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Hambantota and Pallekele. Two names we had heard frequently and always together in the run up to the 2011 World Cup, as the locations for the new stadiums Sri Lanka was building. Both modern facilities, with grandstands and grass banks. One close to the southern coast; one in the mountains. Both amid forests. One difficult to access, one comfortably reachable.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium has to be one of the remotest grounds in cricket. It takes its name from the coastal town of Hambantota, but is located at least 35km north of it. That would have been still bearable but apart from the hotel where the teams stay, there hardly seem to be any decent hotels in Hambantota town. Our hotel is in Tissamaharama, a town north-east of Hambantota and close to the Yala National Park. The town is surrounded by lakes and fields. The stadium is around 60km away.
One has to take the road southwest towards Hambantota and then turn northwards for the ground. The second leg of the journey is a completely out-of-place looking four-lane stretch. You train your eyes on the horizon, and struggle to count even four vehicles using the road. A thick forest lies on both sides. Forget a stadium, you'll be lucky to spot a house or two. Just when you actually start to think that you might have taken the wrong route, the stadium rises suddenly out of the forest. We have drop-in pitches, this seems like a drop-in stadium. There is next to nothing close by. At night the ground glistens in floodlights surrounded by endless darkness.
A surprise awaits us on the way back to the hotel after the first game, well past midnight. An elephant is standing on the edge of the road, less than ten feet from our car. We hold our breath, as if that will let us pass unnoticed. Not happening. The elephant suddenly starts towards us, then, fortunately for us, jerks away as we speed past. We can afford to smile now, but the fact that it was a narrow escape is not lost on us.
One can cut the journey by about 20km by using a shortcut, a narrow one-lane road that connects the road leading north from Tissamaharama towards Ratnapura and the road linking Hambantota and the ground. "Dangerous at night time," says our driver Gamini. "Elephant crossings. Lots of them." We do take that road twice during daytime. There is no road at several places; it has broken into pebbles and potholes. It is so narrow that two vehicles cannot pass through without one of them abandoning some of the road. Shortcuts extract their own price. Fortunately, another four-lane mammoth is being built along the shortcut.
The series moves from south coast to west coast to the highlands in a week. The Pallekele International Cricket Stadium has to have one of the loveliest settings in cricket. It is about 15km from the hill city of Kandy, and the short journey by tuk-tuk has beautiful views of the city and the surrounding mountains. The one colour that can describe Kandy is green. The tops of buildings sprout from the all-encompassing thick foliage. The centre of Kandy is situated between the hills and the rest of it snakes up through countless roads, each showing the city from a different angle.
We go down one of these from our hotel towards the Temple of the Tooth, and then along Kandy Lake. Suddenly the tuk-tuk takes a sharp turn that rises steeply and quickly, so much so that in a few seconds, the lake seems to be vertically beneath us. The trees seem to rise and fall with the slopes of the terrain. There are many 300-degree turns in the road. There is even a bridge over a river with huge rocks.
And unlike Hambantota, there is lots of human habitation as well. The stadium is located close to the Kandy Industrial Zone complex. There are grass banks here, just like in Hambantota. But, unlike Hambantota, they just seem to blend seamlessly into the landscape here. Maybe it is the hills that do the trick. Maybe it is the cooler weather. But Pallekele captivates you. The stadium at Hambantota is equally magnificent, the surroundings as green, but somehow, Pallekele seems to have more of a soul.
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