Tuesday, 25 September
After almost exactly 20 years touring the subcontinent it would appear that the novelty of the ‘tuk-tuk’ is finally beginning to wear off.
They are bumpy, noisy and continually encased in a compulsory ‘bargaining debate’ with the driver about the price on arrival – even when it has been pre-ordained. But the worst is when you pull up alongside a bus, or truck, with its exhaust pipe barely a metre from your face. There’s no escape.
The journey to the Colts Cricket Club for practice today might not have been so bad had we not been accidentally (and at the last minute) redirected to the Premadasa Stadium. It meant a 45-minute journey on top of the original 25-minute one. I need to buy a kidney belt. Apparently all serious ‘bikers’ have them.
The squad was undeniably relaxed before, during and after practice. Perhaps water-skiing, surfing and fishing should form a full-time part of the touring schedule. Although that would be difficult in Leeds and Delhi, never mind Potchefstroom.
Rain has taken something away from the expected momentum of the tournament so far. It is monsoon season in Sri Lanka but, despite the showers which have disrupted some and ruined other matches, there has been less of it than is usual for this time of the year. No wonder the players are expecting more Ten-10s (or whatever.)
It was slightly surreal listening to Albie Morkel talk about tactics for shortened games this afternoon. “It is not just a slogfest,” he said. “You still need to have tactics and a strategy, even if it’s only seven overs. You still need to look after the new ball, even if it’s just for a couple of balls.”
Take the shine off the new ball for two or three balls? That’s hard to imagine. But Albie is not a man to argue with. He knows.
Any moment now the tournament will catch fire. The minnows are all gone and the serious business starts. South Africa are grouped with India, Pakistan and Australia. Arguably the best four teams in the tournament. You’d rather be with New Zealand, England, West Indies and Sri Lanka – wouldn’t you? Perhaps not.
“It’s going to be hard to qualify from the group, you can’t deny that,” said Morkel. “But you have to beat the best teams to win the tournament so you might as well beat them early,” Morkel said.
Monday, 24 September
Awkward moment in the lift of the excellent Galadari Hotel yesterday evening when I was joined by two 15-year-old girls bedecked in Pakistan supporters kit between innings in the match between Pakistan and New Zealand.
“Did you enjoy the innings?” I enquired. “How many did they score in the end?”
“I don’t know,” replied one of the girls with an unexpected touch of acid. “We’ve been at training all afternoon.”
Oh. Clearly being 40 kilogrammes and four feet ten inches is no obstacle to being an international cricketer in the women’s game. I really do think I deserve some understanding for my embarrassing error. Most people would have made a similar mistake. I have made it my mission to discover who they were and will follow their progress in future.
The New Zealand women’s team has been staying in the Galadari, too, as well as the Kiwis. It’s hard to miss the English girls – always in team kit and looking the part. The New Zealanders also look the part – of a surfing team. All ‘Bondi Blue’ shorts and sleeveless vests.
Fabulous run along the Galle Face sea wall this morning and then around the city lake. Sixty minutes on the pavements and 2.2 kilogrammes lost on the scales. All immediately replenished with a couple of large bottles of mineral water. It’s not the heat that gets you, it’s the humidity. Even a short walk around the corner to grab a lunch time take-away of rice and chicken brings on a sweat.
Evening sundowners at the Galle Face Hotel with an old best friend, Australian journalist Malcolm Conn, and a completely chance meeting with an equally dear friend, Mickey Arthur. The former Proteas coach walked in to the beach front area of the hotel followed by his 10-man back-up management team for an Australian management meeting. Just for a moment it occurred to me that a ‘heads down’ policy might be best, to avoid any potential ‘awkwardness’.
“Hey, my old buddy!” chirped the new Australian coach. Hugs, back-slaps and a quick chat followed. A promise of dinner. Then his meeting. John Michael Arthur has nothing to answer for or explain; he is who he is and knows who his friends are. He is as committed to Australia as he was to the Proteas, but that does not mean he will forsake his friends. At any cost. How can anyone not respect that?
The Proteas will be heading towards Colombo tomorrow to catch up with those of us sent here to follow them. That’s a sweet, ironic twist to the way it can often be when we are chasing them.
