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.

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