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.

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.

Gilchrist, Jayasuria, Murali and Hogg say goodbye to MCG

On November 15 1838, three years after the fist white settlers arrived at the MCG, five cricket lovers founded the Melbourne Cricket Club. Messrs Powlett, Russell, Smith and the two Mundy brothers each clubbed together their one guinea subs and bought two bats, some stumps and a few red leather cricket balls. The club, whose logo is much the same as the other MCC only in blue and red, has a fascinatingly rich history. Early 19th Century cricket bats, countless scorecards and a fine collection of Ashes series urns are proudly displayed in an excellent museum within the MCG stadium.

It’s not a bad little ground either. The venue of the first ever Ashes Test seats 100,000 people and has an interior not unlike a Wall Street AAA grade office. It is a very impressive stadium, where statues of fellows like Don Bradman remind you that they have been playing cricket here for a little while. It was Bradman’s favourite ground and he scored his first century here in 1929. He went on to make seven Test centuries here between World War I and II, highlighted by his 270 against England in January 1937. That match was attended by 350,534 spectators, a world cricket record which stood until the 1990’s.

Today was Adam Gilchrist’s last ever game at the MCG, a ground which has tested him more than most throughout his fine career. A poor crowd turned up at the dead rubber of a match to say goodbye to the player who changed the role of the wicketkeeper-batsman in international cricket. Gilchrist played as confidently as ever as he bade farewell to the Victoria faithful with a fluent 83 runs from only 50 balls. He was named man of the match for the fine innings.

A guard of honour was formed for Sanath Jayasuria, the magnificently attacking opening batsman whose aggressive style of getting after the opening bowlers not only won Sri Lanka the 1996 World Cup, but also revolutionised limited overs cricket. Today’s match was his last ever on the continent. The fact that his reflexes have slowed showed as the old master was again sluggish about moving his feet and he was caught by Michael Hussey off the bowling of Nathan Bracken for 23 runs.

Muttiah Muralitharan was no-balled on Boxing Day in 1995 at the MCG. He also looks to have played his last game here today. He was an instrumental part of his team’s success, taking two wickets at around four runs to the over.

Cricket can be a harsh game and Australia’s strained season has resulted in two victims, Shaun Tait and Brad Hogg. The former retired recently citing physical and mental exhaustion and the latter, who will retire at the end of this series, claims that the imminent birth of his child this year was behind his decision. Hogg’s solid 1 for 33 in ten overs was backed up with a useful 21 runs, which came in vain as Australia were bowled out chasing 222 for victory.

India will therefore feel they have the momentum going into the first final at the SCG on Sunday afternoon. It promises to be a fantastic finish to what has so far been a drawn out and uneventful series.

This article appeared on Cricket365 during the 2008 Commonwealth Bank Series between Australia, India and Sri Lanka.

New Year’s Test, Sydney, 2009

Sydney is a terrific place to be for New Year’s Eve. Not only do you get to do the countdown nine hours before your friends in more sensible time zones, but the city spends a few million dollars putting on the most magnificent display of fireworks. This fireworks business is done in cities across the country and is slightly strange given the extent to which the Australian government is concerned with animal rights and pollution. But it’s a blast!

Sydney is busier than Melbourne. It is a bigger and livelier city and the beaches must be about the best in the world. It is at least five degrees warmer and the sea is the perfect temperature; much warmer than Cape Town and a fair bit cooler than Durban. There is no shortage of South Africans to invite you round for a braai and people seem to prefer cricket and rugby to Aussie rules and rugby league. If it weren’t for the fact it can cost $40 to park your car in the city for lunch and that you would have to be nocturnal to follow English sport, it would be jolly tempting to move here.

Unlike the Melboune Cricket Ground, the Sydney Cricket Ground is in fact a cricket ground. Although Aussie Rules is played here in the off season the wicket lives out there in the middle and is not dropped in off the back of a truck. This may explain why it has the reputation of being one that offers some assistance to spin bowling.

The SCG also looks like a cricket ground. Instead of knocking down the heritage listed stands like they did in Melbourne, the SCG proudly boasts the beautiful Members Pavilion and the Ladies Stand, which both look just as they did over a hundred years ago.

When I put on my second-favourite pair of pink trousers before cycling to the ground this morning I have to admit that I didn’t actually remember that the SCG was turning pink this week to raise money for and pay tribute to the Jane McGrath Foundation. Glenn McGrath’s late wife lost her battle with breast cancer last year and even the stumps are pink at this year’s New Year’s Test. Peter Roebuck says he doesn’t own any pink but he looks very dandy in the press box wearing a complimentary pink scarf and his outback style leather cowboy hat.

