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.

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