August 11, 2008

High scores

Why few experiences in cricket can hold a candle to that of watching a game from the ramparts of the Galle Fort

Galle Fort: the world's biggest sight screen © AFP

I like walking to cricket grounds, even though my last walk to one, barely 250 metres to the Wankhede Stadium for an IPL match, was horrifying - for reasons I will not go into here. To most Australian grounds you walk through vast gardens and playing fields, watching children play all manner of sports as you go. And if you choose to walk through the greens to the WACA, you are likely to encounter plenty of black swans, the official bird of Western Australia.

You are advised to always watch your back in Johannesburg, but if you're staying at the Protea Wanderers hotel, you have the luxury of walking through the greens of the Wanderers Club, which is housed in a charming colonial-style building. On the other hand, the approach to Newlands in Cape Town, where you watch cricket against the mighty backdrop of Table Mountain, is unsuitably prosaic.

In Nottingham you can walk leisurely along the Trent river, cross the bridge, and go past the pubs to Trent Bridge, the prettiest of cricket grounds. But if you make the mistake of taking the first turn after the bridge, as I did once, you will end up at the Nottingham Forest football ground, which is not quite as charming.

The stadium in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami © Getty Images

A walk I have taken every year since 2001 is the one from the St John's Wood tube station to Lord's. It has a ceremonial air to it. The moment you emerge from the escalators, the station staff wave you through the turnstiles, which are kept open for the Tests. On a good day in July, you step out of the station to crisp, fresh air and turn left for the short walk to the ground, during which you are bound to have some free merchandise handed over to you, and to be approached by touts peddling match tickets quite openly.

Lord's remains the most traditional of English grounds. Between the members and regular watchers, tickets get consumed well in advance, sometimes as early as the previous year, which makes it difficult for fans to get a seat on impulse. But the crowd is still fairly multi-cultural, and increasingly so. When India played there last year, I spotted plenty of women in sarees.

Nothing prepared me for Galle, however. Earlier this month I arrived there the night before the Test match, so I passed the stadium almost without noticing it. My hotel, a charming, restored Dutch villa, was inside the Galle Fort, a heritage site listed by UNESCO. Inside the fort resides a world of its own. There are hotels, guest-houses, little restaurants, banks, museums, a library, a church and a mosque; small boutiques shops selling gems and jewellery, clothes, artefacts, paintings, and even books; and of course, residential houses. The buildings are small and quaint and some have beautifully carved doors and windows. Like in all parts of Sri Lanka, the people are friendly and rarely unsmiling.

Viewfinder: Jonathan Agnew reports on the match from the fort in 2001 © PA Photos

The stadium is less than half a kilometre from the hotel, and on day one of the Test I walked in solitude down the Church Road, a narrow, winding, sloping street that leads to the world outside, declining offers from tuk-tuk drivers to take me where I was going. I hoped to see cricket fans emerge out of the other lanes. None did. In fact, until I reached the fort entrance, nothing intimated me that a Test match was about to be played across the street. What I saw next astounded me.

Through the archway in the fort wall, the whole cricket ground revealed itself. The stadium has only two stands, on either side of the building that houses the pavilion, dressing rooms and media boxes. That's across from the fort. The rest of the ground, almost three-fourths of it, is open. The only thing separating the ground from the road is a fence of thin metal wire.

From within the fort, I could tell that India had won the toss because I could see the Sri Lankans warming up in the field: Chaminda Vaas practising his run-up, Muttiah Muralitharan doing some gentle stretches.

The sight filled me with such a thrill that I stood watching for a few minutes. In all my years as a cricket fan I couldn't remember anything coming close to it. Of course, driving through the English countryside, you are bound to pass cricket fields with matches on, and from Marine Drive in Mumbai, you can watch games being played on the grounds of one of the many Gymkhanas, but none of those, of course, can even begin to compare with the profile of an international match featuring some of the game's biggest stars.

Buddhist monks watch a Sri Lanka-South Africa Test in 2004 © Associated Press

Only once had I managed to catch a glimpse of an international game from outside a ground. That was from a local train in Mumbai; India and Australia were playing at the Wankhede. I got down at the next station and went to watch. I didn't go to work for the next three days. Here in Galle I could have watched the whole match standing on the road. Indeed, many did.

Considering the security situation in Sri Lanka - in Colombo you would be lucky to travel the shortest distance without being stopped at one of the many army posts - I expected to be subjected to a thorough screening at the stadium gate in Galle.

I wasn't even asked to open my bag. "Media?" one of the security men enquired. "This way, sir." I got my answer a little later, in the press box. The LTTE choose their targets carefully. "Till Murali is playing," said a Sri Lankan journalist, "you can almost be certain that they will not come near a cricket ground."

By itself, the Galle International Stadium is not the prettiest in the world. In many ways it is a symbol of Sri Lanka's spirited recovery after the tsunami in 2004 that devastated the southern coast and left over 35,000 dead. The stadium, which is barely 250 metres from the sea, was flattened. It is still a work in progress.

However, the surroundings are among the most scenic in the world. In the pavilion you sit diagonally across from the fort and you can watch the sea on either side, rougher on the right, with waves crashing into the rocks, and relatively tranquil on the left.

Cliff notes: the ocean view is never far in Galle © Associated Press

But the best seats are actually outside the ground. And they are free. I watched the morning session of the final day from atop the fort wall. It is an easy climb up the stairs, and for the sheer experience, few things come close. It was a cloudy morning and a gentle breeze was blowing. We managed to find a spot behind the sight screen, which meant I could follow the ball even better than from within the press box. In fact, in 2001, after being denied a place in the box because of a rights dispute, Jonathan Agnew of the BBC's Test Match Special perched himself here under an umbrella and went about his business.

We sat sipping fresh coconut water and munching peanuts, with friendly Sri Lankan fans on either side. A few gun-wielding soldiers stood behind, a reminder of the grim realities of a strife-ravaged nation, but if you caught their eye, they were always likely to respond with a smile.

The sun began to singe as the clouds scattered. Those who cared had brought umbrellas, but to most of the regulars it hardly mattered. Three quick Sri Lankan wickets just before lunch quietened the crowd somewhat, but most of them stayed till the end, beating their drums, waving their flags, cheering the runs the Sri Lankan batsmen managed, and accepting the inevitable defeat with grace. Sri Lankans love and enjoy their cricket, but seem to know where to draw the line.

At lunch I retreated to the cooler, more sterile confines of the press box, but kept an eye on the fort wall for the rest of the day. I hope to return just as a fan. Watching a match from the Galle Fort must rank among the top ten experiences in cricket.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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