Sri Lanka v Australia, 1st Test, Galle, 1st day March 8, 2004

The mystery of the missing crowd

Roving Reporter by Paul Coupar in Galle
A fascinating Test match - and series - started today in Galle ..

Muttiah Muralitharan bowled with venom and destroyed Australia, but there was barely anyone to witness his spell © Getty Images

It all seemed a bit of a puzzle. Today at Galle, Murali's doosra spat and he snared six wickets. Sri Lanka scored some deep scratches on Australia, the biggest beasts of the cricketing jungle. It was the first day of a series that could, just maybe, signal a change in the whole eco-system of world cricket. It was, in short, gripping stuff. And it was all watched by about 1500 spectators.

The only permanent stand, one of those tin-roofed affairs that wouldn't look out of place at an English non-league football ground, was half-full. The numbers were boosted by a contingent of about 200 12-year-olds on a school trip, in pristine white shirts and shorts, and by the usual congregation of Aussie travellers, scattered in the stands and on the grassy banks. About 30 thrifty souls watched for free from the ramparts of the overlooking Dutch fort.

If it hadn't been for the number of decent spinners in action, you could almost have been at an especially picturesque English county ground. Even as Murali whipped through Australia, the atmosphere remained one of lazy, subdued and slighty distracted fun. It was not quite "Oh! another wicket... well bowled ... be a good chap and pass the Bombay mix." But it wasn't far off.

Admittedly there were a few reminders that you weren't in England. It didn't rain. And instead of a gateman with a thermos of tea, you had stewards-cum-crack commandos, dressed all in black, with black bandanas and menacing-looking truncheons. Their employers were a company called the "Avant Guard", though I couldn't quite summon up the courage to ask their views on Sartre or situationist art. But there wasn't much of a crowd for them to control.

The declining interest in Test cricket on the subcontinent is well documented. Price is not the issue. You could sit on the grassy bank here for the cost of a cup - let alone a thermos - of tea. Attendances at the one-dayers have held up. And that action-packed form seems somehow more in keeping with the brash new thrusting Sri Lankan economy.

But you do wonder how much of the cliché of the Cricket Crazed Subcontinent stems from a lack of alternative entertainment. In Colombo even a dismal roadside karaoke version of Shabba Ranks's R&B classic, "Girl I Wanna Make You Sweat", drew a crowd of about 100.

But the Sri Lankan economy is booming, and a whole new galaxy of attractions - Irish theme pubs, video games, satellite TV ­- awaits. The West Indies has provided a worrying example of how quickly cricket can wither in the popular imagination, even where there seem to be firm roots. Attendances like today's do make you wonder about the state of Sri Lankan cricket in 20 years' time. But for the present, as Murali embarrassed several Australians, it looked pretty good.

Paul Coupar, the assistant editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, will be following Australia in their Test series in Sri Lanka.