Galle stadium — picture of tsunami for the cricketing world

S. RAM MAHESH

A view of the indoor net facilities at the Galle International Stadium. The cricket ground was badly damaged by the December 26, 2004 tsunami.-V.V. KRISHNAN

IT'S the innings break of the last match at Dambulla between India and Sri Lanka. I decide to visit Kopi Kade, Internet cafe and journalist haunt one last time. The phone lines at the Rangiri Dambulla stadium were down during the first match of the Indian Oil Cup and panicky journalists indulged in a game of musical chairs at the said net centre. My reasons for this last visit are personal. It gets me out of the cloistered press box; and Kopi Kade does have the best cream soda in town. Lest I sound like a chapter right out of "Secret Seven and the Dambulla Monster", let me lay before you the real reason. The place is run by a young enterprising entrepreneur who never seems to get flustered. He attends calls for help with a smile, and no problem is too tough. "I work hard but I'm human," says a placard at Kopi and it sums him up best. I get to the place, thank him for all he's done and file my story. And glug one last cream soda.

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Anil Kumble obliges some members of the families of the Indian High Commission who rush for autographs at the NCC Club.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The road from Colombo to Galle is a fascinating journey from the urban to the rural. From Macdonald's and Pizza Hut to small musty fish shops. As we near Galle, a spitting rain starts, mixing with the salty spray to cover everything in a wet film. On my left I see rubble, broken boats, and new houses built of Aluminium and wood. "HELP US SURVIVE OURSELVES" says a sign next to a wrecked home. "There there look — tsunami train," says our driver. Rusty red compartments lie strewn. Men and women go about their work. The Galle International Stadium — the picture of the tsunami for the cricketing world — looks almost normal after the sights I have seen. The only thing I find strange is there is no fence. Just a ground surrounded by grassy banks and three structures — the clubhouse, the media centre, and a stand. Quite different from the gargantuan concrete stadiums in India.

The indoor nets show the extent of the damage. In place of green synthetic wickets is slush because the broken roof has failed to keep the rain out. At a height of about 25 feet runs a near colourless line throughout the room — the watermark. An old kit bag and a couple of helmets in one corner are the only signs of cricket in this enclosure.

Back on the ground, two dogs run on to the pitch and greet Jayananda Warnaweera, secretary, Southern Province Cricket Association (SPCA) headquartered at the Galle International Stadium. "Tsunami dogs," he calls them. He tells me they arrived with the tsunami.

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The Indian cricketers practise at the Nondescripts Cricket Club, home club of Kumar Sangakkara, Upul Tharanga and Lasith Malinga. Ian Frazer, bio-mechanist among other things, juggles three orange balls. He coaxes Suresh Raina to follow suit, but Lakshmipathy Balaji cottons on better. Eager eyes watch them. No not Sri Lankan or West Indian scouts, nor even Indian scribes. A group of Indian fans based in Sri Lanka have gathered at a strategic spot, courtesy the Indian High Commission. The players are engulfed after their session. Digital cameras, miniature bats, caps, autograph books and one handycam on tripod make appearances. The Indians are patient and satisfy every request. Photos with players are the most fun. Wrung out after practice, the best the cricketer can summon is a cross between a hangdog expression and a pained smile. The fan next to him is understandably thrilled, and perhaps a little too enthusiastic. All in all, a classic composition — one that will doubtless form the backbone for many a first name dropping story.

L. Balaji juggling with balls at a training session.-V.V. KRISHNAN

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"How many bottles of rum tonight mate?" Imran Khan, media manager of the West Indies cricket team is asked after the second string Caribbean team overcomes Sri Lanka. Imran looks shocked. His eyes goggle and his jaw drops. "None today," he says, grinning. "Maybe after Tuesday [final] night." The West Indies has had a tough tour of the Emerald Isle. The victory over Sri Lanka is their first in more than a month. Above the players' enclosure, a group of Caribbeans whoop and dance. Yells of "Go West Indies", "Yo Powell" and "Hurray to the West Indies" fill the air. An impromptu lap of honour follows and the crowd that was previously draining out of the ground like a Drainex-fed sink stop and applaud.

Through the tribulations, Imran has been refreshingly professional. All journalists get team lists and information about the toss before every match the West Indies play. He helps identify cricketers and doles out useful nuggets about them. He enters press conferences with a "Thank you gentlemen for waiting" and makes sure his players don't get too hassled. A few minutes after skipper Shivnarine Chanderpaul leaves the field with a viral infection, Imran is in the press box. In crisp sentences, he outlines Chanderpaul's condition. "Sylvester Joseph will lead. Should anything happen to him, wicket-keeper Denesh Ramdin will take over."

During the last league match between India and the West Indies, a flash of maroon announces his presence. "I know this is pre-empting it a bit," he says gesturing to his handouts, "but in this is contact information for when India tour the Caribbean." Even as others hammer away at their laptops, one senior journalist asks another, "When will this happen with the Indian Board?"

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Jayananda Warnaweera, secretary, Southern Province Cricket Association (SPCA), with one of the many dogs which have been at the Galle stadium since the tsunami.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The Day. India versus Sri Lanka. I make the mistake of leaving at 1 p.m. for a match scheduled to start at 2.30 p.m. (local time). The roads are like the arteries of a fast-food addict — clogged. Every vehicle in Colombo seems to inch toward the stadium. Some of them have bands practising their tunes for the final. However they are composed, all of them seem to end with the word Lanka. Sri Lankan flags hang from car windows dangerously close to the wheels.

My auto driver is Rohan, a former cricketer for Hindu College. I ask him why he discontinued both the game and his studies. "Very expensive, no? Who you think win today?" he asks in reply and answers it himself. "I think India. Ganguly, Dravid, Kumble very best. Harbhajan is like our Murali. But they must win toss and bat."

After the security check during which the suspicious guard eyes me askance for at least five minutes, I make my way in. It's 2.10 p.m. A 10-minute journey has taken seven times that long. I soon learn that Rohan's recipe hasn't been followed. Marvan Atapattu has won the toss and decided to bat.

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It's over. Fireworks go off, the stadium erupts. Tillakaratne Dilshan gets into the driver's seat of the red Swift for the Man of the Series, but shouldn't it be Mahela Jayawardene? The Sri Lankan vice-captain is nursing an injured right arm and can't drive. He slips in beside Dilshan, who vrooms around the ground.

A disappointed Indian side trudge into their team bus, which goes a lot slower.