It's fun to watch Indians train

The Indian practice sessions are very different from those of the West Indies. They stretch, (here Venugopala Rao, Harbhajan and Rahul Dravid are sweating it out, while V. V. S. Laxman takes a breather), catch, bat or bowl, whereas when the Windies train, certain `professionals' stretch only select muscles.


MUTTIAH MURALITHARAN — Gray Nicholls in hand, devious smile on lips — saunters into the Rangiri Dambulla ground. The Sri Lankan batsmen are patting away throw downs before their match against the West Indies and one of the world's last surviving bunnies begins work on his batting. To the first lollipop, he conceives a stroke of such illogicality that the MCC cricket manual shudders from Chapter Three to Twelve.

His left leg splays out, his right bows deferentially, and his arms shift between a foxtrot and a waltz. In the midst of all this, ball manages a surreptitious tryst with bat. Next the spin whiz skewers a divot out of the turf with an attempted reverse sweep.

Upul Chandana, kindred soul who bats alongside, is the target of the next Murali swat. Incensed, he returns the favour and nearly beheads Murali. A moment. Just for a moment, the Indian team would have thought they owed Chandana a bottle of bubbly. Murali survives to torment.

* * *

Shivnarine Chanderpaul is a stylist. You read that right — a stylist. Before you shut the magazine in disgust, appalled at the declining quality in judging aesthetics let me assure you that it's not batting I'm talking about. Shiv is a mean player of pool. At the Culture Club — site for the pre-tournament press conference — the West Indian skipper unwinds before facing the media. Maybe his stiff and peremptory manner with the media is a result of stress.

At the pool table though there are no traces of the crabbiest technique in world cricket. Leaning on the table, he finesses the eight ball into the top right pocket with the practised calm of Fernando Alonso downshifting. Behind the eight ball is coach Bennett King, owner of the Thesaurus of euphemisms. How his hair and humour stay intact will remain one of the cricketing world's best-kept secrets.

* * *

Headley George is as Jamaican as they come. Named after the West Indian batting great George Headley (no, not the black Bradman — ask any Caribbean. Bradman, they insist, is the white Headley) he is a photographer for the Jamaica Gleaner. A beard of squiggly white worm creeps upward, nearly reaching his eyes. The patented gravely voice and the groovy accent are in place.

At the West Indian nets, journalists strain their eyes comparing the faces they see with printed out photos in an attempt to recognise the second string line up. "Isn't that Darren Powell?" I ask George in an attempt to draw him out. "Who? One moment" comes the reply. "Pow pow," bellows George and Powell who is snaffling whacks from Bennett King's bat replies with a "Ya man" without turning around. "Yes, that is Powell," nods George, as only a Jamaican can, "all these new fellas."

* * *

Chants of "Upula. Upula. Mahela. Mahela", whistles, and drumbeats fill the Dambulla air and increase in volume and intensity as the afore-mentioned gentlemen fight back from 95 for six against India. Towards the end, the seats grow cold as the crowd stamp up a rhythm. And in this chaos I find Aluwihare, who seems unremarkable except for the fact that he is the only man who has neither let loose a scream nor stomped a foot.

The reason is clear enough — he cradles his sleeping nine-year-old son (day-nighters may rake in the moolah, but shouldn't they end at a more sensible time?) while explaining the nuances to his elder son.

Father's day out with sons — isn't that how the Chappells and the Waughs started?

Aluwihare speaks little English and I, no Sinhalese. Broken Tamil is our medium. He tells me his sons play cricket at home. Before I can question the responsibility of his parenthood — his sons have missed school today — Upula and Mahela take Sri Lanka home. He cracks a crooked smile and proceeds to do the same with his kids.

* * *

The Indian nets are great fun to watch. You can take your pick from the spin net where the two-metre tall Sanjay Jagdale, manager, turns a rusty shoulder over. Or from the first net where the top batsmen tame tricky cricket balls suspended on strings (remember sock ball?). "Keep going," says coach Greg Chappell when a batsman takes a break. "It gets your brain thinking about the top hand."

Players everywhere are stretching, catching, batting or bowling; very different from the West Indian nets where certain `professionals' take every chance to stretch only select muscles. Dravid and Sehwag take time off to admire Dhoni's power hitting.

Suddenly Chappell yells "Two," and the batsmen in the nets take off for a brace. All part of building intensity. The post-training pool session is just as interesting.

The Indians are made to work against water resistance. Yuvraj and Kaif dive in athletically; Dravid's entrance is surgical. The rest, though, win no prizes for callisthenics. A caustic journalist even likens their dives to those of "dead snakes."

* * *

I meet Percy, talisman and flag-bearer of Sri Lankan cricket, and get a crash course on the history of the islanders' cricket.

Percy is a lively narrator and with his penchant for rhyme and referring to himself in the third person, the most fascinating stories get — if possible — even better.

File picture of Percy (right), talisman and flag-bearer of Sri Lankan cricket.-

He tells me about M. Sadhasivam, a batsman "greater than Aravinda," and C. I. Gunasekara, the hardest hitter of the cricket ball he's seen.

Gunasekara once hit Australian spinner Lindsay Kline for 26 runs in an over in an unofficial match. "After that hammerin'," rhymes Percy, "that was the decline of Kline."

Percy, who has named a son and a grandson Garfield and another grandson Sachin, saves his best anecdote for last.

It's about the "best wicket-keeper we had," Ben Navaratna. The said gloveman was so special, says Percy, that he never left his perch beside the stumps for any bowler however fast. When Navaratna once kept to Australian all-rounder Keith Miller, not bothering to stand back, he let two bumpers go through for four byes. Miller, Percy says, requested the 'keeper to back off. Navaratna complied and took three steps back. He proceeded to turn on a display so blinding that Miller said he was better than England's Godfrey Evans, alpha 'keeper. And that's not all. Percy says Navaratna maintained he had a natural advantage because of all the cows he had milked as a younger boy. The stance was apparently the same.