September 23, 2012

Sri Lanka? Here we go again

If you're covering a global cricket event, there will be plenty of running around, dodging cricket balls, flattering the hotel staff and walking uphill

September 16
Flying back to Colombo from Mumbai barely a month after covering India's mandatory annual Sri Lanka pilgrimage in July-August. Got to dislike these late-night flights, or "young man's flights" as Harsha Bhogle, who wisely takes a day connection from Mumbai via Chennai to Colombo, calls them. Run into a serious-looking Dirk Nannes on the plane. He puts on his most grave expression as he says he is going to Sri Lanka as an expert analyst for the BBC. Where? Hamban… Hambak… he gives up. "You'll find it," I tell him. "In the middle of nowhere." Dirk does the Dirk grin.

It is a Sunday and from Bandaranaike airport to the hotel is a breeze. Meet our UK editor David Hopps at the Cinnamon Grand, which has been overrun by cricketers of all sizes and nationalities. Spot Javed Miandad chatting with an Indian journalist. Of course, Javed bhai does all the talking.

Watch Pakistan practise at one of the many picturesque grounds in Colombo, the Moors Sports Club. Pakistan have a player hitting high catches to a few fielders on the boundary. Shahid Afridi walks over, takes the bat and starts hitting catches. Except he hits the ball way beyond the boundary. He grins and takes a few steps back. No use. He has too much power. He backs up even further and manages to hit some with less venom to the fielders.

September 17
Go to the Sri Lanka Cricket office adjoining the Sinhalese Sports Club ground, where a fellow journalist tells me Australia are playing England in a warm-up match. There's still time to go for India-Pakistan. Decide to watch a few overs of Australia-England. "Wait, I was wrong," fellow journalist says. "It is not at SSC but at NCC." Disappointment? Dismay? Nothing of the sort. A boundary wall separates the two venues. The Nondescripts Cricket Club is anything but. It has a lovely old wooden-floored bar that opens out into a comfortable roofed verandah. Square-leg view, though. I stick to standing beside the sightscreen, which is more than a hundred feet of solid whitewashed wall. Has to be covered with dark black sheeting to provide contrast for the white ball.

Not even a couple of thousand people at the Premadasa to watch India play Pakistan. Disappointing. After R Ashwin has done his job, Kamran Akmal shows India how poor the rest of their bowling is. Rohit Sharma, who has made some runs after a long time, walks into his first press conference in a long time. After half an hour of waiting, the media are told no one from Pakistan is coming. Doing non-mandatory pressers is not Pakistan's style, you see.

September 18
India are practising at the NCC. Afghanistan scheduled to come in later in the afternoon. This time I make use of the roofed verandah to watch MS Dhoni swat the India bowlers into the trees beyond the rope. He doesn't seem to be using a lot of power. The ICC's Sami-ul-Hasan is supervising the setting up of the media's equipment for Dhoni's press conference. "Khadey toh ho hi wahaan, shuru ho jaao [Since you are standing there, you might as well start asking questions]," Dhoni jokes with Sami, and walks up to defend his four-bowler combination. Does he keep count of how many times he has to do that?

After two hours, learn Afghanistan's practice has been pushed back by about four hours. And the venue is the Premadasa now. Lots of groaning all around. The Premadasa is no next-door neighbour of the NCC. And no one fancies Colombo traffic in the evening.

Afghanistan captain Nawroz Mangal sounds very confident. The effect is enhanced because the language he speaks, Pashto, has very crisp-sounding pronunciation.

September 19
Rush to catch the England-Pakistan warm-up game at the P Sara Oval, the easternmost of all these Colombo grounds, and also the one on which Don Bradman played in 1948. Charming pavilion. Wooden pillars, wooden benches, wooden floor. Old mates Mohammad Akram and Mushtaq Ahmed, both bowling coaches now, sit together outside the Pakistan dressing room. Umar Gul joins in. Dashes with a bottle of energy drink to the middle, then rejoins the duo.

