September 3, 2015

The Sinhalese speakers club

What better place to brush up your language skills than the Sri Lankan capital?

Colombo, where weather forecasts are not to be trusted © Sharda Ugra/ ESPNcricinfo

August 19
Colombo has changed since I was last here, in 2002, yet much is familiar. The changes are startling - the Taj Samudra hotel is not a fortress anymore; the porch is easily seen from the main road. The wall between its compound and the public footpath is three feet high. In 1996, there was a hunker of a bunker, barriers to enter the hotel, uniformed men with guns. Back then, for the first time, I saw mirrors on sticks, used to inspect the undercarriages of cars, and x-ray screening for baggage. Gone, all gone. The pavement outside Temple Trees, the president's residence, is open to pedestrians. In the old days: sandbags, guard posts, serious-looking guns. No walking past there. Kindly cross the road. Or you will unkindly be dealt with. Colombo looks and feels wonderful. Bring on the tourists, bring on the baila, the war is indeed over.

August 20
It is hard to pass through the Tamil Union CAC and not talk about Don Bradman, the ethnic riots, Sri Lanka's first Test, and all the many heroes whose ghosts wander about this jewel of a cricket ground, which features cornices in a distinctly South Asian style and delicately detailed stands for earthen lamps.

There are several air-conditioned boxes around the P Sara, in which, among other mod cons, are glass frontages and top-of-the wicket views, but for heady nostalgia step into the Murugaser and Tryphon Mirando stands on a blazing day and feel both cooled and warmed. Wooden benches, rotating fans, the names of the club's cricket and hockey captains and its internationals on wooden boards on the walls. Consider me bewitched.

The stands at P Sara Oval: old fashioned and beautiful © Sharda Ugra/ ESPNcricinfo

August 21
It is Friday night and it is only logical that the week winds down on the beach. On my last two visits here everyone talked about how cool Beach Wadiya was. These days only foreign tourists seem to know it and go. Colleague Andrew Fidel Fernando's local is the Station. People don't get all social media about it, they just head there. Like the other beach shacks, the Station is set between the Colombo-Galle railway line and the beach. On a Friday it is packed with Sri Lankans and a lively band. In the middle of the chatter, music and clinking glasses, there is a loud rumble. Not thunder but a train going by. That commuter railway line is fully functional. Those who worry about unmanned crossings, health and safety had best stay at home.

August 23
Not that I've noticed elsewhere, but the porcelain service in the P Sara media box is a touch of finesse that must not go unpraised. Let it be said that even if the crockery (some of it gold-rimmed, swear on God) might not have cut it for presidential banquets, it is definitely way above the stuff used - and let us be frank, even needed - to feed and water cricket journos. The spread every day is enormous. One afternoon there are 17 dishes on the table. They would call it 17 courses in the west. Here it is merely lunch. That's not counting dessert. Or fruit. Or the tea and coffee on tap.

August 24
President Maithripala Sirisena offers Kumar Sangakkara a top-of-the-line post-retirement job: High Commissioner to the UK. In public, with the crowd cheering. The thought strikes - how did the current Sri Lankan high commissioner to the UK feel when he heard?

Make way: Sri Lanka president Maithripala Sirisena arrives at the P Sara Oval with a job offer for Sanga © Sharda Ugra/ ESPNcricinfo

August 25
Press conferences in Sinhala are listened to attentively by Bharat Sundaresan of Indian Express and this correspondent, so we can brush up on our local vocabulary. Many Indians pretend to be in with the language by using "ayubowan and "machan". I mean, please. At least be adventurous and toss out a "malli" (little brother) or two.

Several words coming out of the Sri Lankan players' mouths have recognisable Sanskrit roots: "manasik", "awastha", "prahara", "kreeda" (psychological, opportunity, attack, sport). I've learnt the boring stuff: to communicate enough and stop when watalappam is being ladled, and thank you - "istuti/stuti".

Bharat has built a wide range - "tharanga" is match, "kandayami" is team - and emails me an impressive list. We go on to discover that "apita" means "for us", and "puluwan tharang" is "as much as possible". The one that grabs attention is "hawas", from Dinesh Chandimal. It means evening. In Urdu, it is lust. At least that's how they use it in the movies.

The media box at the SSC. There's only one way to get up there © Sharda Ugra/ ESPNcricinfo

August 27
Surely Colombo is the cleanest city in South Asia. None of the Indian biggies - global or smart cities they may be - could match it. In my rides across town, away from Colombo's posh parts, from P Sara to Dehiwala and then through the neighbourhoods of Maradana and Maligawatta to Khettarama, it is confirmed. Apologies to any reader offended in Thimpu (where I have sadly never been), but leaving the Kingdom of Bhutan's challengers aside, Colombo is the region's numero uno.

Dhammika Prasad is buying T-shirts at the SSC store to give as souvenirs to people who know him. He is terrifically engaging, both on the field, at press conferences and generally in public. And he loves carrying retiring players on his shoulders. He has carried Murali, Mahela and Sanga. The most wriggly? The heaviest? Sanga. When it is reported he has injured his shoulder, there are jokes about his carrying too many people around. The least that his team-mates can do when Prasad retires is give him a carry-around lap of honour too.

August 28
Rain washes out two full sessions of day one. The Indian team considerately sends out batting coach Sanjay Bangar to give journos material for stories. This tour has been a revelation when it comes to the BCCI's media relations. The media are actually being had relations with. It is so radical my syntax collapses.

Another revelation - all weather forecasts about Sri Lanka are bogus. Don't trust a single website, just look at the sky and take it as it comes.

August 31
One day to go and it boils over. Prasad and Ishant Sharma get into a mano a mano squabble and we roll our eyes. Then Prasad heads in pursuit of Ishant as he sprints off at the change of innings. Surely this should lead to something more long-lasting than a Twitter trend. Songs must be written. When Ishant gets rid of Dinesh Chandimal, he bashes the side of his own head in his wicket celebration, like in some mourning ritual. Wonder what his mother makes of it.

September 1
It's the final day of the series and even the air-conditioned media box is roasted by the sun. The journos grumble about the 66 steps to be climbed to get there (plus, 12 more for the smokers on the roof). The photographers have a right to complain - their equipment is still a monstrosity - but people carrying MacBook Airs and mobile phones? Now, now. The young catering boy bearing two trays of food, sweating and panting, takes a pause after three floors. He should actually get to eat some before he makes the steep climb up to the fourth.

India win just after tea, media conferences happen. "Angie" as we now refer to Angelo Mathews - like he was a neighbourhood boy come good - looks grim, sad. Like he wants to resign right there, in front of us. The local reporters say, can't you tell, that is his normal press-conference face.

Virat Kohli is asked by a Sri Lankan what is the reason India's replacements - Shikhar Dhawan for the injured M Vijay, then KL Rahul, then Pujara for Dhawan, clicked instantly like magic on tap. Before Kohli can answer, Man of the Series R Ashwin chips in sotto voce: "Astrology." Then comes Kohli's shocker at the end of the press conference. He thanks the India media scrum for their support for the team, says that it was appreciated, and finishes by saying, "God bless you." The scrum is gobsmacked, smiling sheepishly, mumbling and picking their recorders and mobile phones off the table.

Great that India won, well played boys and all, but good thing the tour is over. Honestly, we need to lie down.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

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