Saturday, 22 September
Rarely, I imagine, has so much time been spent by so many journalists and production crew covering a single T20 match – especially one that lasted barely an hour and was played out over seven overs per side.
I am staying at the same hotel as the ESPN cameramen, many of whom are South African and have been good friends for many years. They have been kind enough to allow me use of the one spare seat in their bus to and from the ground every day. The driver has scant regard for the value of life – his or ours – which has been very good news indeed as far as travelling time is concerned. A journey which can, and frequently does, take two hours has been completed in around an hour and a quarter.
In order to be doubly and triply safe, the director and producer ordered a call time four hours before the start of play. Which meant leaving the hotel at 10:15am for a game which was scheduled to start at 3:30pm! As I write, the onerous and arduous task of de-rigging is taking place – the bane of the cameraman’s life. It is almost 9pm. We won’t get back to the hotel until at least 11pm. We had a beautiful couple of hours on the beach yesterday afternoon, but there’s always a downside.
For me the game against Sri Lanka changed in a single delivery. AB de Villiers flat-batted a Lasith Malinga bouncer for a six over mid-wicket that travelled well over 100 metres and sounded like the crack of a ballistic elephant rifle. Time momentarily stood still as the ball was in the air and when it landed the crowd sounded more like a group of 30 in a Temple at prayer time rather than 30 000 in a cricket stadium.
Afterwards, I asked him to describe what it felt like to play a shot like that. His face cracked with an ear-to-ear grin: “It’s a little bit of a special feeling, I must be honest,” he admitted. “First of all, you have the satisfaction of working out what he was going to bowl. I looked at the field and I thought – it’s either full and straight, the famous Malinga yorker, or it’s the slower-ball bouncer. I went for the second option.
“When you hit it like that you know it’s worth a bit more than six – not literally, but we all know how it affects both teams. We’ve been on the receiving end. Hash played a couple of shots at the beginning of the innings that had the same effect.”
But what does it feel like? For those of us who have never hit a cricket ball that hard or that far?
“Have you ever hit the perfect 3-wood off the fairway? The one where you plan the shot, plan the route the ball will fly, then put the perfect swing on the shot and make the perfect contact? There’s a way the ball flies…it’s a special feeling. That’s what it feels like.”
If you don’t play golf, or haven’t hit the perfect 3-wood off the fairway, the description won’t help. But if you have, it will!
The team are spending the next two days at a luxury beach resort on the coast between Galle and Colombo. They won’t return to the office until Wednesday.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 21
Dale Steyn went surfing today. It was a day off and he indulged his passion for the ocean. No wetsuits required in this part of the world. The water is just cool enough to be refreshing, but only just. If the temperature doesn’t do it for you, the crashing waves will.
To say that logistics are challenging in this part of the world would be to say that South Africa bowled well against Zimbabwe last night. Some of the roads in the region would present a challenge to Cape Town’s mountain trail-runners. I was due to have dinner with Paddy Upton and my old friend Anand Vasu, the excellent cricket correspondent for Wisden Asia. But it transpired that the collective travelling distance for the three of us to meet in the same place was 120 km. And that was with Paddy staying where he was!
Anand, however, is unperturbed by such trivialities. He is Indian and thinks nothing of sitting in the back of a taxi for four hours to meet up with an old friend. Follow him on Twitter @anandvasu. Sadly, my resilience to the hardship of long, twisting road journeys is less hardened. I remain in the company of the ESPN television crew in the Eva Lanka Hotel in Tangalle, 80 kms from Hambantota.
It is surreal. A tiny village on the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka, isolated for decades from any prime tourist markets, it has recently been opened up to others who are prepared to put up with the logistical difficulties and happy to pay remarkably reasonable rates by global standards. Russians and Ukranians are much in abundance. We sat on the beach this evening with Yuri, a 29-year-old Moscow policeman. The rumours about Russians’ capacity to imbibe hard liquor were endorsed by Yuri who communicated with the largely SA crew via GoogleTranslate on his mobile phone. A bottle of Sri Lankan Arak disappeared in under an hour. And nobody else was drinking it.
