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.

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