A city made for cricket

Sharda Ugra
Oh to be in Colombo, smelling the flowers, watching the birds soar past the Premadasa and hanging out at the Blue Leopard (or is that the Blue Elephant?)

To cricket audiences, India's heaving grounds are like rock concert venues in size, scale, volume and headbanging enthusiasm. Colombo will always be South Asian cricket's lounge bar, with live, non-stop baila.

A city with four Test venues in under a 4km radius, three still staging international matches, could actually stage a World Cup on its own. If the ICC had its way, sweeping smaller nations aside like they were jacket fluff, maybe that's what World Cup 2035 will actually look like: six nations, one city. Colombo won't stage that in protest. It's just not that uncharitable.

It stretches along the ocean like a beachside layabout who always finds the shade and catches the breeze, even though all around temperatures climb. Colombo's is a sticky heat. The sun sears right into the eyeballs, the glare off the sea so strong it could crack sunglasses. Why, some hotels think nothing of crimson chicken curry at the breakfast buffet, with only string hoppers on the side as a measure of panic-attack prevention.

Yet, in itself, little daunts Colombo and its cricket. My first visit to Colombo took place at a time when no one wanted to go. Or least a particular type of cricketer didn't. In 1996, you expected the West Bank on an island, with checkpoints and soldiers behind the gossamer security of sandbags. And so it was. Three weeks before the 1996 World Cup, Colombo had suffered the worst bombing of the Lankan civil war, so what else could it have been? A normal working day in the business district turned into a death zone when Tamil Tigers armed with RPGs and automatic rifles and a truck carrying 440 pounds of explosives killed more than 90 people.

The Aussies and West Indians refused to tour, the Lankans were distraught. An India-Pakistan team turned up to play a "friendly" match to show support, Zimbabwe were game anyway, and so Colombo had to be visited.

Three weeks after the bombing, the glass panes of its Lighthouse Clock Tower, 130 years old, were still broken and blackened but its clock showed the right time. The Central Bank and hotels in the "Fort" area were bruised but people were striding through metal detectors, traffic was wheeling and vendors had their stuff spread out in corridors of colonial import. Morning walkers would turn up at the Galle Face Green before the sun went into high beam. They strode along the stone wall shoring up the coast, inspected another part of the ravaged business district being patched up inch by inch, and then tightened their chins, turned around and walked home.

Headlines were everywhere, dispatches wrote themselves.

Hey, guess what, folks, we hammered out on typewriters, taxis are stopped at the hotel gates, their undersides inspected with mirrors on sticks.

Gosh, our luggage goes through an x-ray machine when entering the Taj Samudra hotel. Where else in the world could that happen?

Look, the Zimbabweans welcomed with araliyas.

When the city catches a visitor's attention away from its bad news, Colombo can make it all go away. Like Mahela coming in to bat when the scoreboard is dreadful.

It is a city made for cricket. It has languor, vitality and makes room for all types. The fussy mod-con lovers will find spiffy environments, something trendy to take home and a few cool nightclubs. Journalists just want info (and beer). Whispers abounded in the press box about the Blue Leopard (or was it the Blue Elephant?) nightclub where so-and-so was spotted playing the swain at 2am.

Really!?, the cry rises, at which point Murali turns some flailing batsman's defence into custard and cricket pulls back eyes, heart and mind.

Moving towards the SSC is about smelling the flowers, enjoying long auto rides through crescents, past lakes and in neighbourhoods whose simple single-digit pin codes actually contain an aristocratic order. Colombo 7 is the highest form of address and then the rest work their way down and up to numbers that don't really matter.

The Premadasa is closer to Colombo's more muscular parts. Crows would think nothing of flying from its rooftop or light towers to the harbour, factories, fishery offices and the old Welikada prison. A day-nighter there can be an audio-visual experience. Sometimes during an innings break the final azaan of the day rings free across a blood-red sunset sky that fills with birds purposefully heading home, disdainful of the crowds beneath them. The toughness of most Premadasa run-chases melts into an immaterial fact. It's a kind of magic. Freddie would have burst into song.

Like Sri Lankan cricket, Colombo lies between old boy and new age. The most celebrated cricketers in the city move around unhindered (and feel sorry that no Indian counterpart can do so in his own hometown), and yet the same fans know how to make themselves heard deafeningly, constantly. Sri Lanka have produced the most cultured of batsmen and the most unorthodox of bowlers. Among the most beatific-looking of its captains was also its most unrelenting.

In 2002, India, the team all about its tomorrows, came to Colombo and the ICC Champions Trophy in the ODI form of their lives. The NatWest Trophy had been snatched away from Nasser Hussain's disbelieving stare, a final had been won without a world-class choke. So what if India were sponsored, as Mikey Holding said with a chortle on TV, by a desert. (Sahara, geddit?)

They came with the most peculiar of combinations: Sachin Tendulkar at 4, Rahul Dravid keeping wicket, Javagal Srinath hauled over from England by his captain, told to cease all argument as his tickets were waiting at a check-in counter. They came with this opener who took to Colombo like Percy Abeyasekara did to showboating. No one had chased more than 246 at the Premadasa, and when England docked 270, this fellow creamed it with over 10 overs to spare. His captain's first words to the press were an order: "Everybody, clap for Veeru".

Play would usually finish at around 10pm and the bar at the Taj Samudra was packed every night. Viv Richards could be found, surrounded by the worshipful and the voluptuous. Or Andrew Caddick, nursing a glum drink on a barstool next to Rudi Koertzen, almost unrecognisable in civvies and kindly leaving Caddick alone. It was the first ICC event with its security rules of photos outside dressing rooms and who knew what.

The Indians would pile in, shake hands, and hang around, all of 'em. They had a special corner but stayed within greeting distance. Some stood around the dance floor, some went up to talk to other cricket folk. Some folk sat cross-legged on a high ledge near the windows, guzzling what could only be lime sodas. Some would win brownie points with cricket reporters by patiently chatting to visiting editors. Neither was slurring heard nor did fistfights break out. There was loud laughter, music, dance, cigarette smoke and ice clinking in glasses. And rumours about the Blue Elephant. The players would begin leaving after midnight but the gossip didn't stop till hours after.

Only Colombo could bring it all together and keep it jumping - this old-fashioned informality in a modern professional game.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Cricinfo