July 13, 2009

Thieving cats, suicidal drivers

It's hot in Colombo, small animals are after your dinner in Galle, and security staff are sticklers for dress codes

July 2
Bangalore Airport. For a trip decided upon two days ago. Not really in the Sri Lanka mood right now. It's the often tiresome process of obtaining a visa that usually sets a tour rolling. No such headaches for Sri Lanka, which, despite the troubles it has been through, is welcoming enough.

Radio in the cab to Galle. Unmistakeable baila music. "Surangani", one of the more popular songs, has been consumed in various versions in India. Bollywood tune follows. Counter-copy? Just the mandatory one Hindi song an hour this particular radio station plays.

Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara on most advertising hoardings. Some, Coca Cola mostly, have them together. Surprise appearance on the hoardings: Tony Greig, working on a laptop, selling internet cards. Missing face: Muttiah Muralitharan.

July 3
Mama's Galle Fort. Quaint little colonial house that lets out two rooms on the first floor. Circular wooden staircase. Old furniture. High ceilings. Damp monsoon smell in the cupboards. Grand chair in the balcony. Mosquito nets. Quite tony.

Armed security guard at Galle International Stadium. Armed with a mean-looking thing, knee pads, elbow pads, shades, intimidating look and all. Smiles. Not seen as a foreigner surely. Couple of Sri Lankan journalists come and talk in Sinhalese.

Cats as prats. Lose dinner to them at the terrace of the old colonial house. But for this inclination to pinch cheese sandwiches, pretty friendly creatures.

July 4
First morning of the series. Mohammad Aamer strikes in the first over of his Test debut. Gets a three-for as Sri Lanka are dismissed for 292. The feline kind strikes again, later in the day. Resolve not to eat on the terrace again; rather, not go for a stroll once the food is served.

July 5
One of those moments that defines time in life. Was covering a day-night Asia Cup match in Karachi when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played last year's epic Wimbledon final. Am covering a Test match - thankfully those are still played in the day - in Galle, when Federer and Andy Roddick start another epic in SW19. Rain delays and slow over-rates in Galle. Two sets are over by the time tennis can be turned to.

Surprise appearance on the advertising hoardings: Tony Greig, working on a laptop, selling internet cards

The old colonial house, meant for holidayers, doesn't have a TV. Go to an expensive beach resort to watch the last two sets. It's worth the trip and expense. A group comprising various nationalities and colours gathers around a small TV placed high enough to strain the neck. Watch an incredible display of held nerves and serves. Federer finally breaks Roddick. First time in four-and-a-quarter hours. Breaks Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles.

Lovely auto-rickshaw ride along the coast back to the house. Realise a year has passed.

July 6
What would cricket in the subcontinent be without overbearing officials? Stopped by a security in-charge at the gates of Galle International Stadium. Wearing slippers and not shoes. Try to tell him that such dress-code conditions were not laid out by Sri Lanka Cricket at the time of granting accreditation. When a man doesn't want to listen he doesn't want to listen. Want to sound angry, but can't. Media in-charge gets a top official on the line, who tells the security in-charge to let journalists in slippers in. Our stern and visibly scandalised security in-charge asks on the phone, "You mean they can wear anything and come?"

July 7
Apart from the dramatic Pakistan collapse on the fourth morning, this Test will be remembered for shoddy wicketkeeping, by the stand-in, Tillakaratne Dilshan, and the specialist, Kamran Akmal.

Ramiz Raja, ever a source of anecdotes, remembers interviewing Imtiaz Ahhmed, Pakistan's first regular wicketkeeper, who started keeping because of the number of catches Hanif Mohammad dropped on an India tour. Hated keeping because he was hit in the head when fairly young, by a batsman trying to sweep. Used to keep with gosht [mutton] in the gloves - such was the quality of the equipment.

July 8
Thought Delhi bus drivers were the worst, before Bangalore worthies dispelled the notion. Had another think coming, on the road from Galle to Colombo. As it is, buildings on both sides of the road mar the beauty of a drive along the coast. Bus drivers not using their dipper lights, and switching lanes recklessly while pulling off crazy overtaking manoeuvres on the narrow road make it a threat to life. Lucky to survive and still be reporting.

Notice Sporting Times outlets in every town and village along the way. Inside people bet on horse races, mainly in England, that are telecast live. Big business across the whole country.

July 9
Create a semi-scene by turning up to watch Sri Lanka practise at the R Premadasa Stadium. Security guards startled at seeing a journalist at a training session three days before a match. An Indian at that. Good thing to be able to produce the media accreditation, the passport and the Cricinfo identity card. Say hello to Brendon Kuruppu, former Sri Lanka wicketkeeper and now the team manager. Mainly to stop being perceived as a threat to security.

July 10
Simon Taufel at the nets. Yes, umpires have nets too. "I have not seen a red ball bowled in anger for a while," he says. Also, he needs to get his head movements right, from looking down at the bowler's foot, to looking up at what happens to the delivery. Spends time in both nets - for fast bowlers and for spinners. Teams don't mind his standing there. Calls no-balls too.

July 11
Younis Khan has some zest for life. Forever laughing, smiling, joking, and enjoying other cultures. Seeing a volunteer carry two ice boxes from the dressing room to the nets, he walks up and helps him, talking with him throughout the walk across the P Sara Oval. Hot afternoon. Laps the ground about five times and practises slip catches, without his shirt on. When asked about the heat, says, "Sri Lanka mein khelein aur garmi na ho to fayda kya [What's the point of playing in Sri Lanka if it isn't hot?]"

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo