a dusty lane and a cold quart of LionLager was poured down my gullet even before I could get my kit off and dive into the blissful waves. Palm trees line the coast as far as one can see, the beach is unspoilt by either pollution or people and the weather is perfect. Shiwas has about ten rooms and no one other than its guests or staff are anywhere to be seen. The beach is otherwise deserted. A good room is 12 USD and scuba is a painless 25 USD per dive. Cheaper than anywhere I have heard of in the world. What’s more, the dive instructor is Swiss and I bet you can’t think of another nationality in whose hands you would be more happy to trust your life?

There is no sign of a shop, or even individuals on the beach selling wares. But nor are there any bikini-clad babes gyrating on speakers. So if that is what you desire then Thailand is probably a better choice of destination. Sri Lanka prides itself on attracting a more sophisticated class of tourist. Holidaymakers here tend to be into culture, nature and good food. Even by the seaside, temples are more popular than nightclubs in Sri Lanka. And by this beach, there are no nightclubs.

Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, was of course a British colony. And I have never found another country to be more colonial. Tea-time is sacred here. Yet for some reason not one of the hundreds of foreigners I have met during my two trips to the island has been English. They are mostly French (maybe that’s why the poms stay away?), followed in numbers by Germans and Italians. The English sun-seeking masses are probably washed up somewhere between Ibiza and Malaga. And they are missing out because Sri Lanka is beautiful, diverse, relaxing, inexpensive, easy to get around (well, usually), unpolluted and uncrowded. The weather is good, the food is so bloody delicious and the people are extraordinarily kind and friendly. And they are mad about cricket.

The weather was superb and I had no luggage so I decided to adopt the sleep-where-I-fall approach and play an afternoon game of beach volleyball with a few chaps in front of Shiwas’ restaurant. It was a gruelling encounter entering the fifth set when the clouds started to get together and threaten to fall on our heads. “It’ll just be a quick passing shower” said Raphael, the Swiss dive instructor as the set went 12 points each. He uttered the words with all the sanguinity of a West Indian taxi driver dropping you off at the ground with lightning and thunder all around.

But as the game went 24-23 the heavens opened. We somehow finished the match but it was chucking it down so hard that I could not open my eyes wide enough to see who won, never mind return any ball punched in my direction. We headed for cover under the thatched bar area of Shiwas’ restaurant and waited for it to pass.

But it only came down harder and the bar began to flood. Eleven of us dug trenches and a moat, built walls and begged the Good Lord to relent. But he did not as it came down harder still. Darkness fell, as did palm trees and the electricity and we were trapped in the dark for four hours. Initially it was exhilarating, then it was tough and then desperate. Even the Loncin was on her back, rolling in the mud and crying petrol into the lake that swamped her.

After four hours the monsoon abated, making way for regular rainfall and the hotel owner, Jeyantha, was able to bring to the area where the Lion Lager was kept. Our problems went away and we chewed the fat by candlelight until it was bedtime. The hotel was full but I couldn’t leave my new friends and Jeyantha gave me his bed in the scuba-gear room without charge.

The rain left with the night and the morning was clear, albeit windy, and we managed a scuba dive off the shore of pigeon island. The viewing was good and I came to the realisation down under the sea that one could not possibly have an angry thought while looking at colourful fish at the bottom of the ocean. Everybody should give it a whirl.

That evening I had dinner nearby at a casual restaurant aptly named the French Garden and a cow peed on my shoes during the meal. A little boy aged no more than six laughed his head off and then hopped on a motorbike twice the size of mine and rode off into the darkness, barefoot and bare chested. I’d love to have seen him run into the moustached coppers who busted me the day before.

Jeyantha wouldn’t accept my offer of cash to replace an expensive diving mask that I lost snorkeling and again he gave me his bed without charge. The drive back to Dambulla went without a hitch for me and the Loncin, taking only three hours, not six as it had done two days before. Our only stop was to eat three boiled corn on the cobs on the side of the road. The bill came to 10 rupees (about 8 US cents). We started with a full tank and were running on fumes as we free-wheeled into the Dambulla petrol station – a well timed run indeed.

So there are four more games in this relaxed part of the world. The bonus point system keeps the one-sided matches interesting. And don’t we know how many ODI’s these days are one-sided and long, even tedious. To claim the bonus point a side needs to either chase the required total within 40 overs, or to defend their score by not allowing the opposition to make a score as high as 80% of the target. I asked Sehwag what he thought of the points system and he said, “For sure it makes the game more exciting. This evening we knew we wanted the bonus point, but trying to chase the total quickly meant we were at risk of losing wickets and maybe the match.”

