It was the last game for the year in Kandy, probably the last time you will see the Sri Lankan team before they go on their overseas tours leading to the world cup.
One thing us Sri Lankans take seriously is our holidays. With the entire country on the vacation drive a fortnight before the Christmas, a Test match Saturday was a perfect setting. Having got myself a ticket I set off to Pallekelle.
The 20-minute drive ‘usually’ gets tiresome on match days. The closer you get to the grounds the bigger the crawl. Crowds are seen flocking the roads as impatient drivers create new lanes. Roadside junkies sell tickets on the black and vendors of almost anything try their best to make a quick buck. These are some of the everyday sights when a match is being played.
But the Saturday was different; the roads showed minimal congestion and access to the grounds was a piece of cake. Vendors were sparse. Getting closer, there was no cheering or bands playing and no queues lining up to enter the grounds. Something just didn’t add up.
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The entrance was blocked with vertical corrugated metal bars akin to a high security zone back during the war. Passing the first security check, I arrived at the enclosure which was also strictly guarded. The officer checked my ticket again to make sure it is not counterfeit.
Looking left and right, I had to pause to reassure myself that I was indeed at Pallekelle. The picturesque pavilions were packed with enthusiastic English cricket fans waving the familiar union flag, the grass banks were filled with another few hundred basking in the sun just before sun-down.
It looked like England had taken over Kandy once again. Last time If my memory serves me correct, was the English East India Company in 1815. One hundred and thirteen years later, it is the Barmy Army.
The blaring ‘papare’ bands were absent. Instead, a familiar chant rang around the grounds.
“Everywhere we go, the people want to know,
Who we are, where we come from,
We are the England, the mighty mighty England”
This went on for a bit until a few of them give up the fight with the heat and dust and sat calmly down to their pint and to watching the match.
“This guy, Angelo has played a masterful innings. He is a sight to watch all day. Such positive batting” added Luther; a middle-aged gentleman who was beside me watching the game.
A veteran of the Barmy Army, Luther has been with the battalion for over 2 decades travelling around the world with the England cricket team.
“The Kumar’s and Mahela’s are gone, I haven’t seen a better combination than that in test cricket” he adds to which his comrades weigh in.
“Kumar destroyed us in Asgiriya last time I came here…”
It was more than a decade ago that the Barmy Army came to Kandy. It was the famous test of 2007 in Asgiriya. The last match they ever played in Asgiriya before the venue was taken off the grid and it was a game to remember.
Sangakarra’s 92 in the first innings and his 152 in the second had to be overshadowed by the great man Muttiah Muralitharan who became the world’s highest wicket-taker in that test.
Taking Paul Collingwood off in the 1st test, Muralitharan got his 707 dismissals surpassing Shane Warne.
It was a test that didn’t have any victor till the final session of play. Come 5th day, the English were chasing 350 for victory and the Barmy Army was right behind their cause with Ian Bell and Matt Prior batting confidently for victory.
As the Army raised their glasses to the duo’s heroics, the world’s best bowler had one last trick with him shattering the English hopes in the final few overs of the 5th day to take Sri Lanka to an emphatic 88 run win.
Watching the game from the left banks in Asgirya, it was a game for the ages. Murali was outstanding that day, such a class act.
Its 2018 on day 4 just before tea, Sri Lanka in a commanding position chasing 301 for victory. Niroshan Dickwella had got to his usual rhythm and Angelo Mathews was nearing his 80’s and for the first time in the test, Sri Lanka looked cruising just 90 runs short of a famous win.
Dickwella’s artful sweeping and Angelo’s drives frustrated the Englishmen not just on the field but off the field; they were all loving it.
Sri Lanka breaks for tea. They need 82 more with 5 wickets to spare. Being one of the spattering rooting for the home side, I couldn’t be happier. I thought I will be one of the few to watch a famous victory.
The tea-break has got the stalls in full swing. Not too many matches after this till the world cup, so the sponsors are making the best use. Contrary to the ‘English and their tea’ fable, the other colourful beverage had the best business with numbers queuing up, their orders not ones or twos, but as many as a hand could carry.
In another corner, was someone trying to take the perfect Instagram photo; her noodles cup positioned with the ground and pitch in the background. Maybe she is one of those Instagram influencers over there and who knows the noodles company would have paid her for an endorsement!
Nobody would shy away from talking cricket, you only have to channel your opinion to whoever is nearby “We take these two out, the game is ours!” barks out a newly commissioned Barmy Army member as the batsmen make their way to the field.
It looked like his instructions were heard loud and clear by captain Joe Root. The third ball after tea, Moeen Ali bowls crisp, Mathews is DISMISSED LBW. OUT given!
Huge moment in the game, reviewing it didn’t help. A fantastic knock of 88 comes to an end as the former captain walks back in disappointment.
He receives a standing ovation from the visiting crowd and the ovation continues until he made his descent to the dressing room. Moeen Ali has broken the ice!
Ali bowls a wicket maiden, returns to fine leg for the next. The Army has got their mojo back. “Ooh Moeen Ali, Ooh aah, I wanna knooow, how you grow that beard.” is what they chant this time. Moeen looks at the crowd, smiles and turns back to his job.
“You might want to pack up son. The rains are coming and it is going to come all of a sudden from the top of that scoreboard” a wise gentleman altered me, packing his goods.
Out of Sri Lankan stubbornness, I ignored his claim as I felt my proud ‘Kandyness’ under threat. How can this man know the weather better than me?
I was wrong, very wrong.
England struck again, this time Leach removing the new batsmen Dilruwan Perera as the rain came pouring down.
It came ‘all of a sudden’, just as he predicted. The English were prepared. They had packed their bags, had their hats, raincoats and umbrellas ready to go.
With the half ticket in my hand, I ran for the shade. As I ran, I realized that I was indeed the ‘foreigner’ there.