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The stories behind the stories, in our reporter's recap of his first fortnight in Sri Lanka covering the Australia tour
September 5, 2011
In-flight reading for Sri Lanka is Opening Up, Mike Atherton's autobiography. He writes lucidly and well, as is to be expected, but more relevant to the Australian tour are his perspectives on selection, and the relationship between the captain and the rest of the panel. As a result of the Argus Review, Australia have just handed official selection rights to the captain, Michael Clarke, and the coach, Tim Nielsen. They would have been interested in Atherton's discussions of the various dynamics around selection, particularly in a struggling team as Australia have increasingly become. Take this exchange Atherton relates between himself and Mark Taylor in 1995, for instance: "We got through a crate of beer and I asked him about their forthcoming tour of the West Indies and his input on selection. 'Mate, I don't officially sit in on selection, but by and large they'll let me take who I want.' I listened enviously." Clarke now has rights that were never formally Taylor's, but will things progress quite so smoothly?
Breakfast at the team hotel is always something of an experience, as the buffet and the small talk are shared by players, officials, journalists and fans. On a given morning on this trip, an alert guest can spot Cricket Australia's operations chief, Michael Brown, talking cricket and life with Tom Moody, who may or may not be keen to apply for the redefined coaching job, or Greg Chappell, chatting away happily with a trio of Australian tourists of the non-cricket kind. Australia's players are courteous but prefer to eat at their own tables, mumbling quietly ahead of the day's training and meetings. More gregarious is Tony Greig, shortly to depart Colombo to shoot some footage of Jaffna in the north for airing in between sessions of the Tests. His smile is never as wide as it is in a ubiquitous BlackBerry advertisement here, however.
On the first day that the majority of my fellow touring journalists are present, we take the sage advice of the senior man, Malcolm Conn, and decamp to the beach-front bar of the Galle Face Hotel. The view of the ocean is superb, as is the chessboard outdoor deck on which the chairs and tables sit. The weather is a little less inviting, and most of the evening is spent either rushing to the undercover bistro whenever the rain arrives or slowly returning to our original position when it abates, wiping down our chairs with a towel before we sit. Having worked together on cricket at the Australian for some years, this is the first time Conn and Peter Lalor are touring overseas together - Conn now writes for the News Limited Group. Their banter is diverting.
P Sara Oval is a brief and occasionally bumpy car journey from the Colombo waterfront. Ascend the stairs to the press box early in the morning and one is greeted by a ground that is old world, intimate and pleasant. Much of the first morning is spent discussing Sir Donald Bradman's visit to the oval, the only ground he batted on in the subcontinent. Bradman walked out to the toss clad in a suit and a pith helmet, and he was still wearing said helmet when he walked out to bat. For all the torment he caused the English in Ashes Tests, Bradman looked every inch a potential viceroy in Sri Lanka.
My piece about Mark Higgs, the Canberra-based mentor of Australia's potential Test debutant Nathan Lyon, has won an award. Kind of. In a car somewhere on the road between Colombo and Galle, Conn awards me "most obscure story of the tour". It won't be so obscure if he makes his debut, I tell myself.
Test match eve in Galle. Australia have been cagey about their team selection as they digest the potential behaviour of a very dry pitch that the ground staff have been seen watering in an effort to keep it together. Watching training from the panoramic vista offered by the press box means I can write but also keep an eye on what is happening on the practice pitches. Lyon is seen in earnest conversation, then goes out alone to inspect the surface. He squats and runs his hands across it. Will he be chosen for his debut? It seems likely, and the possibility looks stronger still when another member of staff is seen shaking his hand. But Michael Beer played in Australia's last Test and his flatter style certainly seems to get some spin out of the practice wickets. Write a hedgy selection piece - Trent Copeland is a certainty to debut - and await further developments.
Occasionally a cricket writer's job can be made to feel dreadfully inconsequential. After training we travel to Seenigama, a town near Galle that was all but wiped out by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Its regeneration has been overseen by the Foundation of Goodness, an organisation run by Muttiah Muralithran's manager Kushil Gunasekara. After a brief visit to the foundation's cricket ground, known as the Surrey Oval after the contribution made to its restoration by the English county club of the same name, Kushil shows us the compound that pre-tsunami had served as his family home. As he talks us through some of the unhappier details of the tsunami - including the fact the compound had served as a makeshift morgue - a message comes through on our phones.
To prevent unofficial Twitter leaks, CA have released Clarke's XI for the first Test immediately after the team meeting. Lyon and Copeland are both in. There is a sense of instinct but also shallowness about the next half an hour, as phone calls are made, laptops opened and stories hastily written or updated. Kushil very kindly allows us time to send our stories in from his sitting room while heavy rain falls, but the moment is an awkward one. When he spoke of 2004, the pathos was real. Moments later there was hustle and bustle and hyperbole over the mere naming of a cricket team. Hollow.
The completion of a Test is always cause for some relief, after days of previews and the build-up of the match itself to a point of climax and conclusion. Australia's win deserves plenty of plaudits, but the muddled state of the Sri Lankans and the poor quality of the pitch leaves open the question of how much has actually been proven.
The Australians mark their victory by trekking up to the top of Galle's famous fort to bellow the team song at sunset, before returning to their hotel for more beach-side drinks. As for the journalists, a quiet drink and a light meal in Hikkaduwa allows the match to be debated and other memories to be reminisced. The Australian press group is joined by Kuldip Lal, AFP's wonderfully warm and knowledgeable Indian cricket correspondent. Sydney's acrimonious 2008 Test match is recalled, and all present agree they could have dealt with matters more coolly.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Daniel Brettig
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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