Enchanting Galle

Published : Aug 25, 2001 00:00 IST


AUGUST 5. The tension in the air is palpable. It all boils down to one game for the Indians. It has been a heroic comeback by the team yet the last hurdle has been the huge stumbling block since late 1998. Can the side produce the 'big effort' on the deciding day? It's a Sunday, and it's expected to be a sell-out crowd. The local press is critical of Sourav Ganguly's outburst on the field, quite a few of the Lankan fans are agitated and there's clearly 'an extra something' in this final. We catch up with Harbhajan Singh on the morning of the duel. He is desperately keen to deliver in the crunch game. Almost everyone we come across in Lanka is thrilled by this young Sardar. "He will be as good as Murali one day," says a cricket aficionado one comes across at the stationary shop. And an Indian businessman at the restaurant cannot quite understand how Yuveraj Singh and Virender Sehwag have been left out of the Test team. We explain that the requirements in a five-day game are quite different. He remains unconvinced. Meanwhile, the Lankans are quietly confident. Coach Dav Whatmore has a swim in the Taj Samudra pool, and the home side appears in a relaxed frame of mind. The afternoon arrives sooner than expected and as we near the Premadasa Stadium, the venue for the title clash, the scene is in total contrast to those of the earlier occasions. There are people everywhere as the taxi slowly finds its way through to the Stadium. Inside, the atmosphere is electrifying, but the match itself is a huge let-down in terms of a contest, with the Indians flattering to deceive again. Yet another final, yet another setback. The sense of disappointment in the Indian ranks is pronounced.

August 6. Coach John Wright meets the media. He feels perhaps the Indians, in their keenness to win, are putting too much pressure on themselves. Yet he sees hope in a young side, that had bucked the odds to enter the final. Wright is a well-intentioned man who genuinely cares for the team, and he wants men with the right attitude. Several cricketers picked only for the one-day side tournament pack their bags. Along with them are V. V. S. Laxman and Ashish Nehra, who might have had a major role to play in the Test series, as well ready to leave. Both are injured and both require treatment in their long-term interests.

August 7. This is a relatively quiet day following a gruelling tournament. The replacements for the Tests, except Karnataka pace pair Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad and Tamil Nadu opener Sadagopan Ramesh, land in Colombo. The Coca-Cola triangular tournament is history, the three-Test series against the host is the fresh challenge. There is a spring in the steps of the new boys, among them the promising opener Shiv Sundar Das, a precious commodity in Indian cricket.

August 7. It's the eve of the three-day game against the Board eleven, the lone first class game apart from the Tests for the Indians on the tour. Skipper Sourav Ganguly, nursing an ankle injury and vice-captain Rahul Dravid, with a sore heel, are doubtful starters for the game. Ganguly, in fact, informs the media that Javagal Srinath, the senior most member among the available players, would lead the side. When Srinath, along with Prasad and Ramesh arrives in the afternoon, he is informed of this news. "It is a honour to lead India in any game," the genial paceman tells us. However, there is a dramatic change in the script. Around 8 p.m., Wright informs the media in the hotel lobby that the captain had in fact recovered and would now be leading the side. We rush to make the required changes in our story for the day.

August 8. We keep our date with a venue steeped in history. The P. Sara Stadium. A ground that has witnessed Sir Donald Bradman in action. Where Sri Lanka began its quest in Test cricket and then registered its first Test victory by defeating India in the 1985 series. It's also a place where the great Sri Lankan Tamil cricketers of the past have paraded their skills. It's a pretty ground, with a little hill. And beyond the hill, and across the fence, we can spot a few ponies grazing around on a lush green private property. A scene that soothes one's senses. Cricket was always meant to be played in such serene surroundings, wasn't it? The hectic pace and tempo of one-day cricket is gone, it's now time for a more purer variety of the game. One also sees old warriors Srinath and Prasad joining forces once more. The bond between them is still strong... they help each other out in the training sessions, shout words of encouragement during matches. After the conclusion of the game, the Indian team-management wants to address the media. Both Ganguly and Dravid deny there is any rift between them as suggested in some quarters, and Wright too is on hand to endorse their statements.

August 9. Dravid, a bright, young man, makes a surprise visit to the press box. He wants to check his e-mail and a local journalist with an internet connection in his lap-top is only too happy to oblige the ace batsman. A minor injury has kept him out of the side, yet Dravid keeps himself busy, taking a walk around the park, carrying mineral water to his team-mates on the field of play. He also spots two Indian photographers sweating it out under the sun, walks up to them, and offers them two bottles of water. The lensmen are touched by the gesture, but then Dravid is a superstar with a difference. Out in the middle, Indian openers Sadagopan Ramesh and Shiv Sundar Das register a century partnership that delights Wright. "They looked good, didn't they," he says and one agrees. However, as the day progresses, the loose surface begins to break up, and the ball starts to fly around. The wicket is fast becoming dangerous for play.

August 10. This is a day of dramatic developments. First, the three-day game comes to an abrupt halt. The third delivery of the first over of the morning from paceman Dinusha Fernando flies past Sameer Dighe's nose, and Ganguly declares the innings at that point. Despite a last ditch attempt by the groundstaff to restart the proceedings, flouting the laws of the game that prohibits the wickets being repaired during the course of a match, the contest is abandoned after two inspections in the afternoon. Later the umpires clarify that the rescue operation was undertaken on a request by both captains, since this was an important game for the aspirants. And in the evening the team-management receives the news of Tendulkar's non-availability for the series, An Indian Test eleven without this great cricketer is unthinkable really, yet the reality of the situation has to be accepted. The team-management puts up a brave front. Wright looks at the brighter side of the picture. "Situations like these can throw up players," he points out. The youngsters should be able to deliver in such circumstances, evolve, and become much better players in the process, he adds. He is right too.

August 11. Finally, after 27 incident-packed days, we leave Colombo. Galle, 72 miles from the Lankan capital, is our next destination. The drive along the southern coastal motorway leading up to this Southern Province capital is breathtakingly beautiful. "It was like in my dreams," a journalist friend said, and that wasn't far from the truth. Lanka is indeed the emerald isle, and one saw enough evidence of that along the 72-kilometre drive. Lush greenery all around, enchanting backwaters that reminded one of Kerala back home, lovely Buddhist temples, and the big blue Indian Ocean. In fact, there is a particular stretch in the journey, where we have the Colombo-Galle railway track on one side, and the sea on the other. The cricket ahead promises to be fascinating too. More about cricket and Galle next week.

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