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Slight trepidation as I queue up in immigration at Mumbai airport for my first international flight. The bureaucratic expression of the officer turns into a broad smile as I answer 'cricket' to his question 'purpose of visit'. "You are the first person, at least in my queue, going for this Sri Lanka series," he says. I settle into my window seat on the flight, and watch Juhu beach disappear quickly from sight. Didn't know it would happen, but there is an air of finality to the moment the plane crosses the last lights of the southern Indian mainland and the blackness of the sea takes over.
Colombo arrives in a flood of bright white lights, as opposed to the neon yellow of most Indian cities. The southern coastal town of Hambantota, the venue for the first two ODIs, is a long drive away. Our car, an old Nissan model, bypasses Colombo city, taking a two-lane road towards Ratnapura in central Sri Lanka. Apart from the fact that it is narrow, the road is in top condition. Hardly a jolt. This isn't India, alright. Here, they call two-lane roads what they are to be called - roads. Good or bad, but still a road. Unlike in India, where anything connecting two cities passes for a highway. Good or bad.
There is one thing common, though. Overtaking. Taxis, buses, trucks, everyone wants to overtake. It is a fine art, overtaking. Requires courage and skill on a two-lane road.
Bollywood makes sporadic appearances. "Rajesh Khanna [the veteran actor who died recently], very famous, very common face in Sri Lanka," says our driver Gamini. We stop at a small place for tea. It is playing Shankar Mahadevan's Nach Baliye.
More similarities to India. Cavalcades upon cavalcades of brightly-coloured pick-up trucks packed with people create traffic jams on the narrow road. Campaigning for some local election, I am told. Banners all over, large cut-outs of beaming politicians. "These politicians, they appear only during election time," Gamini says.
The vegetation gets denser after Ratnapura. It is difficult to make out where you are heading to; there is just the road and an impenetrable cover of trees accompanying it. After some time, the trees get thinner. The terrain gets flatter. We are in elephant territory. There are signs on the road warning people about elephant-crossing spots. The giant animals appear. In batches of three and four. There are some loners as well. Standing almost on the road. You realise why this place is more tourism than cricket. There are numerous national parks with many kinds of wild animals.
Could be a nice way to sell the cricket. A combination of an elephant safari and a game. Wonder if it would work the other way around. Probably not. Getting to the ground is the biggest achievement here. But that deserves a separate story.
Our destination is Tissamaharama, about a 75-minute drive from the ground, north-east of Hambantota town. Catchy name. Tissamaharama. Gamini makes it sounder catchier. The town is surrounded by lakes. We pass one of them. "Lake," Gamini announces in endearing sing-song Sinhala-accented English. "Tissa lake. Tissa-maaha-raaaama lake."
After six-and-a-half hours on the road, and one on the roadside, we reach our hotel, which is surrounded by fields. And more fields. Cricket? Er, how about a trip to Yala National Park first?
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