Up in the press box, old hand Abdul Rasheed Shakoor of the BBC's Urdu service has a story a minute on Pakistan cricket's past and present. Pakistan are chasing 112. Should be a steal, surely. Shakoor knows better. "We know our team," he drawls, and turns around in vindication every time a Pakistan wicket falls. Pakistan lose by 15 runs. "The Pakistan dynamite," shouts a fan as Kamran walks towards the team bus.

Back at the Premadasa, where a near-empty stadium watches Australia outclass Ireland. A semblance of a crowd emerges as India huff and puff to victory against Afghanistan. In the press conference, Virat Kohli "hopes" India's bowling improves as the tournament progresses. "Hope" is the right word. Afghanistan have earned the right to be confident after their performance, and coach Kabir Khan says they will look to target England's "condition bowlers".

September 20
Off to Kandy for the toughest group on paper - Pakistan, New Zealand, Bangladesh. The surroundings get greener as the car winds up the hills. Driver's name: Jayasuriya. Driving style: defensive. Talks about official speed limits and follows them dutifully. Stops the car immediately if he sees even one person at a pedestrian crossing. They do the exact opposite in India, I tell him. They increase speed as they see pedestrians are about to cross. He is stunned. Repeats what I have said a few times. No change in his style, of course. Laughs when the vehicle behind honks. "Where will you go to?" he asks philosophically. I give up hopes of an early arrival in Kandy.

Walk down the hill from hotel to an Indian restaurant. Path goes along the lake and by the Temple of the Tooth. Absolute calm, despite the heavy traffic on the other side of the water. Wonder why the journey back up feels draining. Could be the couple of onion parathas.

September 21
Go to the Asgiriya Stadium, venue of many Tests but now in visible decline, for Pakistan practice. No security issues at all. Car is waved in after a glance at the media accreditation pass. Fat chance of this happening in India. Hardly a soul to watch a top international team's nets session. Fat chance of this happening in India. Dangerous decision to stand straight down the ground from the nets. Fail to spot a big hit against the sky. Ball whooshes past close.

Drenched in sweat, Mohammad Hafeez speaks to a Pakistan journalist about what he perceives to be baseless criticism back home. Tenuous relationship, the one India and Pakistan players share with their respective media.

Apart from the cutouts of the players in some places, and a few boards, nothing else signals there is a world event in town. Pallekele Stadium is like a bedecked bride patiently waiting for some attention. None is forthcoming.

Brendon McCullum whacks all perceptions and predictions against New Zealand into the largely empty Pallekele grass banks. Mushfiqur Rahim is flooded with questions on his decision to bowl. "We would have done the same," says McCullum.

September 22
Hotel staff extremely polite, so much that you almost feel sorry for making them work. "Who will win?" asks the one who brings my tea. "Sri Lanka?" I am moved to answer. In the evening, South Africa thrash the hosts in rain-hit Hambantota.

"We'll start with questions in English and I am sure there will be one or two later in Urdu," says the ICC's Lucy Benjamin as Hafeez sits down for the press conference before Pakistan's opening game against New Zealand. The Urdu session lasts four times as long as the English one. Benjamin smiles helplessly. Hafeez answers everything patiently, as if explaining concepts to a class. What was his nickname again?

Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Juan on September 26, 2012, 0:11 GMT

    Oops, might have jumped the gun a bit too early with that last post. Got carried away with the first comment I read. We Lankans are known to do that on occasion. Anyways, Mohammad Alam - I admit I don't know for sure, but was USA even in the bidding to host 2012 WT20? Was the cricketing board there even interested? Or are you talking about what YOU think is the opinion of the many? Profitable it might be host in USA, which too is very doubtful. Income problems all over and I wouldn't have so much faith in ticket sales. Moreover, to hold a World championship in a country whose team from what Wikipedia tells me "only one of the players on the cricket team is from the United States" and never qualified to play in a World Cup? Alam, be serious, you want to catch a decent international cricket match? Get a plane ticket and not to SL cause we don't want you here.

