The newly upgraded Pallekele International Cricket Stadium in Kandy was my next destination. Together with ex-work colleagues George Kulasekere and Thusith de Silva, Jagath and former Sri Lanka cricketer Avishka Gunawardene, I made the 150 km trip to watch the first two ODIs played at the ground.
Passing the serene beauty of the Kandy lake and driving through some narrow streets brought us to the crossing of the bridge over the Mahaweli river, the longest in the island. Soon after, we turned course into the amply laid out, well-organised premises of the Kandy Industrial Park, a short ride away from the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium.
The stadium’s project was launched in 2002 as a joint venture between Zarara Sports, UAE and the Ministry of Sports, Sri Lanka, promoted by Muttiah Muralidaran. The project was subsequently bought by SLC. Many issues had impacted its execution before it was included in the infrastructure development plan for the 2011 World Cup. The ground, with a capacity of 20,000, hosted its first Test in December 2010 and became Sri Lanka’s 8th and the 104th Test venue in the world. It replaced the Asgiriya Stadium, which hosted Tests from 1983 to 2007, as the international venue of choice around Kandy.
A few ‘thirst quenchers’ on the way delayed our arrival. The moment we entered, Pallekele reminded me of the SuperSport Park in Centurion, South Africa, seen on TV. Surrounded by misty mountains, Pallekele has one of the most beautiful backdrops in cricket. Disappointingly, the block at the Grand Stand for which we bought tickets had its seats covered with a white cloth, rendering the seats useless for the spectators. The ICC deemed that the plastic chairs on a temporary wooden platform posed safety issues. Where’s the money gone?
While we enjoyed the majestic views of the sun setting behind the hills, New Zealand’s Ross Taylor massacred the Pakistan attack. Abdul Razzaq, Shoaib Akhtar, Abdur Rehman and Shahid Afridi bore the brunt of Taylor’s blade. Aided by his unbeaten 131 in 124 balls and a late Jacob Oram cameo (25 off 9), New Zealand surged to 302 for 7 in 50 overs. From 210 for 6, the last 25 balls yielded an extraordinary 92 runs. Gul, however, had excellent figures of 3 for 32 off 10 overs. A shell-shocked Pakistan could only manage 192 in 41.4 overs. Razzaq delayed the inevitable with a defiant 62. It was a shambolic display by a ragged Pakistan.
After the match, Jagath headed back to Colombo while the rest of us reached our temporary pad, the century-old Kandyan Manor, just before midnight. Situated 5 km from Kandy city centre in Katugastota, the well-preserved traditional Walauwa (feudal property) provided a cosy atmosphere. The sight of Sri Lankan delicacies laid out on the table looked enticing, but first things first.
Sensing no time for the usual ‘appetiser’, I asked the owner, Bathiya Ratwatte, ‘What’s the cut-off time for dinner?’
‘Anytime you please,’ he said.
My raised eyebrows dropped back on seeing his wife Suzanne’s nod in approval.
Licence given, the session went on and on and on … When there’s someone like Avishka Gunawardene, who had shared the dressing room with many Sri Lankan cricketing legends, the cricket-worthy chat becomes endless.
Sharp at 6 o’clock in the morning, Bathiya’s pet, a majestic rooster named Charlie, climbed down from his treetop perch with all the bearing of a Roman general. He looked a bit disturbed at the presence of strangers at an unusual hour but was determined to follow his usual routine. In silence, with open mouths, we watched his next move. Jumping onto the top seat of the veranda table, he then did his number. The ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ came loud and clear, with his chest thrust forward and a flap of his wings, announcing the dawn of a new day. His actions had hardly any effect on our activities, which were in full swing. Ignoring nature’s reminder, we continued merrily and had our dinner at 6.30 am. Was it late dinner or early breakfast?
Next afternoon, 10 March 2011, we were back at the Pallekele Stadium for Sri Lanka’s game against Zimbabwe. Powered by a record 282-run opening partnership between Tillakaratne Dilshan and Upul Tharanga, Sri Lanka made 327 for 6 in their 50 overs. For 44.3 overs they entertained a packed crowd and made the highest opening stand in World Cups and the second highest in ODIs. Dilshan’s score of 144, his first century in World Cups, and Tharanga’s 133, was the first instance in World Cup history in which both openers scored centuries in an innings. Brendan Taylor gave Zimbabwe a flutter of hope for an improbable victory with an aggressive half-century in 39 balls. He played some fine innovative shots but eventually departed for 80 in the 25th over. Zimbabwe folded for 188 in 39 overs.
(Adapted from ‘Winds Behind The Willows’.)
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