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December 16, 2007
It doesn't need much scratching beneath the surface to spot the swathe of issues that remain to be addressed, however. England's morning training session was one of the more extraordinary they have ever undertaken - reminiscent of their tour to Bangladesh in 2003-04, when they commuted daily through Dhaka's monsoon to practise at the country's only indoor nets facility. At least that building at the BKSB had been completed, however. At Galle, all that separated the players from a mass of wiring, scaffolding poles and plasterboard was a thick plastic curtain that created a stiflingly humid environment for the players.
And yet, nobody has bickered or questioned the extraordinary circumstances of this game. England's players, based in opulent bliss at the famous Lighthouse hotel outside the city, are fully aware of their privileges as international cricketers, but also of their responsibilities to the morale of a region still in the throes of rebuilding. Upwards of £2 million has been poured into the stadium's reconstruction and still it is not back up and running. It doesn't bear thinking about how those less fortunate have coped since the tsunami.
"We're not going to talk badly about the ground, we're not going to talk negatively about anything that's gone on, because of the simple fact of the catastrophe that happened three years back," said Kevin Pietersen, who was watching the news at home in Nottingham on the day the disaster struck. "We know how much this country loves its cricket, and these people here I'm sure cannot wait to watch some cricket being played on that ground that was underwater. It's a huge thing for us, and we can enjoy the experience. We'll do everything we can to get the game underway."
For all its problems of the present, Pietersen had words of encouragement for the future of Galle's new-look stadium. The brand-new white-brick pavilion and media facilities are undeniably impressive, even though their longevity is uncertain because of a planning application row with the government. "In a year's time or six months' time it's going to be an absolutely gorgeous cricket ground," said Pietersen, rightly oblivious to the political distractions. "It's just unfortunate it's not yet as good as it's going to be. The dressing rooms are spectacular, up there with the best in the world."
Somewhere, buried deep beneath the symbolism of Tuesday's occasion, there is an incredibly significant Test match waiting to get out - a match that England must win to secure a drawn series and end their year on a high. Ironically, the adverse weather and awkward preparation seems certain to work in England's favour, because a result pitch is what they want if they are to take 20 Sri Lankan wickets for the first time this tour, and from the current lush-green appearance, it could well be what they get.
"It's a huge game for us," said Pietersen. "We've got to take it extra serious because we're 1-0 down. At the moment the wicket looks a bit damp, which could help the seamers, and there's a lot of grass. We couldn't ever play a Test match today, and we'd be pushed to play tomorrow, but if it doesn't rain in the next 48 hours, I've spoken to the groundsman, and he says it's harder underneath."
Pietersen added that he has never been able to read pitches anyway, but if one thing is certain, Muttiah Muralitharan will manage to extract enough life out of the surface to make life difficult once again for England's batsmen. Galle is Murali's favourite venue of all - he's picked up a massive 87 wickets in 11 previous appearances - and with 15 in the series so far, he remains the single biggest threat to England's hopes of squaring the series.
|The guys have trained hard and practiced hard, and put in some serious effort I like to call it training the brain. You train your brain to prepare you for what's to come, and then your instinct takes over. He really fizzes it at you at the start of your innings, but then he slows down and tries to make you do thingsKevin Pietersen on preparing for Murali|
Pietersen, however, was confident he and his team-mates were ready to repel his latest challenge. "The guys have trained hard and practiced hard, and put in some serious effort," he said. "I like to call it training the brain. You train your brain to prepare you for what's to come, and then your instinct takes over. He really fizzes it at you at the start of your innings, but then he slows down and tries to make you do things. The wickets at Kandy and Colombo were really slow and weren't conducive to spin, but they should have been - this is his home patch."
Doubtless Murali will remain a challenge until the day he finally rests his aching shoulder, but Pietersen felt that the days when he used to bamboozle England were long over. "I looked the other day at ESPN and I saw a load of wickets that Muralitharan has taken against England before," said Pietersen, referring to a re-run of Murali's Oval triumph in 1998. "Some of the shots that were played, some of the dismissals compared to the way our guys pick him now, were remarkable. They were totally clueless. The improvement has been 100%."
For Pietersen personally, the Galle Test is significant because he has never yet gone through a complete series without at least a fifty - and only against India in 2005-06 has he been denied a century. The row over his controversial dismissal at Colombo made him, for 24 hours, "a very angry man", but now, he says, it is forgotten. There are much more significant matters at hand this week.
"Certain things in life you can't control," said Pietersen. "I couldn't control what happened in the first innings in Colombo, and I certainly don't know if I can do anything about what wicket we get on Tuesday. We've just got to deal with what we get, and be professional about it. We have to win this Test match to get on the plane next week with a 1-1 draw."
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