Australians at the cricket usually tease me as much for wearing pink as Afrikaners do when I do the same to rugby matches. I still have nightmares about the time at Newlands rugby ground when five large boers pushed me around in my best pink jeans shouting, “You like pink hey, Westlife?”

But I am safe here now at the SCG. The members stand says it gently with soft shades of pink and the more rowdy stands scream with the shocking ultra-violet kind. The third day may be the one designated by the New South Wales cricket people as the one for all out Mardi Gras garb but today’s dress rehearsal has certainly confirmed my belief that men love wearing pink.

Other exciting news from the ground is that JP Duminy’s mum, Juanita, has arrived to watch him play. The single mother’s business class air ticket was sponsored by an anonymous Cape Town businessman who wanted to thank Duminy for the pride that the young batsman brought to South Africa’s coloured community with his astonishing knocks in Perth in Melbourne.

This morning’s toss proved a good one to lose. Whoever won it was always going to bat despite the fact that heavy skies would offer assistance to the bowling side for the entire day. South Africa had the home side reeling at 162 for five in the afternoon session but it was clear that the exuberant series victory and New Year’s Eve celebrations caught up with the visitors as they made heavy work of the evening session.

The close of play score of 267 for six was remarkably similar to Australia’s 280 for six at the MCG on Boxing Day. On that day it felt like honours even but with Australia looking as wobbly as they did today at the SCG and fielding such an inexperienced bowling attack, the tourists will fancy their chances of a 3-0 series whitewash and the number one spot in the ICC Test rankings.

This article appeared on Cricket365 during the New Year’s Test at the SCG between Australia and South Africa.

Boxing Day Test, 2008

On my last visit to Australia I was given a most unwelcome greeting by the low-life hounds that are Sydney Airport customs officials. It was my first visit down under and after a twelve-hour flight across nine hours of time zones the last thing I was in the mood for was going twelve rounds with three handle-bar moustached nasty pieces of work from immigration.

Unluckily my plane was the only one to have arrived at that time of the day and my suitcase had somehow been sent to Singapore. So by the time I got to customs there was a gang of power tripping border guards waiting especially for me. My grandfather has always taught me to travel smartly dressed so as to be on the front foot in such situations. But I am afraid that in the land of thongs (that is what they call flip flops here!) and vests a well-dressed South African carrying only a battered old elephant skin briefcase is automatically assumed to be working for the mafia.

I was quizzed about every text message on my phone and about the background of the people in every person in my photographs. Did they think I was well dodgy or is it a game they play? Anyone who has watched a reality television program called Border Patrol will know about the barrage of unfriendly questions I had to answer before I was finally allowed free to the delights of snaggers (sausages) on the barbie, biased Channel 9 commentators and the bronzed Sheila’s surfing on Bondi beach.

It took me a long time to get over the rudeness of those airport border guards. I felt like I was in the most trouble I had ever been in and I hadn’t even done anything wrong. It took a while to get over and was an unfriendly and inaccurate introduction to what is actually a jolly friendly country.

On this occasion I flew in a tee-shirt and jeans, my bag arrived and I landed the day before the Boxing Day Test. Immigration wished me a cheerful “Happy Christmas” and waved me through the green zone. People everywhere have gone out of their way to be friendly. Unlike in England, one can make a new best mate on any train or plane here.

And people love to talk about cricket. Happy families ride past on bicycle tracks and cheerfully wave you hello from underneath their safety helmets. Streets are spotless. Cricket grounds (although the Melbourne Cricket Ground isn’t really one of these – it’s an Aussie Rules football stadium) employ efficient and polite people in suits to walk you to your seat. There is no litter or pollution and everything works. Trains run on time and although everything is expensive you get what you pay for. They are ahead of the game down here on the other side of the world.

Indeed Australia sounds like some kind of utopia – it is no wonder everyone wants to move here. But I must say that they are a bit keen on rules, especially if you were brought up in Africa. I don’t want to bore on with the countless examples but at the MCG Mexican waves are banned. Friends of mine who flew from South Africa to watch the Test series had their flagpole (a flimsy plastic stick that was allowed on an aeroplane) confiscated for fear of it being used as a weapon!

Today was probably my best ever as a South African cricket fan. As if there have not been enough advertisements for Test cricket over the past few weeks, today showed how a Test match can be turned on its head against all odds.

At the end of day two South Africa trailed by 196 runs and had only three wickets in hand in the first innings. Although I am of course a neutral journalist I am desperate to see the visiting side topple the Aussies in this huge series and with the Proteas staring down the barrel I last night turned to the bottle with a fellow South African correspondent.

