September 27, 2011

Plane tales from the hills

Galle to Colombo? Our fearless correspondent takes an unconventional mode of transport and lives to tell the tale

September 5
After the fashion of the Australian team, the travelling correspondents' journey from Galle to Kandy is made by the unusual avenue of a sea plane. We are taken to a Galle air base and wait in a small ante room for a minibus to take us to the lake for take-off. We are joined there by the ICC match referee Chris Broad and the umpire Tony Hill, soon due to board another flight. Broad is chatty but manages to keep it secret that he has just submitted a scathing report on the nature of the Galle pitch.

When we arrive, the aircraft resembles a sea-bound version of the one I remember watching as a child in The Flying Doctors. Like in most episodes of that show, the flight is a bumpy one, as we are tossed about by the hot air currents that circulate in the hills around Kandy. The turbulence is mainly vertical in nature, causing Peter Lalor of the Australian to bump his head more than once as he attempts to take photos. Occasionally there is a judder from side to side that has me hanging on to the seat in front of me a little more tightly than I would like to admit. Jim Maxwell, the ABC radio doyen, maintains a sense of the jocular with a brief grab of on-board commentary. Our descent feels steep, but the lake landing in Kandy is as smooth as the flight was not. We and our bags depart happily.

September 6
There had been tales told before this trip of a hilltop restaurant in Kandy known beguilingly as Helga's Folly. Stuart MacGill, it is said, went there every night of Australia's stay in 2004, and other Australian visitors spoke of it in awed tones. Such an advance billing can lend itself to disappointment when the moment arrives, but there is nothing of the sort here. After a brief battle to find the right hilltop, we enter a world that is fabulously bohemian - like a hidden gem in Melbourne's Brunswick somehow transported to Sri Lanka. The walls, tables and ceilings are bedecked with a dazzling assortment of colours, themes and trinkets, while old-time LPs provide the perfect soundtrack. The menu is a neat mixture of the here and there, and the drinks are cold.

Seated at a suitably dramatic circular table, with goblets to hold our water and wine, we become locked in a debate about politics, religion - can a rich man enter Heaven? - and culture. For a time it feels like a scene from Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, but before any cannibalism can occur the mood is lightened by the appearance of Helga herself, who speaks fondly of the house and its history. Enthralling.

September 8
Some days it can be especially difficult to write an accurate preview of a Test match. Sri Lanka's board and back-room manoeuvrings are near-legendary, but even the locals are surprised by the turn of events that has Rangana Herath and Ajantha Mendis missing out in Pallekele. Herath's absence is the more easily explained: due to a match-eve knock to his spinning finger, which has swollen up overnight. However, Mendis seemed set to play until warm-ups, when he alerted the team's new physio, Steve Mount, that back pain he had been managing was now too sharp to allow him to take part. Rumours of various subtexts have circulated, and much of the pre-match coverage now looks a little preposterous with Mendis not playing. I had bumped into Mount at the team hotel the night before play, at which point he was none the wiser, though he did advise helpfully that the left-arm seamer Chanaka Welegedara would shrug off a knee niggle. This much proved to be correct.

September 11
Having finished reading Mike Atherton, I've now spent time in about the same era, the 1990s, but on entirely different cultural ground. Different For Girls is Louise Wener's hilarious yet poignant tale of what happened when after a childhood spent dreaming of becoming a pop star she found herself, horror of horrors, actually being one. The cycle of endless band work, watched by no one, then the advent of resounding, overwhelming success and then the eventual creep of paranoia, fatigue and self-loathing is captured with plenty of wit and sharp observation. There are ruminations on the nature of fame, which I am reminded of when observing how many of the Australian cricketers wear baseball caps to dinner. It is done in order to gain that extra little morsel of anonymity in an environment where the photo request is never far away. Wener's words on quitting at the right time are also relevant to cricketers, for both professional sport and pop music are, with a few infamous exceptions, the pursuits of the young.

September 13
A little bad light, a lot of rain and the sojourn in Kandy ends with a drawn Test. The last day is filled with as much interest in the travelling media troupe's choice of transport for the journey back to Colombo as it is in the matter of who will have to make way for Shaun Marsh following his commanding debut century. We have, via Lalor's booking, taken the option of the observation cabin on the train south, and share the views with the Australia team performance analyst Dene Hills and his family. The train is decidedly venerable, and weaves through a succession of awe-inspiring vistas and British Empire tunnels. Its path is punctuated by turbulence familiar from the earlier sea-plane trip, but a little more unsettling for the fact that a train is meant to be travelling on rails rather than air. Sitting with a friend, I share headphones to listen to the Beatles, then Motown briefly, then a shuffled Australian selection. All seem to fit.

September 16
Colombo's SSC is a more developed version of P Sara Oval, and is one of the last remaining Test match grounds to possess an open-air press box. While this can be seen as an impediment in terms of heat and humidity, its benefits are enormous for the addition of atmosphere and noise from the field. It reminds me of my horror when I visited the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore earlier in the year to find its open press facility had been replaced by a larger, completely enclosed box. As impressive as Pallekele's press facility is (it occupies the entire stand at one end of the ground) a sense of being at the ground is so important, now that television is conveying almost everything but the heat, the dust and the sense of being there. Cricket Australia is using the evidence of the subcontinent to press for better facilities ahead of the 2015 World Cup, but would it be too much to ask that the windows of any new boxes be given the option of opening?

September 20
Five days of cut and thrust conclude with a sparkling Michael Clarke century to put the series beyond doubt and hand him the ideal start to his Test captaincy. The Australians celebrate the win in the rooms at the SSC, while Tim Nielsen emerges with typical earnestness to inform the travelling press that he has decided not to continue as coach, nor to reapply for the new position. His goodbye is the first of several this night, for the teams are dispersing immediately for home ports or the Champions League Twenty20.

There are fond farewells among the media contingent, and I also bid adieu to Mount, who has learned more about Sri Lanka than any tourist possibly could in his first series as physio for the national team. He is intrigued by chatter about Geoff Marsh's potential announcement as the new Sri Lanka coach, and hurries off to say goodbye to his Australian counterpart, Alex Kountouris.

Before I head off, I am gratified to bump into Trent Copeland and Nathan Lyon, the two little-known debutants who contributed plenty to Australia's success. They remain awed by the whole experience but are visibly more confident as a result of it, even seeming to walk a little taller. So they should.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo