Tour Diary

'It's just a game, man'

As sports fans, we've heard all the clichés a million times

As sports fans, we've heard all the clichés a million times. "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing", "Cricket is life, the rest mere details" and so forth. At times like this, you begin to realise just how much garbage it is. As a South African player told me in the hotel lobby a couple of hours after the bomb went off, "It's just a game, man. Heck, I want to bowl to Sachin [Tendulkar], but not if I can't feel safe about where I am."
Another senior South African player was even more candid. "If we hadn't been playing today, we'd probably have been out shopping. And a lot of us have been to Liberty Plaza before."
I found out about the blast on the way to the stadium. Pouring rain had already ruled out any prospect of play starting before early evening, but when the phone trilled, there was more than a weather forecast to worry about. When told, my driver didn't panic. "Best not to go toward the stadium," he said. So I asked him to turn around and head towards the Taj Samudra instead.
It took us nearly an hour to get within range, the roads choc-a-bloc with cars and tuk-tuks full of people presumably heading home. When he found out that I was from India, the driver's mood deteriorated. "You Indians helped this LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)," he said sourly, even as I sat mute, not wanting to be drawn into a debate on a conflict where the fault-lines run so deep.
We ended up getting nowhere near the Taj. The roadblocks had been put in place on Galle Road more than a kilometer away from the hotel, and the driver suggested that I go to Cinnamon, the South African team hotel, instead. After a twisting run through narrow back streets full of puddles, we reached another road-block. Another detour, and a further obstruction on, he gave up. "Best you get out here and walk," he said curtly.
The walk lasted just a few paces before military personnel pounced, having seen my fatigue-green backpack. Flashing my media pass made not the slightest difference. Cramped into a shelter not big enough to accommodate two, I had to fish into the bag and come up with my passport and other proof of identity before I was allowed to go on.
By the time I trooped into the hotel, soaked to the skin, both team managements were in discussion with the Sri Lankan cricket board over a future course of action. The South African players milled around the lobby, talking to journalists and waiting for word. Only Makhaya Ntini, Mr Cool at the best and worst of times, appeared unruffled, chatting to a friend with his feet up. Such composure, however, was beyond most, on a day when cricket came a distant second to the harshest reality of the time we live in - terror attacks.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo