Murali, a big hit in Kandy

Published : Sep 08, 2001 00:00 IST


AUGUST 19: The Kandyans are proud of their heritage and culture. They are considered brave too, for having resisted the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British for long periods. No wonder the colonial empires set their eyes on this beautiful hill country. Kandy is also the heartland of Buddhism in the country and the sight of monks clad in flowing maroon robes walking down the streets confirms this. There are beautiful temples too, and a giant statue of Lord Buddha overlooks the city from the top of a hill. There are also lovely tea plantations in this area, not to speak of the Royal Botanical Garden, considered among the finest in Asia, in the heart of the city. On the surface, there is a very 'relaxed feel' about the place. Yet, politically, Kandy is the hot-bed in Lanka. "Anything that happens in Sri Lanka, you can feel the effect here," a friendly shop-keeper told us. We are staying in Hotel Le Kandyan, perched on a hill, and the view from the top is fascinating. In the afternoon we take off to the Asgiriya Stadium where the Indians are practising - it's a 25-minute drive from the hill to the plains. We are in for a rude shock. The security, both outside and in the ground, is awesome. There are policemen wielding guns everywhere. All this for a practice session. We catch up with Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, two young bowlers who might have a big role to play for India in the Test. It's nearly dark when we get back to Le Kandyan, and our driver Sanath handles the wicked 'turns' up the hill expertly. We make a safe landing, will the Indians do the same in the context of a Test series?

August 20: We travel through the lanes of Kandy. It's a lively, bustling city with clean air and neat roads. Venkatesh Prasad has recommended a nice restaurant for South Indian food and we are on the look-out for Hotel Ram's in Colombo Street. We spot it soon enough and get our quota of rice, sambar and dosa and it seems a home away from home really. The food is delicious in this hotel owned, by a Tamil. The Tamils form about 40 per cent of the population in Kandy and live in harmony with the Sinhalese. A lot of Tamils originally came down here to work in the tea plantations and along the way quite a few of them made considerable head-way in the field of business too. Kandy is also the home town of ace off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan and the very mention of his name puts a smile on the faces of many. They love him over here. We also hear an interesting story about Murali. About him beginning his career as a batsman who can send down off-cutters. It is a wise school coach who asks him to switch over to off-spin and the rest is history. There is a huge cut-out of Murali at the Asgiriya Stadium, something that reflects his popularity in these parts. The Kandyans are vocal in their views and an elderly man, realising quickly that we are Indian journalists, walks up to us and gives his own assessment of the side. Some of it makes sense and we wonder if someone can send him to the team management!

August 21: It's the eve of the second Test. The Sri Lankans have their practice session in the morning, and soon after they conclude it starts to rain. The Indian session, to follow soon, appears in jeopardy and a couple of Lankan cricketers are already smiling. It also gives us time to exchange a few words with Murali. He says it's always a special occasion for him when he plays in Kandy, before his family, friends and supporters. Also in view at the Asgiriya Stadium is a rather serious looking Suresh Perera, whose action is under a microscope now, after the paceman is reported to the ICC by umpire Steve Bucknor. Dav Whatmore is concerned about the youngster. "It is a bit worrying. He is a young player. He is thought of highly by the selectors and the captain." The Lankan coach sounds optimistic though that Perera would play the second Test. Meanwhile, the Indians arrive at this picturesque ground. The ground is still wet and they settle for a game of volleyball with physio Andrew Leipus directing the operation. Sourav Ganguly is in a reflective mood, "there are going to be good times and bad times. It's a team game we have to keep helping each other out." Back at the hotel, Roshan, the youngster at the reception counter, tells us that cricket is only the No. 2 sport in Kandy. It's rugby that draws in the crowds here. "People are crazy about rugby." Yet, there is a place for cricket too in his heart, and he tells us that he buys The Sportstar whenever he gets a chance. "But it's become costly you know. It's 40 rupees here." We say it's only Rs. 10 in India. He cannot quite believe it.

August 22: Cricket starts at the Asgiriya Stadium. The crowd is bigger than what we saw in Galle, there is more enthusiasm on display. The venue is actually owned by Trinity College, one of the premier English schools in Sri Lanka. And from the ground, we can see the red painted Trinity College building on one of the not so distant hills. Kumara Sangakkara is a Trinity product, and quite a few from his school are on hand to cheer this spunky cricketer. However, the biggest roars are reserved for Muralitharan when he makes a brief appearance with the bat. The man's a star here.

August 23: One of the unique features of this Test is the security. And accompanying the policemen are huge dogs that keep the potential trouble makers at a distance. And during the lunch and tea breaks, the pitch is guarded by gun wielding cops. Perhaps the Lankans were stung by criticism regarding security during the Coca-Cola ODI tournament, when two activists from the opposition party carrying banners sporting anti-government slogans, interrupted an India-Sri Lanka duel at the Premadasa Stadium. They are being careful this time. The Kandy weather is as fickle as the British. There are dark clouds accompanied by rain one moment and bright sunshine the next. It's almost bizarre. It is not uncommon to see the groundstaff racing in with the covers, prompting us to conclude prematurely that there may not be too much cricket left for the day. We are wrong. Bright sunshine, winds and super soppers enable the match to commence soon and this invariably results in play being extended.

August 24: The cut-out of Muttiah Muralitharan at the Asgiriya Stadium appears even bigger on this day. A day when the home boy gave the Kandy crowd something to remember for a long time. The atmosphere is electric inside the ground as Murali wields his willow like a swashbuckling swordsman. The likable cricketer reaches his first Test half-century, a feat that is accompanied by a huge roar. From the crowd's point of view, it's the highlight of the match. Anant Mate, manager, Indian team, makes a brief visit to the press box. "We are going to win this match," he says on a confident note.

August 25: A tense fourth day begins, but it's a carnival atmosphere inside the ground. A band at the far end of the ground belts out popular Tamil numbers, but even this cannot inspire Murali with the ball on this day. The manager is on the mark. India bounces back in the series on a 'Big Saturday,' clinching the Test following a memorable run-chase. There are smiles all-around in the Indian dressing room and coming after a tough ordeal, this is a special victory indeed. Skipper Sourav Ganguly too has come roaring back, blazing his way out of troubled times, at least momentarily.

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