A many-storied venue

The P Saravanamuttu Stadium has hosted Bradman's Invicibles, and was the setting for a local renaissance

An overview of the P Saravanamuttu Stadium © Cricinfo Ltd.
For perhaps the first time, two Test captains addressed the pre-match media conference while perched on bar stools. No, they weren't under the influence. It just so happened that the long verandah in front of the bar at the P Saravanamuttu Stadium made it the ideal location. Less than a day earlier, Chandra Schaffter, who managed the Sri Lankan team on their first Test tour of India in 1982, had spoken of how much it meant to the Tamil Union Club to host the Test match, and the venue where Sri Lanka clinched their first win (against India in 1985) will now be the cynosure of all eyes as this scrap for Asian supremacy enters a third and decisive round.
The renaissance of the Tamil Union is a story that makes phoenix-rising-from-ashes look commonplace. When the island slid into a violent spiral of ethnic conflict a quarter century ago, hate-filled mobs burnt the stadium to the ground. It had been Sri Lanka's premier venue for decades, even hosting Sir Donald Bradman's Invincibles in 1948, but all that meant nothing to those blinded by propaganda.
It was years before the Tamil Union limped back to anything approaching normalcy, and the revival was perhaps complete when the modern-day Invincibles came-a-calling in October 2002. I was fortunate enough to be there, a straggler from the just-finished Champions Trophy. Shoaib Akhtar bowled with real pace and menace on the opening day but it was Waqar Younis who picked up two wickets bowling absolute rubbish.
Ricky Ponting struck a magnificent 141, but many of those present will remember the opening day for Mark Waugh's last significant innings at Test level. He caressed the ball with some of the old elegance on his way to 55, before Saqlain Mushtaq - into which Bermuda Triangle did his Test career disappear? - took a return catch.
For men like Sathasivam, Coomaraswamy, Derrick de Saram and Channa Gunasekara, the odd game against touring sides was as good as it got. And while reams have been written on the batsmanship of Vijay Merchant, CK Nayudu and Mushtaq Ali, little is known of these Sri Lankan giants
Pakistan's reply revolved around a wonderfully assured 83 from Faisal Iqbal but, when they finished 188 adrift on the third morning, no one expected anything other than an Australian saunter to victory. It certainly looked that way as Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden added 61 for the first wicket, but this time ill luck wasn't about to thwart Shoaib. Ponting and the Waugh twins were beaten for pace in one stunning over and, in the next, Adam Gilchrist was befuddled by a yorker that might have reached Trincomalee if the stumps hadn't been in the way.
Shoaib's 5 for 21 left Pakistan needing 316 to win, a run more than they had famously managed at Karachi in 1994. But despite brave innings from Taufeeq Umar, Younis Khan and Faisal [again], an attack of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and the incomparable Warne just had too much quality.
The 41-run win was a good deal better than what Bradman's team managed during their one-day game en route to the Ashes in 1948. Bradman fell to Bertram Heyn for 20, and Sathi Coomaraswamy, who has one of the new stands named after him, took 4 for 45 as the line-up that would go on to rout England 4-0 was restricted to 184 for 8. But in a rain-hit match, Ceylon's batsmen got no real opportunity to show off their ability against the likes of Keith Miller and Ian Johnson.

Ricky Ponting made a magnificent 141 in the first Test against Pakistan in 2002 © Getty Images
The photograph that has pride of place in the bar features Bradman and Mahadevan Sathasivam, the Tamil Union captain, walking out for the toss. For men like Sathasivam, Coomaraswamy, Derrick de Saram and Channa Gunasekara, the odd game against touring sides was as good as it got. And while reams have been written on the batsmanship of Vijay Merchant, CK Nayudu and Mushtaq Ali, little is known of these Sri Lankan giants who could have stood shoulder to shoulder with them.
Schaffter remembers one particular game as though it were yesterday. He was two months short of his 20th birthday when Jock Livingston's Commonwealth side dropped anchor in Ceylon. Frank Worrell, John Holt and Bill Alley were the batting stars, and the home team struggled as they piled up 355 for 5 in 103 overs, with Winston Place's 96 leading the way. With Henry Lambert, Fred Freer, and the two Georges, Pope and Tribe, bowling alongside Worrell, the Ceylon innings never got going. "Those were the days of uncovered pitches," recalls Schaffter. "Sathasivam came out and made 96. I don't think I've seen a more complete batsman."
Sathasivam was almost 35 at the time, and that innings at the P Sara [out of a total of 153] along with his celebrated 215 at Chepauk defines a largely obscure career. These days, saturated media coverage means that you know whether a player prefers baked beans or pate with his toast. Sadly, when it comes to some of the legends of the past, we're left mostly to rely on the memories of those that lived in the proximity of greatness.
After their net sessions, both Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman walked in to have a look at the portraits inside the bar. Two of the finer batsmen of their generation, they will surely have felt history's gentle touch on the shoulder as they glanced at the greats of long ago. The cavalier Sathasivam has been dead more than 30 years, but tomorrow, they have an opportunity to venture on to his favourite patch and write their own chapter in the history of a storied venue.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo