Sri Lanka v Australia, 2nd Test, Kandy, 1st day March 16, 2004

A study in sepia

Roving Reporter by Paul Coupar in Kandy
Roving Reporter in Kandy



Muttiah Muralitharan joined the 500 club in front of his home crowd at Kandy © Getty Images

Kandy was tinged with sepia today. Gangs of children in white shorts from St Anthony's School (Murali's alma mater) politely cheered him as he took his 500th Test wicket. The Asgiriya Stadium swarmed with important-looking officers in khaki and braid, all with neat moustaches. Hell, half the Australian squad even arrived by seaplane, swooping their way from Galle through the steep-sided tea plantations and putting down on the Kandy lake, here in the Sri Lankan central highlands.

Even the ground itself is a glorious green-fringed anachronism. It belongs to Trinity College, a colonial-style public school, which has educated many of the country's elite since it was founded in 1872 -­ to inculcate "Christian Character" into Kandians.

And as Australian wickets tumbled, well-heeled spectators clapped politely in the Old Trinitians Sports Club at deep point. After being eyed up and down by a dapper Brylcreemed steward, I wandered past the polished plaque at the entrance ("Honour Yet The School We Knew") and sneaked inside.

The spacious clubroom, furnished with shabby-genteel sofas and cooled by punkahs, opens onto the field of play. And if you look closely at the walls, you'll spot Bandaranaikes (relations of the famous Sri Lankan political dynasty) on the board listing the club's officers. Turn right, and you're in a cosy, wood-panelled snug bar, serving imported lagers and lethally strong local stout. And all watched over by the college crest on the wall.

It could have been a scene straight out of a gentlemen's club on Pall Mall. You half-expected to see bewhiskered worthies earnestly discussing the latest news from the Zulu wars at Isandhlwana or the rumours of Dr Livingstone's progress towards the source of the Nile. But instead it was full of swanky young Sri Lankans and their girlfriends, all heavy make-up and western designer clothes.

The cricket also felt like a throwback. The ball swung. Australia struggled. Batsmen came and went like dilettante summer butterflies on the green-tinged pitch, and it didn't feel quite so much a batter's game. Darren Lehmann was even bowled middle and leg trying to glance, like some dashing young amateur.

And away in the distance the tea plantations, another colonial remnant, clung to the slopes. The buds and leaves of such fantastic Sri Lankan varieties as the Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe still end up on the world's breakfast tables. Closer by, the beautiful ground is surrounded on three sides by swathes of trees: palm fronds of a dozen varieties, tamarind and, most brilliant of all, the Flamboyant Trees, with their red flowers shooting skywards.

The day began with a flashback too. This morning I tried the traditional Sri Lankan Ayurvedic massage. Billed as an hour of relaxation, it actually involved being basted in herbal ointments, including extracts of chilli, ginger and coriander, then broiled in a wooden coffin pumped full of steam. And suddenly the fate of Gilbert Jessop, that Gloucestershire dasher of the 1900s, flashed into my mind. Poor Jessop's career ended, if I remember right, shortly after he became trapped in exactly this sort of contraption (used in those days to treat lumbago). Keen to preserve my own, rather less brilliant, journalistic career, I hurriedly forced the lid open and scurried for the safety of the stadium, and the Trinitian Sports Club.

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