Soon before the close of play on day three the tourists were all out for 459 runs, giving them a not inconsiderable 65-run lead on a very good pitch. JP Duminy’s maiden Test century was an enormous delight to watch – in only his second Test match he top-scored with 166 runs. Dale Steyn, previously considered a batting bunny, made a personal best of 79 runs.

I have never seen a tail wag like that and it could not have happened at a more crucial time. An Australian television presenter said to me as the shadows got longer, “I think this is the worst day in Australian cricket for a decade.”

When the crowd started chanting, “Boring…boring”, the same guy said, “I haven’t heard that chant for many, many years.”

I must say I wasn’t the slightest bit bored!

This article appeared on Cricket365 during the 2008 Boxing Day Test between Australia and South Africa.

Ooh Aah India!

It is absolutely marvellous to be in a country where each and every one of the one thousand million people is mad about cricket. Everywhere you go, boys are whacking old dog-chewed cricket balls in streets and parks. Women understand Test matches. Heaven.

I recently followed the Indian team around England. A huge series. England hadn’t lost a Test series at home for some years and it was probably the last time the little master that is Sachin Tendulkar was to play on Island Mud. Whilst cricket is the most English of inventions, hardly anyone there gives two hoots about the best game in the world. Even the conservative Telegraph newspaper forces you to wade through 15 pages of damn football before you are treated to half a page about whether Flintoff is injured and a handful of county scorecards. Thankfully, it is the exact opposite in the splendid subcontinent.

Cricket is by and large an elitist sport in England, something which is not encouraged by the ECB’s signing sole broadcast rights with Sky. So that’s it, you can’t watch cricket if you don’t have satellite broadcast. Most pubs don’t have Sky because it costs them around 20 000 pounds a year and most of the ones that do would rather show a re-run of Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic. My grandpa was bored in hospital and would have so enjoyed watching a Test series on his bedside tv, but Skysports was not one of the 30 odd channels he paid four pounds a day to access. This is probably because the channel is too expensive for even the NHS. Hats off to BBC Radio for keeping up its excellent cricket coverage – it must do so much for the quality of life of so many.

The upshot of all this is that youngsters no longer play tip and run in the car park. Only in the Asian dominated cities of Leicester and Birmingham did I see tennis balls half strapped in reverse swing-inducing masking tape being whacked through angry neighbours’ windows for six and out!

Cricket is so alive in India that it takes up at least a third of the pages of any newspaper or current affairs magazine, and four of the channels in my budget Bangalore hotel showed countless replays of memorable games and interviews with heroes of the game. I can report that Brett Lee’s Bollywood music video is big in Bombay.

The fans here enjoyed the Twenty20 Championships but I have mixed feelings about the fact that it is the future of cricket. The capacity crowd at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium on Saturday seemed bored by Australia’s impressive 300 plus 50-over score. But as soon as Tendulkar and Ghambir came out to bat, the place literally erupted. I have never seen a Mexican wave like that. Spectators want to see their team make runs, and the boundary-filled baseball format provides them with that.

The economic potential of lots of T20 cricket is endless. Consider how many games were played over the two week tournament in South Africa. The annual earnings in the spin-off industries of television rights, advertising, hospitality, merchandising, gambling, food and bar retailers etc. could increase many times over. The three hour game is physically easy on the players, which should result in longer careers and fewer injuries. Most importantly, spectators are mad about it and girls wear bikinis to games without complaining to their boyfriends that they are bored.

This is all very well but it’s just not cricket. One over can change the game entirely and it is such a leveller that the gallant young Zimbabweans beat Australia. A Zimbabwean mate of mine said that it was because they were just hungrier than the Aussies but that’s not true. It was because it was just a silly game of baseball.

Test cricket, which is the real deal, is sadly losing its appeal in the 21st Century where instant gratification is the order of the day. That syntillating Ashes series in England proved however that modern consumers can have a healthy appetite for a series war of five day battles. But this can’t happen again now that the game can only be watched in the homes of Sky subscribers and a handful of pubs. WG Grace and Donald Bradman must be rolling in their graves.

I do not know of anything better in the world than a gripping Test match, complete with unpredictable twists and turns. This ultimate test of skill, character, concentration and patience must surely be the pinnacle of sport. There is always something to play for in a Test match, indeed salvaging a respectable draw can be as rewarding as a good win if a series depends on the result. A one-sided ODI or Twenty20 is dull because the game can be won or lost in the first twenty minutes of play.

I am devastated by the prospect of potential extinction of real cricket. This surely won’t happen in our lifetimes, but things are changing very quickly in the world of cricket. A remarkably friendly Rajasthani journalist yesterday said to me, “Wherever is going the cricket you goes”, and I am afraid that the same will be true for professional cricket players and lucrative Twenty20 contracts. The ICC must go with the flow or be left behind – that is how economics works.

