England v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Galle, 1st day December 2, 2003

The Englishmen abroad

It doesn't take long for the lobster in every Englishman to come snapping to the surface



© Getty Images 2003

It doesn't take long for the lobster in every Englishman to come snapping to the surface. An hour and a half of sunshine, and Galle's scoreboard hill had been lit with beacons of bright burning faces, all of whom retained their enthusiasm remarkably well when the daily dose of rain arrived shortly after lunch. For many, the soothing raindrops were possibly even more welcome than the regular top-ups provided by the Lion Lager man, who wandered around with a beer-filled fire extinguisher strapped to his back.

There are nearly 2000 English fans in Galle's International Stadium today - that is nearly 2000 more than witnessed England's last Test, in the less-enticing environs of Chittagong. They make up nearly three-quarters of the spectators, and an unassuming grass-banked oval has been transformed into a formidable sporting venue. On days like this, it more than lives up to its rather grandiose title.

The ground authorities took their time to finalise their preparations. By the eve of the Test, they were belatedly erecting a rickety scaffold on which a spillover press box was to be situated, and overnight, several canvas awnings miraculously appeared to cover the stands at the Fort end of the ground. But, for all the apparent haphazardness, everything and everyone was quite clearly in their right place come the start of play.

The hill did as hills do. It housed the vagrant element of the crowd - those who had a seat but didn't want it, and vice versa - and was the natural focal point of the Barmy Army's choral division. Further around to midwicket sat most of the old lags - the veterans of Bangladesh, who were grateful for comfy chairs instead of concrete pews, and were making the most of the replay televisions to sit and enjoy some cricket at long last.

A very different clientele had settled into their seats at third man. It was here, away from the din of the flagwavers and their accompanying trance anthems, that the over-50s had set up shop. They sat on their thrones in reverential silence, served by tea-sellers and ice-cream vendors who paced up and down the muddy tracks at the boundary's edge. The only thing that might have had these punters miffed was that they were sat with their backs to Galle's old fort. Mind you, the alternative view, of rolling seas and church spires, was none too bad either.

It was when the rains kicked in that the tranquillity of this particular vantage-point became most apparent. For the poor souls trapped beneath the cascading roof of the grandstand, the medley of muzak being piped through the PA system was almost too much to bear. It veered from one tuneless monstrosity to another, with barely a change of key, and some of the more memorable numbers included a calypso rendition of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (well, it is nearly Christmas), and a pan-piped assassination of Happy Birthday.

There have been plenty of soggy days on this tour so far. But this was the first to have been witnessed by so many English fans. During the lengthy delay, they kept themselves amused as English crowds do - by talking about the weather, mostly - and were always quick to cheer the 100 or so members of the groundstaff, as they raced to and fro with their huge buckets and sponges.

Eventually the covers rolled off, and lo and behold, England took command. On reflection, though, it would have been odd if they hadn't. They did after all have an English crowd behind them and English weather above.

Andrew Miller, Wisden Cricinfo's assistant editor, is accompanying England on their travels throughout Sri Lanka.