Tea garlands, spin demons, and a seven-wicket haul
A touring team is a tight-knit group. A happy family can win effortlessly and brush aside the broken curfews and drunken revelry, while a feuding clan can self-destruct with loss after loss. Like nuclear fallout, the England Ashes disaster will be radioactive for years.
At the end of January, in the shadow of the fiasco Down Under, the Authors Cricket Club, a team of writers I co-organise with the captain, literary agent Charlie Campbell, flew out to play seven matches in Sri Lanka. A month before we landed in Colombo, the British prime minister, David Cameron, had met and faced an over of spin from national hero Muttiah Muralitharan. Although the PM managed to keep Murali out, and even tonked one back over his head, the political doosra slipped between bat and pad. Murali didn't dislodge Cameron's bails, but he did chastise him for not knowing enough about the civil war.
The Authors had no political agenda, apart from being cricketers who value the restorative qualities of our beloved sport. So a game with the Foundation of Goodness, an organisation backed by an array of former Test stars, including Murali and Kumar Sangakkara, with a mission statement to improve the lives of rural communities in Sri Lanka, as well as building relations between North and South through playing cricket, was the ideal opening fixture.
Except that the Foundation XI proved too strong for a team of sweating writers just touched down in a tropical heatwave. Although I've always admired that back-foot drive favoured by Sri Lankan batsman, the wristy Ranatunga launch from the popping crease, I wasn't praising it when the ball repeatedly whistled past my ears and over the fencing.
We had batted first, and in clichéd English fashion, had thrown our wickets away at whim - I was caught at long-on trying to splash a six into the Bryan Adams Swimming Pool Complex. Judging by the charming welcomes we had received, from the unlikely smiles of customs officials at the airport to the hellos of children cycling past the Seenigama Oval, it was easy to see how a Canadian rock star had been won over by the Galle locals.
The charm offensive continued the following day when we visited the former school of our guide, a cricket-playing tour operator who escorted us to the gates where a parade of pupils in full whites awaited our arrival. We certainly didn't deserve the dazzling pageantry, but the beaming greetings felt more than simply waving at a dozen tourists. The deeper connection was cricket, a shared love. Our donation of kit and a new wicket was graciously received by the principal, who then warned us about the pedigree of the Old Boys XI we were playing that afternoon - area champions once captained by none other than our smiling guide.
Whilst Surrey CC had sponsored and named the Foundation of Goodness ground "The Oval", the MCC, not to be outdone by their London neighbours, funded and named the Amarasooriya School ground "Lord's". Enclosed by dense palm forest, with the occasional stray cow wandering onto the stubbly outfield, it bears little resemblance to the home of cricket in St John's Wood.
In stultifying heat we sweated our way to a passable score. Then the opening batsmen wasted little time in dismantling our total. Considering the launderette humidity, the repeated drinks breaks and a near-fainting as dramatic as a bonneted lady in a Victorian folly, it was a bout of charitable hitting that ended our chances.
A trip to the spectacular Nuwara Eliya hills and the cooler climes of the tea estates promised our best hope of a victory. The opposition's mean age was similar to ours, which for this tour hovered around a KP Test average - a number, unlike the Authors' advancing years, that is now frozen in time - but they had a former professional. His slow left-armers ripped off the coconut matting, and our batsmen, more used to facing pie chuckers on a Sunday afternoon than being bowled behind their legs on the side of a mountain, limped to triple figures.
During the tea interval we were once again humbled by a local school visit and bequeathed with garlands of tea leaves. A little embarrassed by our paltry total, skipper Campbell both thanked our opposition and apologised for our batting display.
Normally, unless I can belittle myself in that very English and deferential manner, I avoid writing about my own performance. But please forgive me. On the cusp of 40 I wonder how many more spells I have left. Will I ever run in again and take seven wickets?
It was one of those days where the cricket gods smiled on the Authors. The ball swung late, catches were snaffled, and lbw decisions given. It was our game. We skittled a team that thought they were going to cruise to our total. We were going home with a least a win, and the triumph did make the beer taste sweeter. Any petty squabbles about fielding positions and batting line-ups were forgotten in the bask of victory.
