Sri Lanka? Here we go again
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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