The Twenty20 World Championships, the rich Texan’s Caribbean parties and the ICL are only the beginning of it all. I was so glad to hear that Mohammad Yousuf, probably the best Test batsman in the world, has been cleared by Pakistan to play in this series, but it won’t be long until the salaries of Twenty20 specialists are many times more than players of the Yousuf and Kallis mould, whose abilities are inaccurately deemed superfluous to the twenty over slogfest. I wonder whether South Africa would have collapsed to the Indian attack as they did in what was effectively a quarter-final if Kallis the rock had been there to add some glue to our middle order.

South Africa is playing against Pakistan right now. It is the first day of what promises to be a terrific Test series. An attack consisting of Umar Gul, Mohammed Asif and Danish Kaneria is a seriously deadly one, especially in those conditions. Hopefully Paul Harris will impress as we will find it very difficult to win any of these Tests without a spinner. Kallis will make lots of runs – he is out to prove he’s as good as Ponting, Pietersen and Yousuf. What a series it will be. Sadly though, there are only a handful of spectators in the National Stadium in Karachi.

It was a great pity that the first Future Series ODI between India and Australia was a washout and there’s about a 50 percent chance tomorrow’s game will also be a damp squib as the monsoon season is extended by two months as a result of global warming. The outfield is muddy and it has rained here everyday for weeks. It is very humid and the early start won’t allow for the sun to dry any overnight rain.

Everybody in India praises the young captain Manhindra Singh Dhoni. The hotel barman last night told me that the motorcycle-crazed, mullet-sporting warrior eats two kilogrammes of mutton and drinks six litres of full cream milk everyday. He’s a big strong lad and a cool customer. He’ll need to be with the amount of pressure on the youngster. He’s bigger than Beckham here and he has the most difficult job in the country. If India loses this series, which they could do even if they play well as they are up against the most professional team in the world, will they call for his head and try burn down his house?

Indians are extreme about cricket and while they handsomely rewarded the Twenty20 squad with cash bonuses, especially for six-in-a-row Yuvraj, they do not have a history of supporting their national heroes through tough times. I hope that captain Dhoni is allowed to fail at times – the youngsters in that team look up to him so much. And while Ganguly, Tendulkar and Dravid were all good captains, they would not take up the job if offered it again.  

With the exception of Powar, I have never seen the Indian team field as well as they did on Saturday. It was because the team is buoyed by Twenty20 success and was playing to their home crowd. There is so much pressure on these sportsmen that they have no choice but to perform well here. I cannot for the life of me understand why Powar is played ahead of the turbanator, Harbhajan Singh. The only plausible explanation can be that a personal issue exists between the selectors and himself. He had another excellent county season this year and is one of the most economical spinners in ODI’s.

I have a problem with the no-ball free hit rule in limited overs cricket. There is no reason why a bowler and his team should be so harshly punished for the innocent error of overstepping. There is nothing malicious or negative about overstepping. The new rule punishes the bowling team by an average of three or four runs. It is an artificial excitement manufacturing rule and I don’t care for it. The ridiculous thing is I could maybe understand a free hit being awarded if a bowler bowled a nasty and dangerous beamer or negatively bowled a second short ball in a given over, but free hits are only due after overstepping. It is ridiculous. In the Pro40 county league, bowlers are punished two runs and a free hit, which is even more ridiculous. Next we’ll have two gimmies, three mulligans and first ball grace.

An interesting new rule is that during the two five over periods, fielding sides may now have three fielders outside the circle. The added protection will usually be found on the leg side boundary and will reduce 50 over scores by around twenty runs. Does that mean South Africa’s 438 will remain intact? Well, it probably depends on how many overstepping no balls are bowled.

We learned again at the Twenty20 World Championships that the shot sometimes referred to as the Bangladesh Bunt, or the Pakistani Paddle is jolly effective. I remember how it infuriated Makhaya Ntini when Shahid Afidi (wowee he bowled cleverly in the twenty over competition!) twice got down on one leg and paddled accurate good length deliveries for six over the vacant very fine leg boundary.

On the bowling front we saw a clever trick well executed by many bowlers. The virtually guaranteed dot ball comes by way of a very short and wideish slow ball. Batsmen move back expecting the ball to bounce up nice and high and the spongy tennis ball slow bouncer becomes almost unplayable from that position. We’ll see much more of it in the future.

I really hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow. There were about three hundred members of ground staff working hard on the outfield this morning. Their methods are unorthodox but jolly effective. I wonder if they work through the night. If it rains they should give all of the policemen a sponge – there are about three thousand at any international game here.

This article appeared on on 1 October 2007, during the first of many trips to India.