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Catching the cricket in Galle, Sri Lanka

Galle Cricket Club is one of the most iconic cricket grounds in the world and certainly one of the most spectacular. Hemmed in on two sides by the Indian Ocean, to the south it is nestled against the high walls of the fortified old city built in the 16th century by Dutch settlers – so that on a lazy early evening, you can sit on the battlements and watch the white-clad cricketers battle it out on the field of luxuriant green that spreads out towards the New Town.

Galle, a broiling port city on the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka, seems a particularly cricket mad town in a cricket mad country. Sunset belongs to promenading monks and tourists but at sunrise, when the sea is still grey and the air is still cool, half a dozen separate informal matches are held by early rising schoolboys.

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The multi-layered walls of the fort serve as part of the outfield. Parts of the ramparts, copper-coloured in the early light, make handy backstops in matches played with tennis balls, thin bats and lots of yelping in Sinhalese. The ball is slammed towards one of the 14 bastions; it bounces irregularly off a stretch of weather-beaten wall, foiling the attempts of a barefoot fielder, who screeches in frustration, before sprinting off in pursuit.

It must be inspiring to be playing within sight of a field when cricket history has been written. Below the schoolboys’ perch, the luxuriant green of the oval pitch is now circulated by the early morning frenzied traffic of the new town. I look out to the tan square, which is legendary for its spin, where two of the game’s greats passed great milestones. Sri Lankan legend Muttiah Muralitharan took his 400th Test wicket in Galle. He also finished his career here in 2010 with his 800th first class wicket. His Australian spin-rival Shane Warne took his 500th wicket here.

But much darker history was written here too. The ground has also become a symbol of one of the deadliest natural disasters in living memory, each game now played a testament to the resilience of city and the Sri Lankan people. In the Boxing Day tsunami of 2005 the surge of water, which hadn’t penetrated the high walls of the old town, had flooded the ground, carrying cars, vans and even a bus over the cricket square.

Television footage of those scenes haunt the memory – the genteel, controlled pleasure of cricket in juxtaposition with the fierce brutality of the natural disaster. The wave had swept over the field and destroyed the town’s bus station. Hundreds were killed here alone. Across the country over 30,000 lost their lives – including family members of several of the Sri Lanka national cricket team.

The cricket ground began to symbolize the recovery too. Seven years after it had gained Test status, Galle cricket ground became a temporary refugee camp. In the weeks following the tsunami, tents had been erected on the cricket to provide emergency shelter for the homeless. A patch of ground was used a helipad for aid drops. And by 2007 they were playing Test cricket here again, in the shadow of a gleaming new stand. In a country famous for its languidness, there was an energetic rush to restore the ground to its former glory. An army of 700 workers carried out the 2 million pound reconstruction effort, with donations coming in from across the cricket-loving world.

Galle, Sri Lanka, cricket

The cricket ground certainly looked magnificent on the day that I arrived. It was the eve of one of the most important dates in the city’s calendar and everything was being spruced up for the big occasion. The next day, the two great schools in Galle, Richmond College and Mahinda College would battle it out in a 2-day cricket fixture that dated back 100 years. The fierce rivalry is known as “Lovers’ Quarrel” in southern Sri Lanka, but, although it is closely contested, it seems to end in a smothering hug. For a 30 period ending finally in 2008 every single contest had ended in a draw – like the unstoppable force meeting the immoveable object.

But whatever the likely result and whatever the allegiance, for many people on this hot day in Galle the match was an excuse for a lot of flag-waving. Richmond were sporting red white and blue flag reminiscent of the tricolour of the Dutch settler who once culturally dominated Galle, and Mahinda with a black and orange colours that hung from the balconies of the colonial era houses or were poked out of the windows of the cars that were speeding along the narrow roads of the normally quiet walled city. The Richmond team seemed to be getting the upper hand, erecting a complicated scaffolding structure to project their name over the eastern flanks of the ground.

The match also seemed to provide a handy excuse for frenzy of drinking – mostly in honour old boy’s match that was being played that day as a sort of appetizer ahead of the main match. Former schoolboys, many of whom were now a bit paunchy, had a chance to show that what they had lost in speed they had not lost in guile.

Galle, Sri Lanka, cricketFresh off the bus from Matara, an hour or saw eastwards on the coast, I had expressed an interest in watching the cricket at this exotic ground when checking in to my hotel, the Seagreen Guesthouse, which sits with ocean views along the ramparts of the fort. The bearish owner Naman had grinned and told me to hop straight into his car because he was headed down there to watch the match too. He smuggled us into a member’s pavilion that was redolent of a more mythical age of cricket. There was a crowded bar, invitingly dark despite the glaring light outside, and cooled by a slowly wafting fan. The drinkers gesticulating wildly, perhaps about the cricket perhaps about local gossip, as they sipped Lion beer out giant brown or downed glasses of arrack, the local spirit distilled from coconut water. At the back of the bar there was a battered wooden board inscribed with every club captains since 1930, and in front of this dignified looking gents sat among the crumbs of an opulent buffet.