Back in the oven of the interior, we flagged in the heat of Kandy, melting before a Prison Officers XI, who, unsurprisingly enough by now, also fielded a former pro. Although the next morning was an unofficial rest day, the school visit was to be followed by a ten-over thrash against some of the pupils. Authors who had been struggling for runs and wickets rubbed their hands at the thought of belting long hops and humouring pint-sized batsmen before toppling their stumps.
The coach ride to the ground foreshadowed the truth that awaited. Corpses of electrified fruit bats dangled from power lines, and at every turn there seemed yet another billboard championing local hero Murali. Either his beaming face, or that adrenaline-fired lbw appeal mask that he wore when rattling the world's best batsmen, loomed above the canopy of palm fronds. This time there were no pre-match garlands and speeches with tea and honey cakes. Instead we were led directly to a patch of earth with a rectangular scuff mark set in the middle of lush grass. Concrete terraces, a small covered stand and the surrounding classroom windows filled with excited faces. The miniature Coliseum brimmed with noise as our opposition rolled out and nailed down the coconut matting wicket.
Before hundreds of roaring pupils, resplendent in crisp white uniforms, and all cheering their hero captain to the crease, we realised the knockabout game we expected had been fantasy. The first delivery sailed over midwicket, and the first over went for 20-odd runs. Each time their skipper ejected the ball from the ground a ring of younger kids scampered through the bushes to return the six from the neighbouring gardens. They knew the drill. I forget the final score, but it could have been 200 by the end of the innings. Each lithe batsman had come to the crease and cracked boundaries from his first delivery. Boys who looked too small to hold full-size blades waved them like wands, spelling the ball into flight.
Still, we had a chance, didn't we? They were just kids, after all. And it didn't matter that neither of our opening batsmen had forgotten his helmet, or that we had one box between the team and that players were stuffing caps down their pants. How lethal could a skinny 15-year-old bowler possibly be?
The run-up was the clue. Where Harold Larwood cut through the Nuncargate hedge to accommodate his famous gallop, the 15-year-old Sri Lankan bounded through the reedy grass before striding in to the crease and firing one past our opener's ears.
That the novelist Richard Beard still hadn't troubled the scorer, and had swished for a golden duck in the first game, was developing into an existential tragedy. Richard takes his sport seriously. A former rugby fly-half who had played professionally in France, his batting fug had extended from the pitch to the bus and into the bar. We all wanted him to get runs. We needed him to get runs. In the tour fraternity one player's woes can become the team's. So when the second ball thumped off his shoulder, and the next missile homed in and struck him on the temple, we could only hope for a quick and merciful death.
But Richard had other ideas. Two balls later he pulled for six. And then another. And now the kids were chanting, "Authors, Authors", although it did actually sound like, "All dust, All dust", which, despite Richard's battling knock, proved a more accurate ditty.
That our amateur team of middle-aged writers had roused a school crowd was incredibly moving. Children's author Anthony McGowan, triggered, in his expert, unbiased opinion, lbw for nought, was consoled by signing autographs for the flocking pupils. Although in a country where we were once thought to be the England team, as well as individual players being likened to Matt Prior, Ben Stokes, and even Pakistani six supremo Shahid Afridi, it could have simply been a case of mistaken identity.
Still, it was a bonding encounter. Richard's bruise would mature into a badge of courage, and the 15-year-old paceman would get faster and faster each time his torrid spell was recounted - after all, Richard is an experimental novelist.
Whatever religious and non-religious beliefs the players held, the squad visit to the Buddhist temple that evening was a calm respite from the day's travails, and also opportunity for the more superstitious to have their bats blessed. And we needed whatever forces we could muster the next morning as our bus of broken bodies set off to play the ominously named Colombo Colts.