  • Juan on September 25, 2012, 18:50 GMT

    @WPDDESILVA - My thoughts exactly on all mentioned points. Couldn't have said it better, specially without crass language.

  • Deleepa on September 25, 2012, 12:42 GMT

    Sri Lanka fans aren't the craziest. Even though they think they are! You cannot pack stadium after stadium with the Sri Lankan crowd. They don't care about Cricket as much as the Indians or the Pakistani's. I am a Sri Lankan but if we as fans treated Cricket as passionate sport would we ever let people like Kapugedara bat for 90 ODI's?? Chamara Silva to appear in a World Cup? Let Chaminda Vaas out of the team like a stray dog?

  • Sojhan on September 25, 2012, 12:06 GMT

    Mohammed Alam, you say tickets are cheap. Well that maybe true for foreigners but if you knew what the average Sri Lankan monthly income was you would understand that affordability plays a huge part. Due to diminishing disposable income caused by soaring inflation many people would struggle to buy tickets for all the SL games let alone neutral ones. This coupled with the fact that the games are more likely to be wash outs should help explain the lack of attendance.

  • savs on September 25, 2012, 8:43 GMT

    I disagree with Mohammad Alam. The USA is no where near hosting any ICC tournament at the moment. Some of the pitches in the USA are terrible from what i've seen especially in Florida. SL and NZ played back in 2010, 3 out of the 4 innings scores where under 100 runs and less than 1000 people turned up to watch the match. I saw the Australia vs West Indies game a couple of says ago in Colombo and more than 30 000 turned up to watch that match even though it was a neutral game. I will asure you that the stadiums will be full for the Super 8's and the finals coming up. As for the Rain, well it rains in every country. If the WT20 was played in England at this time every game will be cancelled due to the rain. Another point, even in the London Olympics some events that had no crowds at all because the public don't want to see less exciting events.

  • Dummy4 on September 25, 2012, 5:43 GMT

    Mohammad Alam is right... its a innovative idea and a chance to see the world cup being hosted in a new place in a new style! No doubt America is no where near sri lanka's class in the cricket world... but i think sri lank has hosted world cups even the recent 2011 ODI world cup had some games in sri lanka... cant we give another country a chance which has large numbers of supporters waiting and is Economically A LOT LOT LOT Better for ICC! i am not in USA but i would like to see them host the world cup because i expect it to be as good or even better than UK! loved the 2009 world twenty20 UK is the best at hosting it if we look only at cricketing nations

  • Dummy4 on September 25, 2012, 4:01 GMT

    Hey Mr. Alam, read the articl "A German at the cricket" - Crowd meter...

  • John on September 24, 2012, 23:57 GMT

    Mohammed Alam has a point, in fact two excellent points. Guaranteed attendance and a chance to grow the game.

  • Dummy4 on September 24, 2012, 21:52 GMT

    Like I've said, the US already have millions of cricket fans, more fans than some cricketing nations have. It doesn't matter what percentage of the population cares about cricket. What matters is the total number. We have people from many countries here that love the sport, and they would sell out games no matter which teams are playing on any given day. Some of you are touting Sri Lanka's passion about cricket. Why are there so many empty seats if they are so passionate about the sport? Showing up only when Sri Lanka is playing doesn't define passion. It's nothing more than flag waving and patriotism. If your country cares about cricket you should be able to fill up the stadiums for a big event like this while tickets are this cheap. Also, some of you are saying they deserve this event because they have a good team. Having a good team is actually even *bigger* reason why they should've had better attendance and atmosphere for this event. That makes it even more shameful.

  • Dummy4 on September 24, 2012, 18:05 GMT

    Well we cannot ignore the importance of monetary in every field, but America doesnt deserve world cups be hosted there even if the return is , you say $30 per ticket, $30million ! Fully agree with Tharindu, it really needs many years to be a good cricketing team,,so Mr. Alam be patient till you get your team and produce some goodness to the sport!so better concentrate, both your mind and money, on producing good cricketing team rather than hosting WC!

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