World Twenty20 2012 September 25, 2012

Losing the bottle

The ICC has changed the bottled water provider at the World Twenty20 after teams complained of stomach illnesses, but in drought-stricken villages nearby any water will do

As headlines go, you have to admit it had a certain resonance: 'ICC denies poisoning cricketers.' That is good to know. Cricket's governing body has been accused of many shortcomings in its time but, as far as anybody knows, they have always stopped short of attempted murder.

Nobody has any proof that there was the slightest thing wrong with the bottled water supplied for World Twenty20. But to address the concerns of one team - believed to be Australia - the brand of water has been changed for players, media, hospitality and event staff for the rest of the tournament.

Australia remain for the Super Eights stage in Colombo, where they will doubtless be following instructions in their five-star hotel to avoid the salad, allow no ice to enter their drinks and not to eat buffet food that has been languishing under heaters for any longer than 9.8 seconds. The new brand of bottled water, called simply American, a brand that for some has a reassuring Western ring to it, should at least persuade Australia's players to stop bringing their own preferred bottles of water to matches. Both brands are sourced in Sri Lanka and follow Sri Lankan health guidelines.

Near Pallekele, the other venue for Super Eights, there is a real water crisis, not one that only exists only in the privileged world of the highly-cosseted international cricketer. A cricketer with a stomach ailment might just drop the catch that surrenders the tournament, and to that extent the health obsession of any ambitious player or team is understandable, but on the edge of the Knuckles mountain range, the safeguarding of a fresh water supply has become a matter of urgency.

The Victoria Reservoir, a short distance from Pallekele, normally provides a stunning backdrop to one of the most beautiful golf courses in Asia. Hook your drive at the moment and it will land in the world's biggest bunker. The reservoir, for the first time since it was completed, is bone dry. The May-June rains failed and the October monsoon cannot arrive soon enough. The people around here are deeply concerned.

Sebastian Bernard, 57, now a cook at Rangala House, an appealing old-colonial style property further up the valley, used to turn out Sri Lankan curries, 'not too spicy', for the Western engineers who worked on the project in the early 1980s. "They said it would never run dry," he said. "I have never seen it as dry as this. We need the rain."

In Rangala, an hour into the Knuckles from Pallekele, there has been no rain for four months. The land is parched, although the vegetation somehow retains the dark green that is so typically Sri Lankan. Livestock and wild animals will be in danger of dying if the rains do not come soon.

This week the villagers assembled on the playing fields between 9pm and 3am, 700 of them dressed in white, praying to Buddhist Gods, and singing incantations, accompanied by the sound of drumming.

The spring at Rangala House has run dry and about 500 metres up the road three people hammer away with picks and shovels to deepen a well by a further six feet. They still have drinking water, but nobody dare take it for granted. They are grateful to have a generator because power cuts are averaging three hours a night and when that happens the villagers are relying on kerosene lamps.

At least in Pallekele, on match night, as the floodlights illuminate World Twenty20, the villagers can be confident that there will be no power cuts.

Non-Asian players have had upset stomachs on the subcontinent since cricket began. The stories are endless. It can work the other way, too. The Sri Lankans once famously fell ill in England after eating fish and chips in Grimsby.

They adore cricket in Sri Lanka, and are proud to stage World Twenty20, but give the people a choice between a Super Eights stage uninterrupted by the weather and the sort of prolonged dousing that will secure their future and protect their livelihoods, and for many it is an uncomfortable pick. They need water, any water; it does not need to carry an approved label.

Amila Prageeth, the manager, admitted: "If it is between cricket for the next week or rain, I love cricket but I want the rain."

Sebastian disagreed, with the contented air of a more elderly man who has seen the rain fall for a lifetime, and trusts that the October rains will be along soon enough.

"I want the cricket," he smiled.

"In that case, you can live not on water, only on cricket," Amila said.

Back in the land of World Twenty20, three New Zealanders, Daniel Vettori, Tim Southee and Rob Nicol, have been affected, as have Australia's Mitchell Starc and Brad Hogg. Five South Africa players were weakened by gastro complaints but recovered to play in the win over Zimbabwe last Thursday. Half-a-dozen Ireland players also missed practice.

The list is a strikingly long one, but non-Asian players have had upset stomachs on the subcontinent since cricket began and nobody has ever thought to blame the bottled water. The stories of illness are endless. It can work the other way, too. The Sri Lankans once famously fell ill in England after eating fish and chips in Grimsby.

Among the 300 media personnel, by contrast, there have been no official complaints about official ICC water. An occasional stomach upset is shrugged off as a temporary inconvenience. Anyway not too many of the media can still remember what it was like to be in the peak of physical health.

LAUGFS Aqua System said it had asked the International Cricket Council (ICC) for samples of suspect bottles of water, but have just been told that its product is off the table.

"We have done our own tests and confirmed that there is nothing wrong with our water," LAUGFS general manager Chaminda Wijesinghe told AFP. "We asked the ICC to give us water samples but we have got no response yet. We don't know what caused the problem but I can tell you it is not our water. I am drinking it all the time."

The ICC statement was carefully worded: "Although there is no evidence to suggest that water was the cause of any illness, all products supplied for use in the tournament have been replaced," it said.

I read it out to Amila. "Tell them to bring the bottles here," he said.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo