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Delighted to beat you

Delighted to beat you

Photo: Kevin Clogstoun/Lonely Planet

Photo: Kevin Clogstoun/Lonely Planet

Any flat surface, no matter how close the boundaries or spectators, presents an opportunity to play a few overs. Photo: Kevin Clogstoun/Lonely Planet
With cricket being played all around him, Sam Vincent decides to pad up and play mascot for the Baggy Green.
Englishman Robert Knox, observing the Sri Lankan people during his captivity on the island in the 17th century, wrote: “They have but few sports, neither do they delight in play.”
How times change. Today cricket is the pulse of the nation and the greatest of icebreakers for any tourist with a love for the game. When a local finds out you come from Australia, the response will always relate to cricket, often ended by the peculiar habit of adding “no” to an interrogative.
“Australia? First-class cricket team, no?”
It’s never anything else about our country. To most Sri Lankans, Australia may as well end at the gates of the MCG. Revelling in my status as mascot for the Baggy Green, I decide to use cricket as a way of getting under this island’s skin. Every time I see a game being played, I will join in.
My journey starts in Colombo, the country’s capital and unofficial shrine to Muttiah Muralitharan. The great Tamil tweaker can be seen on billboards throughout the city, flogging everything from engine oil to yoghurt, always sporting a toothy, goofy grin. Beside one such sign, 15 men play in a narrow alley. Caught off the walls is out; a straight hit into the adjoining bazaar is four; if it makes it onto the roof, six. A coconut acts as the stumps at the bowler’s end, while a menacing gang of crows form the slips cordon.
I take up position at cover, beside an old man leaning on a walking stick. I ask him why Sri Lanka’s team has slipped down the world rankings the past few years after winning the World Cup in 1996. After a moment pondering my question, the man looks up, eyes bursting from behind a grey mane. He promptly plays a cover drive for four with his stick before delivering a fiery response. “There’s no leadership,” he says. “We need a guy like [former captain] Arjuna Ranatunga. That’s why I loved him; he wasn’t afraid to stick it up the opposition. He was like our ancient kings who fought the invading Indian armies. He made me sooo proud to be Sri Lankan.”
By now his stick has been transformed from bat to sword, held aloft in preparation for some invading Indian warriors.
Heading east, Colombo slowly gives way to swamps and paddy fields, where buffalo teams toil in the heat. As the train climbs, sprawling tea plantations emerge. Tamil women pick this green bounty, heaving it into baskets suspended from their backs.
The British established Nuwara Eliya in the 19th century as a summer escape from the oppressive coastal heat. An odd place, quaint reminders of colonialism fuse bizarrely with South Asian mayhem. The racecourse is a case in point, with white paint peeling from the crumbling grandstands while nearby, people and cows fossick through rubbish.
On its outskirts three games of cricket are taking place. The players range from eight-year-old children to one guy who looks well over 60. All are amazing fielders, with each direct hit sending the little ones into a frenzy.
Sixty per cent of Nuwara Eliya’s population are Tamils. Totally distinct from those in the troubled north, they are the offspring of low caste south Indians brought by the British to work the tea plantations in the 1930s. Despite this, they are often the target of racism by the majority Sinhalese, who accuse them of supporting the Tamil Tigers. Sathees, a hotel worker and part-time opening batsmen, tells me he has spent two nights in a Colombo prison simply because of his ethnicity.
Luckily, cricket is a fine leveller. Each evening staff at my guesthouse play together: gardeners, cooks; Tamils and Sinhalese. Even the rapacious owner takes time out from his tourist-scamming activities to join in.
Trying to negotiate the vehicular chaos that is Sri Lanka, it is difficult to comprehend why the orderly game of cricket has thrived here. But like the Brazilians with soccer, the Sri Lankans have added their own flamboyance to the sport. In the 1990s they revolutionised one-day cricket, with swashbuckling batsmen like Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva.
In the southern town of Galle, two colonial throwbacks blend beautifully. A cricket game takes place in the old Dutch fort, fielders placed among the ramparts in positions you won’t find in any cricket manual. A cow munches lazily at mid-on, while long-off is wedged between two turrets. Behind him the fort walls drop into the Indian Ocean. A decent hit is six and out. The players here show signs of the influence left by travelling surfers, some boasting dreadlocks, all playing in bare feet and board shorts.
When I bat I get a thick top edge, the ball hanging in the air for what seems an eternity. Just as a fielder looks set to make the catch a tuk-tuk gets in the way, allowing the ball to bounce away safely and roll under the gate of the local Buddhist temple, where it interrupts a young monk from his sweeping duties. He picks it up and throws with all his might, unfurling his saffron robe in the process.
Fielding in the slips, Nana is one of several hundred Muslims who live within the fort walls. His ancestors came here as early as the seventh century, attracted by the gem trade. He tells me that one Galle landmark destroyed by the 2004 tsunami was the cricket stadium just outside the fort ramparts. While the pitch and outfield survived unscathed, the rickety grandstands were washed away.
After nearly three years of restoration, the picturesque old ground made its international comeback with a Test match against England last December. “We missed it,” says a smiling Nana. It seems where cricket is concerned, these people do indeed “delight in play”.
TRIP NOTES
Getting there: Sri Lankan Airlines (www.srilankan.lk) flies from Sydney to Colombo via Singapore from $1750.
Further information: The Australian Government suggests travellers should reconsider visiting Sri Lanka because of the conflict in the north between Sri Lankan government forces and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). For travel advice, see smartraveller.gov.au. For official tourist information, see www.srilankatourism.org
Source: The Sun-Herald

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