Descriptions of the Nondescripts
I jumped in my tuk-tuk this morning and asked the driver to take me to "Nondescripts Cricket Club", the venue for England's second warm-up match. I might as well have asked him to take me to Grace Road, because he looked decidedly nonplussed. I tried again, a little more phonetically - still no joy, and the clock was ticking. So I changed tack. "NCC?" I enquired. He roared with laughter, pumped his engine into life, and hurtled off at a canter.
Such is the power of the acronym. In England, only one such club could get away with being known by its initials, and even then most taxi-drivers would need you to specify "Lord's" if you wanted to get there. In Colombo, there are three lined up on the same signpost, as you turn off the main thoroughfare and head for the tranquil environs of Cinnamon Gardens.
NCC, CCC and SSC. Three venerable first-class clubs, each a six-hit away from the other, and each with its own unique history. From the air the three clubs form an L-shape as they line up along Maitland Place - CCC on the west side of the road, NCC directly opposite, and SSC one click to the south. As England's game got underway, a certain familiar face could be seen peering like a ticketless fan through the mesh fence that divides the two properties. It was Muttiah Muralitharan, spying on his opponents ahead of a Sri Lankan training session at the Sinhalese Sports Club (to give it its full and less familiar title).
The great and the good of Sri Lankan cricket were out in force at the NCC today, and not just because England were passing through. At 8.30am, two hours before the start of play, the ground's brand-new pavilion was officially opened by the president of Sri Lanka Cricket, Jayantha Dharmadasa. He unveiled a plaque at the back of the building, snipped a ribbon at the front, and led the presentation delegation up to the players' balcony while being serenaded by a pair of Kandyan drummers in their traditional red and white costumes.
The ceremony was attended by approximately 30 dignitaries, mediamen and cricketers, including two representatives from the England squad, Paul Collingwood and Phil Mustard, who had no match preparations to be getting on with, and so popped along for the show. A ceremonial oil lamp was lit to symbolise the light of hope and success, and a series of dedication speeches followed, interrupted only by a two-minute silence in memory of the former treasurer of the club, Sam de Silva, who had died of cancer the previous day.
Although he provided sound fiscal judgment during a five-year tenure from 1980 to 1985, de Silva's greatest legacy is that he is the father of the club's greatest ever player. It's not an easy call to make; a staggering 25% of Sri Lanka's international cricketers have come through its doors, including four of the current crop - Lasith Malinga, Upul Tharanga, Farveez Maharoof and Kumar Sangakkara. But Aravinda de Silva, World Cup winner and bona fide legend, would top the charts for most of the people present.
Aravinda's earliest school games took place on the Senanayake ground that also backs onto the NCC. It lies a short hop over a concrete wall, directly opposite the new pavilion, which was where another stalwart of the club, Ranjit Fernando, had set up shop for the morning. Ranjit, a Sky commentator and former World Cup wicketkeeper, has been a member of the club for 47 years, including a one-year stint as president in 2005. That's quite long enough to work out the best vantage point in the ground, and as we sat beneath the branches of a cashew tree, fanned by a gentle westerly breeze, it was hard to argue with his judgment.
Part of the NCC's charm, as Ranjit pointed out, was the complete absence of advertising hoardings. With its magnificent manual scoreboard and attractively archaic old pavilion, the ground felt as venerable as the club itself, which was founded in 1888 as a catch-all ("Nondescript") alternative to the many racially aligned teams in and around Colombo - such as the Moors, Tamil Union and, of course, CCC, which was predominantly European until the 1950s.
Even in settings such as this change is inevitable, hence the creation of the new pavilion to enable the club to expand. "The members didn't want to deface the old one," said Ranjit, "but the unfortunate thing is that there were two lovely trees there which we had to do away with." One used to be on the site of the pavilion itself, the other by the car-park, where a busy open-air swimming complex had been constructed in a bid to swell the club's coffers.
It is a slight regret perhaps, but the ground has endured such indignities before and survived to tell the tale. During the Second World War, for instance, the NCC and SSC were both requisitioned by the British to form one long runway for the Royal Air Force. The remnants now lie beneath several layers of turf, and the only outward sign is the firmness of the concrete beneath one's fielding spikes.
Andrew Miller is the former UK editor of ESPNcricinfo and now editor of The Cricketer magazine