Having arrived at Heathrow at 8.30pm the previous night, and having stayed up past 2am writing in my London hotel, I was hoping I could catch a couple of hours' sleep on the early-morning train to Cardiff for the Sri Lanka v New Zealand game. Unfortunately, the train is full of travelling match-goers and, as there are no seats available, I have to stand. Among the passengers I hover over is a fan wearing a Sri Lanka jersey, reading the article I stayed up late writing. He shares it with friends on WhatsApp, which is nice. Could have given me his seat instead, though.
Another day, another train. This time a much more pleasant ride through the south-east, glades gliding by, rivers glimpsed through the gaps in roadside copses. There are few cricket nations in which inter-venue travel is as pleasant as in the UK. Instead of airports, check-ins, baggage belts and cramped seats, you can just rock up to the station five minutes before the train is due to leave, hop aboard and find a comfortable little corner. Some people chat. Others read or watch videos. Yet more fall asleep, wake up suddenly at their destination, and have to rush off before they can adequately wipe up the puddle of drool they bequeathed upon the table in front of them. And nobody can prove that last one was me.
The Hampshire Bowl is a nice enough ground, but there is only one tiny road in, and on the morning of India v south Africa, this is so abominably packed that the taxi I am in finds itself lodged in an unmoving clot, stationary vehicles as far as the eye can see. It takes me 80 minutes to travel the roughly four kilometres to the ground. It would have been faster to walk it. Or to do the worm all the way from my hotel room to the press box.
I check into my room in Taunton, which smells of paint, because the hotel is renovating. I can't open a window to let the fumes out, because apparently it is painted shut until it gets a second coat. The hotel does, however, gives me a flask filled with 1.5 litres of fresh milk. What is it for? To bathe in?
My editors and colleagues want me to send them stories and videos that bring to life the "colour" from the towns hosting the World Cup. I haven't the heart to tell them that the only colour I've really got to know so far is grey. It was overcast when I arrived in Cardiff. Raining when I left. Raining when I arrived in Southampton. Raining when I left. Taunton has been in non-stop drizzle mode in the first 24 hours.
This might be just as well, though, because my hotel doesn't offer a laundry service, and the nearest laundromats are busy for the next few days, so at least I have the option of taking the clothes on my back for a spin on walks around town. If I was really keen on the washing-machine experience, I could even have sprinkled a few granules of laundry powder on myself and performed a few cartwheels to and from the ground.
Despite the many wonderful things about the UK - the gentle pastoral landscapes, the friendly locals, and best of all, its great writers, there is one failing for the traveller. Many colonial offensives have been waged on nations with vibrant cuisines, and yet, somehow, with all that food to draw from, the UK is where flavour comes to die. I don't mean there are no good meals to be had - only that the baseline is low. A Thai restaurant in Bristol, for example, is reliably worse than a Thai joint in, say, Hamilton. Without solid recommendations, you're flying blind.
Having had awful culinary luck over the past week, my Uber Eats orders began to grow increasingly desperate. Seeing as how more depth of flavour seemed like an unreasonable thing to ask for over an app, I began to make escalating requests regarding heat. Starting off with "Very spicy" in the "Notes" section of the order, I moved to, "Please make it extremely hot - I'm Sri Lankan" before pleading, "Use all the chilli you have." I even tried a Sri Lankan restaurant after getting to Bristol. I regret to say nothing quite hit the spot.
Traipsing around Bristol in the morning, and oh, what unspeakable joy, I stumble across one of modern cricket's most hallowed sites - the mBargo nightclub, out of which Ben Stokes stumbled on that storied September night and properly decked that one guy. Just walking down the street you can feel that it is a special place. You feel it in the pit of your gut, almost as if it is receiving repeated kicks. There are rumours that if you speak a word against any historically disenfranchised group of people in this neighbourhood, the ghost of Stokes - even though he is still alive - will jump out at you and pop you right in the mouth. I observe a minute's silence, and lay a bouquet of flowers on the roadside. I don't know who for, but it seems like the right thing to do.
Not for the first time in the UK, I've been duped. In 2013, I had a mobile phone stolen out of my hand in London. (Yes, I know I'm a moron for letting this happen.) In 2016, a vending machine that was supposed to spit out a sim card did not deliver its payload until it ate up a second £20 note. This time, I was sure my telecom issues were under control, because I had bought my local sim from a store inside Heathrow airport, and paid £30 for 20GB of data. Yet, weirdly, the night before the Bangladesh v Sri Lanka game, my data runs out, and when I look into my account, it suggests that my sim had only been loaded up with 3GB.
I attempt to rectify this injustice at a store belonging to the offending multinational telecom company in Bristol the next morning. They tell me that as I bought the sim and plan from "a kiosk" and not one of their trademark stores, they could not help me. They give me a number, through which I can "escalate the issue", but this turns out to be manned by a glorified answering machine.
Everybody knows that the most productive way to deal with this kind of thing is to lose your cool and yell at the staff, so this is exactly what I do, and the moment my swear words impress upon them exactly how annoyed I am, they smilingly acquiesce to 100% of my demands, no questions asked.
Clearly, by this stage, and having seen what seems like a trillion hours of drizzle since I've arrived in the UK, I need something to improve my mood. Instead of heading straight to Cardiff, which hosts the next match I'm due to cover, I take a train to London instead, to crash with friends for a couple of nights. They know exactly what I need.
That evening we go to an unassuming joint that serves outstanding northern Sri Lankan cuisine. The mutton stir fry is glorious. The fish-and-egg rolls taste just like they do in the Colombo suburb down the road from home. The idiyappam (string hoppers) soaking up the kiri hodi (coconut curry) are warm and fluffy. I'm internally weeping tears of joy as we exit the restaurant.
I do eventually have to rejoin the cricket tour, so I make my way to Cardiff, where the apartment I have hastily booked is unlike any place I have ever stayed in. An Elton John concert in town has ramped prices up, so my "loft apartment" has a glorified ladder leading up to a "bedroom", which is essentially a crawlspace with a mattress, with some pretty lights attached.
Some people don't believe me when I tell them that on my first night ever in Cardiff - a Friday in 2013 - I came out of a bar with a bunch of journalists and saw a post-fight brawler being attended to by paramedics, three revellers synchronised-vomiting, and a couple unsubtly going to second base in an alley, all within two or three minutes of each other. After our work at the Afghanistan v South Africa match wraps up, colleague Alan Gardner and I head into town with a bunch of South African journalists for a couple of post-match drinks. En route to the bar, in a stretch of about 100 metres, we spot a guy throwing up at a bus stop, another being pinned to the pavement by five bouncers, and a couple engaged in public heavy petting. Not quite the bingo card of that first Cardiff night, but a decent approximation.
I've arrived in Birmingham, where locals like to brag that the city has more canals than Venice.
It's also way more beautiful.
Cricket South Africa have very graciously adopted myself and colleague Sidharth Monga as honorary South Africans and take the whole travelling South African media pack to dinner at an Indian joint. The evening ends at another of cricket's most revered sites - the Walkabout bar, where David Warner took a swing at Joe Root and missed, in 2013.
Cards are written. Hymns are sung. This is the kind of history every cricket tour to England should be about.
I'm traveling south again following the exciting conclusion to the New Zealand v South Africa game the previous night. It's raining in Birmingham as I leave, but when I arrive in Southampton, there is birdsong in the air, the smell of flowers on the soft breeze, and the city is bathed in glorious sunshine.
Haha. Just kidding. It's raining, windy and cold in Southampton as well.