There is a wonderful easy grace to making new friends in Sri Lanka – a gentle turn of phrase: “What is your good name, sir? How long will you stay in Sri Lanka?” I went from table to table shaking hands and soon we were discreetly being bought drinks and discussing the rivalry between Sri Lanka and my national team England. Noticing my flushed face and traces of factor 50-sun cream I was reminded of the now infamous excuse of then England coach Keith Fletcher when Sri Lanka finally defeated the English in a Test match in 1993. “It’s very nearly too hot here for Europeans to play cricket,” Fletcher had said. I’d spent four weeks cowering the shade. “Well,” I said, unwilling to condemn Fletcher “You certainly need a good hat!” Sidath, a bespectacled man with greying hair, recalled the time when Thilan Samaraweera and Mahela Jayawardene put on 262 for the third wicket in a spirit-sapping six-hour stand that helped defeat England in 2003, his friend Sanath remembered a triumph here against the touring English two years earlier. These stories seemed to be heading in a similar direction. “We did win too, you know, sometimes.” I objected.

Soon I was led insistently hand by Mahinda’s all-round talent Dinusha “Kalpa” Abeysundara to the opulent team buffet. It was a deliciously spiced journey through the Sri Lankan curry staples of rice, dhal, sambol and curried fish and chicken. “Try it all!” ordered Kalpa, “Are you sure you have enough? Try this! Take more!” It was a rich feast designed to replenish the strength of players who had spent a long morning in the field. I’d just been sitting on a bus. Stupefied by the food and the searing heat of the day I went out to the balcony to watch the match.

Cricket watching in Sri Lanka seems to combine the gentle charms of an older era with a robust raucousness and Asian exuberance. Live Sinhalese commentary was blasting out on a loudspeaker and an arrack drinker with a giant flag hurling what was either encouragement or jeers from the railings. Kalpa, who was now in his 30s, brought his school days’ coach along to meet us. The venerable old man was clearly frail and poor sighted; Kalpa was holding him steadily by the hand and gently soothing him over a small step, but the disciplinarian ways of a school sports coach had clearly not left him entirely. “This one was good. He could have played for Sri Lanka. But he had no discipline. What a shame. Wasted!”

This torrent of abuse didn’t seem to embarrass or upset our new friend. “He has coached some of Sri Lanka’s great players,” beamed Kolpa, reeling off a list of multi-syllabled names that meant nothing to me, “He is a very great coach.” I was touched. “Well it seems Kolpa has turned out a good man,” I ventured, winking at the all-rounder.

“Yes. But he could have played for Sri Lanka,” grumbled the coach.

All the old boys seemed to be there, bathing in the atmosphere of the local needle match. Another old gentleman came stumbling unsteadily towards me; whether due to age or overindulgence, I’m not sure. I stood to offer him my wooden chair but he waved me back down. A young cricketer came darting out of a changing room and placed a chair next to mine for the older man.

“I hit a six here in in 1964,” he told me, “right over that road!” He pointed to the northern extremity of the ground where now a giant pavilion stood, named after the former president. “Right over the road!” he repeated, “No-one had ever hit a six to that part of the park.”

Galle, Sri Lanka, cricketHis lips were moist, and he giggled in delight at the memory and a fresh audience to tell of his triumph. There was a sweet childishness in his grin; an elderly patrician, enjoying a drink on a special ground that had made him both happy and proud. “It’s a nice game, cricket,” he said. “You can learn a lot about life.” It turned out that, like me, he’d been a wicketkeeper. We felt an instant bond. He kept patting me on my back: “It’s a good game, hey! It’s a good game!”

I’m not even sure who won that day. The beer flowed, I sweated it out, then I was persuaded to wave the Mahinda flag by a vocal arrack-drinker, and then I was interrupted and handed the Richmond flag by a rival. Kolpa went out to bat, his wife and young child looking at the ground demurely as he was farcically run-out. Someone else bought me a drink, and then I was shown around the dressing room. Soon I realised that I was boasting of my cricketing feats as under-14 captain of my local village team and offering to play in Galle next year – as long as I got a good hat. Clearly I’d had enough beer and arrack and so left the two great rivals to fight it out without me.

But as I walked back along the ramparts, with the waves crashing on the rocks below, I looked back at the green oval where the shadows of the players were lengthening, and picked out the balcony where the old wicket keeper was still sitting. I thought of his sweet, childlike delight and, as the tourists and monks started their evening promenade along the old battlements, echoed his words: “It’s a good game, hey! It’s a good game.”

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