Despite a litany of injuries, and the now habitual popping of Imodium, we had glimpsed the cricketing dream. "I'm burgling a living of the highest order," Graeme Swann had quipped on Radio 5 - before the Ashes, one should note. And there we were, in Sri Lanka, on a tour bus, driving to international grounds. Facing international players. Once the former Sri Lankan opener had got his fifty and retired - despite "living that dream", hiding at long-on I had muttered to historian and fellow bowler Tom Holland that along with rife dysentery, the furnace heat and flat-track bullies pounding the ball over our heads, we were briefly interred in cricket hell - the impossibly tiny Pathum Nissanka came to the crease, a 16-year-old student who had already represented Sri Lanka at junior levels, and who was now the recipient of sponsorship from the Authors Cricket Club.
Standing under five feet tall, and balancing a helmet on his head like a toadstool mushroom, I wondered what all the fuss could possibly be about. Then he took guard. And before he had even faced a ball I guessed he was indeed something special. As a bowler hunting wickets I gauge prey from how a player holds his bat and sets his stance. First, the stillness of Nissanka was unnerving. Then his forward defensive. No wasted movement. Eyes level, a high left elbow you could set a drink on. In total, godly control of every delivery, with that extra second of time that class bats seem to possess. Only when he decided to go aerial did he fail, his undeveloped muscles not yet ready to slog. If he'd stayed in that classical mould, I doubt he'd have given us a chance. The way he leaned into his drives was reminiscent of Mark Ramprakash in his pomp, and this boy has barely started growing, let alone finished.
The Authors' run chase was never really on. If Nissanka was the diminutive David, then the opening bowler was Goliath. Never in my 30 years on a cricket pitch have I seen a man so fat bowl so fast off such a long run-up. After the comedy of his charging, mammary-gland jiggling rumble to the crease, he hammered the ball into the track with a Monica Seles grunt and shaved the helmetless Sam Carter's jaw. Each raging delivery was accompanied by a manic stare down - think Jack Nicholson axing through the door in The Shining. When children's author Joe Craig, perhaps believing he possessed the super powers of his bestselling protagonist Jimmy Coates, twice stepped away from the crease as the gargantuan bowler reached the end of his marathon approach, we feared for his life. The next bumper was a near-vertical wide that Joe tennis-smashed for four.
There were pockets of resistance, but ultimately, as the story had been throughout the tour, the spinners were too accurate and wily for our stagnant footwork. It may just be a rumour to unnerve spin-scarred Englishmen, but I did hear that the Sri Lankan cricket board had to bring in a rule to ban slow bowlers from opening the innings. Only Captain Campbell, with the bat he'd had blessed by the Buddhist monk in Kandy, clubbed and drove his way to a valiant 47 not out.
If we needed a pep talk before our last game, against a Tamil Union XI, then surely the England Lions, who had just touched down in Colombo to start their own Sri Lankan odyssey, could offer advice. And of course, young, ambitious athletes on the verge of the national side, talking cricket with a team of writers once described by Mumbai Mirror as "being in varying states of fitness" would be exactly how they would want to spend the evening before their first match.
Yet if the Lions felt grudgingly obligated to socialise, they certainly didn't let it show. Sebastian Faulks was courted for photos, and survivors of the Ashes car crash, Bairstow, Borthwick and Jordan, merrily mingled and bantered - without beer, one should add, while the Authors elite knocked back the local brew - as the father figures of Bruce French and Ramprakash toasted their coterie of perfect gentlemen.
One tour was ending and another was just beginning. If off-field team spirit is a measure of on-field success, then I predict a winning campaign for the Lions. Although that formula hadn't quite clicked for the Authors - if, that is, results are what matter most.
Our final game motto was to "Leave it on the field." And that we did. Novelist Alex Preston dived and scurried along the boundary rope like a rabid terrier, and the bucket hands of historian Peter Frankopan once again took catches no other Author would lay a finger on. When the top-scoring Faulks tweaked a hamstring it was the nimble feet of football writer Jonathan Wilson that volunteered to run for him in the heat after other batsmen had wilted. Will Fiennes, who had remarkably kept his byes in single figures over seven matches, was that impressed with their teenage opener that he felt compelled to offer his bat as a parting gift.
We didn't beat the Tamil Union XI but we ran them close. They were eight wickets down before they closed the game, but not the tour. There was still time for a drink with the opposition, still chance to talk cricket in the setting sun.