Steyn, meanwhile, was surfing way down the coast with Paddy Upton: “It’s a World Cup and we intend to win it,” he said. “But T20 cricket was also devised to be fun and I take that to mean on and off the field, especially in the water.”
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 20
The first time I visited Sri Lanka was back in 1993 when Brett Schultz destroyed the locals with 20 wickets in three test matches and there wasn’t a single covered press box in the country, let alone Wi-Fi. We used to fax reports back then. Or, if we could connect to an analogue phone, we would have to say “ok, start now” to a man holding a stop-watch. We would pay by the minute. Obviously we cheated.
Even 20 years ago the locals were talking about building a highway between Colombo and Galle. When we drove the route back then, it took about five hours but it felt longer. The roads had less cars on them but many more bicycles and animals, mostly stray dogs and water buffalo.
These days there are many, many more cars but the majority of roads have not been upgraded at all. The highway, however, has finally been completed against all odds. Two decades of sectarian, political and cultural squabbling hindered its progress at every step. Now it provides one of the eeriest driving experiences in the world.
It took an hour to fight our way through the Colombo traffic to get to the start of the road but less than half an hour to get all the way to the fort city of Galle. The highway was as empty as a ghost-town. I asked Prasanna, my driver, why that was. He said it was the cost incurred at the toll booth at the end. I asked how much it was. He said he didn’t know – he never used the highway, like most other people. I guessed – correctly as it turned out – that I was expected to pay.
Fearing the worst, I reached for my wallet with a sense of dread. “It’s 400 rupees,” said Prasanna. That’s R25. Given that the hire of the car for the journey was R1 050, it didn’t make any sense. At all.
Neither does the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium, on the face of it. It’s not even in Hambantota, as it claims. It’s actually in Sooriyawewa, approximately 35 kilometres away. But there aren’t any ‘internationally accepted’ hotels in Sooriyawewa, so the teams – who were brought here from Colombo by military helicopter – stay in Hambantota.
The rest of us drive on the narrow, coastal-hugging road from Galle. It is a nightmare journey for those with a nervous disposition. One highlight, however, is the tiny fishing village of Matara, famous in cricket circles for having produced Sanath Jayasuriya – but more famous in my mind for being an Asian version of a cross between Hout Bay and Kalk Bay.
The region may not have any big brand hotels yet, but there are thousands of small, hand-crafted boutique ones which are stunning in their simplicity. You don’t need to do much with an ocean and views like these.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 19
So much for the ‘glamour’ of international travel. Not the greatest or easiest start for me to the latest campaign to witness the Proteas put some long-awaited ICC silverware in the Wanderers Trophy Cabinet.
Emirates flight out of Cape Town was over an hour late which meant I missed – literally by minutes - the connection from Dubai to Colombo. The next one was only three hours later which might not have been too bad had it not stopped in Male on the way. For a long time. You didn’t know that Male was the capital of the Maldives? Neither did I.
It might not have been so bad had we been allowed to disembark and have a closer look at the amazing beaches on tiny islands that we saw from the air, but instead we remained onboard while the cleaning staff came and did their thing. Which was to look for ‘leftovers’ with far more enthusiasm than to clean the aeroplane.
Never mind. Emirates are usually outstanding. It was never an issue for ‘me’ to make the connecting flight, just my baggage. I Would have preferred to get to Colombo at lunch-time as planned and for my bag to chase me later. Experienced travelers always have a spare shirt, undies and toothbrush in the hand luggage.
Being in the same country makes all the difference, however, and several catch-ups took place with the squad from my hastily arranged room at the very fine Galadari Hotel. They seem in fine spirits – notwithstanding those who have been on the road for over three months! A change is as good as a rest. Even the gastric rumbles have been greeted as a challenge!
Unless there are other challenges on the road, I’ll be checking in at around 2pm and heading towards the stadium for 5pm with a 7:30pm start. Expect to be back around midnight. Long days indeed.
Fearing the worst, I reached for my wallet with a sense of dread. “It’s 400 rupees,” said Prasanna. That’s R25. Given that the hire of the car for the journey was R1 050, it didn’t make any sense. At all./p/strong