Getting out of jail
They caught my attention during the first session, occupying a majority of the roofed section near midwicket at the Galle International Stadium which seats a few hundred spectators. From afar, in white t-shirts and khakhi shorts, they looked like a group of oversized school students cheering heartily as Virender Sehwag laced the ball across the turf their way. On closer inspection it was evident that they weren't students. For a second I thought they could be off-duty cadets. The dress-code was common to those seen around various cantonments on the subcontinent.
But when a brief but fierce shower lashed the stadium during the lunch interval, they all jumped up in unison and grabbed the covers. This surprised me, as I had seen the Galle ground staff (white UltraTech Ceylinco-branded white tees and black pants) in action the day before this Test. I then learned that they were inmates from the nearby high-security Boosa prison.
More than 125 prisoners running across the ground covering the square at a live cricket match? With spectators and players present? I was taken back and so sought out head curator Jayananda Warnaweera. "They have special security guards to monitor their every move, so it is nothing to worry about," he told me. "These are inmates guilty of petty crimes, nothing too serious. We see it as benefiting us and them."
This is an initiative taken by the local cricket authorities at the Boosa detention camp. "We approached the prison officials, on our part as local cricket administrators, to assist with ground maintenance," Warnaweera said. "This is not the first time they have been called on to support the ground staff at a cricket match. They were here during the England Test last winter and have been called upon when cricket has been played here, though they were not part of the rebuilding of the stadium after the catastrophe of the 2004 tsunami. They also help out at other functions and construction now and then."
The inmates are driven to the ground early in the morning and taken back at night, after play. They sit together in one section and there is plenty of security, both police and navy, watching over them. Each of the inmates is provided with breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as tea. And, of course, as Warnaweera pointed out, the opportunity to watch live international cricket is special.
I was unable, for security purposes, to speak to one of the individuals. So I looked on as they took to their task. The inmates were remarkably efficient, mingling with the regular ground staff and making sure every inch of the ground was covered. I noticed no apparent tension between the inmates and the regulars. They yelled, grunted, laughed as one. They took orders from Warnaweera and did nothing to aggravate him. It was rather efficient, and added a human touch to a day that was a great advertisement for Test cricket.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo