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Where the grass is greener

Kandy is a nature lover's delight, and though it's rugby country, the cricket's not half-bad either

Trevor Chesterfield
A tree at the Royal Botanical Garden in Peradeniya near Kandy

The giant Javan fig tree at the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens  •  Dinodia

These days when travelling to Kandy, the last of the island's royal capitals, the road from the coast traverses some wonderful countryside. So many shades of green you cannot believe: from the deep, rich leaf colour to that adorning the cricket pavilions, and then something lighter than lime. They make the journey soft on the eyes as the sun streams from the deep cerulean sky.
Gazing into the hundreds of valleys, gorges and grey rocky ravines also brings one an awareness of why the first European colonists, the Portuguese, failed to capture this part of the island's hilly heartland. To master the Sri Lankan hill country, one of high cliffs, deep plunging waterfalls and thick jungle, by ascending Kandy proved to be a little too much even for those early intrepid colonialists.
From the time they first played Tests at Asgiriya, there was always the anticipation of how heading early in the morning for this inland venue was fun. It made the journey into the breathtaking scenery pass even quicker, helping one forgive even the cheeky roadhogs squeezing past in their own rush, on near-precipitous hairpin bends.
Towards the end of this tortuous climb, as you close in on the city, is the impressive world-famed Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, which Lord Louis Mountbatten used during World War Two as headquarters for his South-East Asia command. Stretched as it is across vast acres of land, this tranquil natural sanctuary is a wonderful introduction to Kandy and its environs. A place of wild, exotic charm, maybe half an hour from the heart of the city, it is little wonder that so many botanists arrive on the island solely to visit this amazing collection of fauna and flora. Chief among the attractions is the giant Javan fig tree, estimated at about 1600 square metres in size. Anyone who has spent time at Kew Gardens in London has an idea of what to expect at Peradeniya.
Unlike Colombo, where you regularly come across mixed aged groups, from small boys to young adults indulging in a game of cricket on an open patch of field, in a street or alley, Kandy is not the sort of region where lunchtime or tea-break indulgences of this nature are too often held. You are reminded this is rugby territory. Yet when passing a school ground you do catch a glimpse of boys bowling in the nets, and a mock appeal and the laughter that goes with it. After all, this is Muttiah Muralitharan country, his birthplace, where the great bowler was educated and where he set out to hone his skills.
Kandy is not the sort of region where lunchtime or tea-break games of cricket by the road are too often held. You are reminded this is rugby territory
While not quite as famous perhaps as the Seven Hills of Rome, those around Kandy do have hotels of a variety of descriptions, sizes and shapes. Dining on the fancy local cuisine can be quite an adventure. Some of it is so spicy you may need to advise the chef at the well-prepared buffet accordingly if you want to ensure you will at least taste what you are eating.
Imagine a sunny morning, sitting on a terrace overlooking part of the city, dining on a breakfast of fruit, eggs the way you like them, and a mix of local and European concoctions. For those who want a traditional Sri Lankan (Sinhalese) breakfast, be prepared for a feast of rice in the form of dishes like string-hoppers (a type of vermicelli steamed over a low fire). There is also the hopper - a crispy cup pancake which is at times served with a fried egg on top of it.
Remember, too, Kandy is the heart of the island's Buddhist community with its Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), overlooking the lake. A two-week festival is held during carnival time. The problem is, there is usually a lot of rain associated with this July or August event, known locally as the Esala Perahera Pageant (procession). It is an internationally famous event: one where elephants parade the Lord Buddha's tooth in a golden casket and drummers and dancers perform.
In 2006 a good friend from my South Africa days, the now late Bob Woolmer, wanted to sample a local watering hole, so we went to The Pub, a location not too far from the tree-lined Asgiriya, where if you see mist descending when you look north at what they call "the knuckles", there is little chance of play.
The Pub is a good tourist hangout, though it depends on your mood and how long you want to stay to dine and drink with friends. It was here during a quiet chat that Woolmer talked about how the pace of the game had progressed since he had retired as South Africa coach after the 1999 World Cup. He agreed with the Powerplay format but not the player substitution (Supersub), calling it a clumsy device that disturbed the 11-man tactical thinking.
"Cricket is a game for 11 players, not one where substitutes are needed," he grinned. "Remember the disaster of the 13-man experiment they had in South Africa [1989-90]? They never learn."
As always, when among those he had known for a decade or more, he would loosen a little and his bright blue eyes would twinkle. It became his trademark when cracking jokes or making prophesies.
A day later we visited Pallekele, mired as it was at the time in financial controversy. Now one of three new venues developed on the island for the World Cup 2011, it is remarkable to see how its design is based on that magnificent venue on the tree-lined Hennops River in Centurion. That ground was created with a vision by a man with a dream and it went on to become a world-class venue. The same can hopefully be said for Pallekele. A day after his Test retirement Muttiah Muralitharan learnt that it was to carry his name: a fitting tribute to a fine sportsman.