It’s a small innovation to help a tired format, but it’s something keep people from turning off their television and missing the ad-breaks.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in August 2010, during the tri-series between Sri Lanka, india and New Zealand.

The delights of Dharamsala

The newly built Dharamsala cricket stadium is set beneath the snow-capped Himalayas and must immediately rank right up there with the world’s most beautiful places to watch a cricket match. The Indian newspapers have been full of global-warming evidence as many parts of the country have notched up record April temperatures. We are actually only a little over two-thirds of the way through April but summer has arrived early in India and several IPL matches have been played in 45 degree heat. Think of the poor cheerleaders. And their melting make-up!

It is no wonder then that the IPL’s safari up to the foothills is being enjoyed so much by the massive body of players, support staff, camera crews, marketing and logistics people, spectators and all the other cogs of the wheel that keep the billion-dollar-a-year revenue generating machine on the road. It’s lovely up here.

Eleven kilometers up a steep hill from Dharamshala is an oasis of a retreat where the Dalai Lama and many other Tibetans live in exile from their former home. Mcleod Ganj is a hill station and former British garrison where everyone from Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and an eclectic mix of foreign travellers (not “tourists”!) all co-exist in a cheerful and seemingly sustainable environment.

The weather is lovely. 25 degrees by day, 20 degrees by night. The air is clean and cool and the people warm and cheerful. Ah, it’s a delightful place. Chilled out hippy Israelis and European NGO volunteers sip beer and smoke pipes in little coffee shops and every second building doubles up as a cooking/yoga/massage/reiki/meditation/language/you name the self-improving holistic activity and they got it, school.

Why Modi’s men decided to schedule only two games up here is beyond me!

It isn’t an easy place to get to though. There are only two light commercial aircraft that fly into Dharamsala each day and the road from Delhi (520km) is a treacherous one that takes thirteen hours to travel by overnight bus. Booking these buses is a complex process that was beyond me but after phoning many friendly tour operators in Delhi, we were promised two seats on an overnight bus. It seemed a great relief to get on the thing, so we didn’t complain that these last two spots were in the back row.

Now at school the back row was the most desirable place to be – the cool kids also got to sit there. But as any seasoned backpacker will tell you, the same does not go for long distance buses. There are two major reasons for this. One, the seats don’t recline, thereby making the six passengers in the sleeper-bus the only ones who can’t achieve the near-horizontal sleeping position. Two, any bump or jerk felt from the maniacal driver’s over-enthusiasm on the terrible terrain is multiplied many fold in the back of the bus. On about fifteen occasions we bounced at least a foot in the air and clashed heads with each other or our neighbours. Sleeping was hardly possible and no amount of prescription drugs could have prevented the whiplash-induced pain our bodies endured. It explains the proliferation of massage centres up here.

I was neatly sandwiched between my atractive travel companion and an overweight Indian man who did not speak a word of English. He was a congenial fellow though. We smiled at each other a few times early on and he didn’t seem to mind when I half fell asleep on his belly. The bus stopped three times in the first three hours and then not once for the remaining ten hours of the journey. The sun came up just before we arrived in Dharamsala, where a few passengers including my chubby neighbour, jumped out. As we slowly climbed the final stretch to Mcleod Ganj, I remember thinking that he left in a hurry, not bothering to notion a goodbye. Having not peed for ten hours, I thought I’d put my shoes on and get my things together as soon as I saw the ‘Welcome to Mcleod Ganj, home to his holiness the Dalai Lama’ sign. But there was a slight snag.

I could only find one of my fine brown-leather Sebago docksiders – the perfect shoe if you prefer travelling with only one pair. There was another shooe around. A cheap, plasticy-leather slip-on. It was my size and it was smelly. It was clearly a man’s shoe and the only four men in the viccinity were Israeli post-military-conscription-finding-themselves-Jesus-sandal-wearing hippies. I was left with my right shoe and his left shoe. The fatty had stolen my fine shoe! So until I could get some Jesus sandals on my paws, I was the laughing stock of the Himalayan foothills!

The story behind the new stadium is an interesting one. I interviewed an official at the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association who revealed that the ground is part of the BCCI’s plans to improve Indian performance on quick pitches and at altitude. The hill station will be used as a training ground for Indian teams before they tour places like Australia and South Africa. I found all of this rather fascinating and I can’t blame the grand plan. What a lovely place for a training camp and what a lovely fast wicket the groundsman has knocked up.

The two matches here produced high-scoring thrillers. In both instances the Kings Punjab XI lost the toss, were sent in to bat on what promised to be a lively track, and then smashed big scores. Their 174 for 3 was chased by the Deccan Chargers in the final over and then two days later their 192 for 3 was chased by Chennai, also in the last over. The 20 000-strong crowd seemed to have fun, even if many of them knew almost nothing about cricket – for over half of the crowd, the match would have been the first they had ever attended.

It has been a fun couple of days in this obscure paradise. I caught a glimpse of the Dalai Lama himslef, when he attended the second match and bowed at everybody in his lovely red robe. Cricket365’s Tristan Holme had recommended “the best value hotel in India”, the Pink Palace, a shockingly pink building where the most spacious and comfortable double room with a wonderful hot shower, private balcony and breath-taking view of the snow-peaked Himalayas sets you back 10 US dollars a night. I did a Tibetan cooking class with a refugee who twelve years ago took eight days of buses and then hiked 28 days over the Himalayas to get to India. He hasn’t been home since and teaches two private cooking classes a day. The lesson took two hours, cost the same as a meal in a restaurant, and we ate up the fruits of our labour for supper.

I took a marvellous video clip of Adam Gilchrist, flanked by rifle-wielding policemen and mobbed by hundreds of Indians and Tibetans (who had never heard of him but figured he must be famous to require an armed escort), walking down one of the only two roads in Mcleod Ganj. And then I spotted a familiar face. No policemen, no mobs, just Billy Bowden looking at crystals and trance-music festival hippy garb in a Mcleod shop. I never bother a player for a picture or autograph, but this was too good to resist. I called the barber, who had just shaved my face clean, out from the shop next door and asked him to snap the world’s most eccentric ump and me in the most unlikely of places. And what a good sport he was – I didn’t even have to ask him to bend his index finger!

Before I sign off I have a funny tale to share. It’s nothing to do with cricket or the mountains but as it’s about Adam Gilchrist and as I’ve mentioned him here, I think you’ll let me tell it. About ten days ago when the Deccan Chargers played a home game against Bangalore in Nagpur, Gilchrist ordered a curry in the restaurant of his five star hotel, the Sun and Sand near Nagpur’s airport. When it arrived, he had a bite or two before discovering a cockroach muddled in the masala! He immediately asked the waiter to send for the manager, but the waiter, terrified of getting in trouble, protested that the manager was not around. When Gilly, who it is hard to imagine angry, spotted the manager on the other side of the restaurant, he ran over to call him. But while doing so, the waiter took it upon hiself to pick up the offending insect and eat the evidence!

This article appeared on Cricket365 in April 2010, towards the end of IPL3.

Could 50-over cricket become a thing of the past?

This season was due to play host to the last Pro40 domestic tournament in England, but thanks to its raised popularity and a drop off in excitement about the 50-over format, a 40-over tournament will replace the 50-over Friends Provident Trophy from next year. Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands will join the 18 counties to make up three conferences of seven teams each, with most matches being played on Sundays.

But what of One Day Internationals? Can England expect to perform in the most prolific international format if they do not play it at domestic level? Is it not a priority to prepare for the 2011 World Cup in the sub-continent?

Many agree that the revolution of Twenty20 cricket is a threat to the 50-over game. Spectators and television viewers are finding the eight-hour matches on the long side and the ICC’s powerplay innovations have done little to ignite any spark in the middle periods from overs 20 to 34. Crowds are no longer excited by defensive field settings and batsmen who push for four singles an over.

To contain the risk of Twenty20 threatening the game’s other formats, the ICC imposed a limit of two home Twenty20 Internationals per country per year. England’s two home fixtures were both farcically washed out in Manchester this summer, so the only international limited overs action enjoyed by the English public this season was a major drubbing from the Australians in a tedious seven match ODI series.

Ironically, the stuffy old chaps at the ECB see themselves as innovators of the game. Twenty20 cricket was invented in England and now the ECB is calling for an end to the 50-over format. While broadcast rights for ODI’s have been signed up until 2015, the ECB looks certain to ask ICC to conduct a formal review of the 50-over format after the 2011 World Cup. A 40-over format seems likely to be ECB’s preference going forward.

A year ago, David Lloyd called for a revamping of the ODI game. After commentating on many domestic Pro40 matches, Bumble said: “What we’ve found is that there are no dull periods in Pro 40 cricket. We’ve seen some fantastic games in that competition that have kept crowds on the edge of their seats from start to finish. I’d like to start a campaign to have 40-over internationals along with Test matches and Twenty20.”

