March 29, 2001

An Englishman in Sri Lanka (part 8)

James Davis

Ever since I arrived in Sri Lanka in late January, the most frequent question that I have been asked, apart from the obligatory "What's your name?" and "Are you married?", has been "March 23rd. Are you going to Dambulla?"

The match in Dambulla has aroused enormous interest in Sri Lanka owing to the remoteness of its location and the fact that the stadium was built in an extraordinary 161 days.

On arriving in Dambulla with a number of other English fans, after a four-hour journey from Colombo, we were greeted by the rather bizarre question, "Are you Barmy Army?" Dambulla was not quite sure what to expect from the England supporters and likewise England supporters did not know what to expect from Dambulla.

The town itself must be one of the smallest to have hosted an international cricket match. It is basically a one-street affair, which is lined with shops selling local produce, a few basic restaurants, a bar and a bookmaker. It was quite something for the Sri Lankan board president, Thilanga Sumithapala, to envisage international cricket in this small town. It is about as close as cricket gets to a "rumble in the jungle" and in fact critics of the project said that only monkeys would watch the match.

I did see the odd monkey on my way to the game as well as a couple of elephants tethered to a tree next to the ground. It must rank as one of the most beautifully situated grounds in the world (another to add to Sri Lanka's already impressive list that includes Galle and Kandy). On one side there is a lake that stretches into the distance and opposite a great rock, with its ancient Buddhist cave temples, which has attracted thousands of tourists each year to the town.

There was some doubt as to whether the ground would be completed on time and it is a minor miracle that a match took place given that building work began only last October. The playing surface itself looked in good shape, but the stadium was far from ready. Even before the match began, one of the roofs of the temporary stands collapsed on to the spectators below. This meant that throughout the match spectators had to keep one eye on the cricket and one on the rattling corrugated iron sheets that flapped in the wind.

In fact, more than two eyes were required at Dambulla as the crowd provided a great deal of entertainment. The stands were filled to capacity as apparently thousands pushed past security without paying. Space was at a premium and some Sri Lankans even braved the unstable corrugated iron roofs.

It was a shame that the match did not befit the occasion. England in this match and the two that followed were comprehensively outplayed by a resurgent Sri Lanka team who looked sharper in all areas. The local supporters were disappointed with the lack of a contest and the low scoring in each of the matches. They did not even have a single Sri Lankan six to cheer and had to resort to singing and dancing over a six by Andy Caddick in the second one-day match.

Even if the tour finished on a slightly flat note, nothing can dampen the spirit of England supporters who have been lucky enough to watch England perform with great skill and determination this winter. We all look forward to the summer and to the visits of Pakistan and Australia and hope for continued success and dry weather.