But it is no certainty that the other ICC members will endorse the ECB’s mandate. The powerful BCCI are yet to make their intentions known and sponsors and television channels will obviously prove equally important role-players in any restructuring of the game.

Even with the right partners on the ECB’s side, the process could well take some time, for nothing happens quickly at the bureaucratic ICC. For at least a few years, England, who are a dismal seventh in the ICC world ODI rankings, will rely on 40-over cricket to prepare themselves for 50-over ODI’s and World Cups.

ECB chairman Giles Clarke likes the business sense of 40-over cricket and feels the decision is justified from a cricketing viewpoint as well: “The leading one-day team in world cricket – South Africa – does not mirror 50 overs at domestic level and, provided Powerplays and fielding restrictions were the same as the international format, the skills required were very similar.”

Cricket South Africa seems likely to review its 45-over domestic competition after the 2009/10 season with some stakeholders advocating innovation in a tournament which is no longer followed as closely as the domestic Twenty20 competition.

But Geoff Miller, England national selector, does not share Clarke’s finance oriented sentiments. “If all we are playing is 40-over cricket then I have a problem with that,” he told The Timesnewspaper.

“My job as national selector is to win cricket matches and if we do that, it makes money along the line, as will happen with the Ashes,” he added.

England veteran Paul Collingwood sided with Miller, “We have always said we want county cricket to mirror international cricket. It’s as simple as that.

“No matter what we are playing it is important they get all the experience before they enter the international stage – about how to play in certain situations.

“If you’re not playing the 50-over format of the game it is going to be a little bit of a hindrance coming in.”

When Spinspoke to Johan Botha, the South African spinner who recently captained his country to home and away ODI series victories over Australia, his views echoed Collingwood’s.

“A few have said 40 could be the next 50 and I see why they advocate it – crowds can come later and leave earlier and it is likely to be more popular on TV. But I don’t think they should not do it just yet. 50-over cricket is a great form of the game and domestic matches should mirror international ones.”

Batsmen seem keener than bowlers on shortening matches. This becomes especially apparent when you tell them that the new format is likely to consist of a ten-over powerplay, a five-over bowling powerplay, and a five-over batting powerplay. This would mean that half of the 40 overs would be bowled to a restricted field. Messrs Gibbs, Sehwag, Gayle and McCullum, lick your lips.

As the South African big hitting all-rounder Albie Morkel told us, “There will be much less room for bowlers to perform well but I think I will enjoy the additional powerplays!

“50-over cricket is starting to feel a bit long but that is because everyone is comparing everything to Twenty20. The skills are the much the same in the longer game and I do feel that domestic and international formats should be the same.

“Shorter matches will definitely lead to closer games too – we often see in Twenty20 matches that the best side does not always win. But if you are going to change the game, then why not make a big change? 40-overs is just a rain-affected ODI, why not make a real change to the game and go for two innings of 20 overs each?”

Sachin Tendulkar recently suggested that 50-over games should be scrapped and replaced by two-innings matches of 25 overs each, citing that “75% of One Day Internationals are decided at the toss.”

South African coach Mickey Arthur told Spin: “I think first and foremost it is imperative that we sustain all three formats of the game – Twenty20, ODI and Test match cricket.

“I ultimately do see ODI’s being reduced to 40-over affairs, but I don’t have a problem with that. More wickets in hand and more powerplays will lead to exciting cricket and will hone the bowlers skills, which is definitely a good thing.”

It may be obvious that shorter games make more financial sense – indeed the vote was decided by 15 counties to three in favour of 40-over matches next season. But have the ECB management made a decision that will come back to haunt them at international level? I am not so sure.

England’s showing against Australia in the recent ODI series frankly couldn’t have been worse. The domestic setup may not mirror the international one for the next while, but international cricketers play so little domestic cricket these days that it may not overly matter.

South Africa made it to number one in the 50-over rankings while playing 45-over cricket domestically. But the real reason behind that country’s ODI success is that its domestic league consists of six strong franchises, not 18 weak ones.

Furthermore, Cricket South Africa divides its domestic season into concentrated spells of each of the four-day competition, a Twenty20 tournament and a 45-over tournament without any undue overlap in fixtures. This means that players can focus on one format of the game at a time.

In England, any number of the 18 County sides could play a Championship four-day match, a Twenty20 and a 40-over game all in the space of a week. Not only does the team composition change several times a week, but batsmen haven’t even got time to work out whether the ball is red or white before they have to decide whether to leave outside off or reverse paddle it over the ‘keeper’s head!

The ECB needs its head checked.

This article appeared in the November 2009 edition of Spin magazine.