The daredevil cab drivers

The game is never playable and it is wrong to schedule the match in the middle of the monsoon. Why start now when no one-dayer has been played in Colombo in November for 20 years?


NOVEMBER 14: To Chennai to meet old friends and new; and live for 48 hours in Madras Cricket Club within a few feet of an infamous incident 20 years ago. When we sit down for the second day's play for the fourth Test we see the chairman of selectors Peter May and his wife taking their place in a row for honoured guests. "Not here officially, Ted," says this kindly but rather old-fashioned man. "Be grateful if no mention is made of my presence." His wife adds a frown. They have trouble with the Press at the time of their engagement in 1959 when a shocking Ashes tour defeat is blamed on her arrival in Australia, although in the proper ways of those times, each meeting is chaperoned and they never so much as dine alone. The Chennai day turns the tide for England. Mike Gatting and Graeme Fowler both make double hundreds. The Mays clap quietly and at the end of the day try to slip away without being seen but not before one of the young reporters attempts to persuade them that a few words of tribute to the England pair are in order. "No, thank you," says May. "We're on holiday. Inappropriate for us to steal the glory." Not even a "well done" for the lads he picks for this tour, captained by David Gower in his own inimitable, laid-back style. I mention this odd behaviour in my match report for a tabloid paper and their headline is Mr. Nasty! Oh dear. Peter May and I are never on good terms again.

When captain Michael Vaughan and coach Duncan Fletcher went out for a pitch inspection at the Premadasa Stadium, they were booed by even English fans. — Pic. AFP-

November 16: Our own holiday in Chennai is gone in an hospitable flash and soon we are on the road from Colombo airport to Dambulla for the first of the one-day international series. Our taxi driver has apparently lost all sense of the road. He not only misses several three-wheelers by a whisker, and almost sends a dark-suited man on a bike to the great cycle yard in the sky but keeps turning round — at a modest 60 miles an hour in heavy rain - to assure us how lucky we are to have such a safe man in charge of this modern car. The sedate drivers of Chennai will have no trouble winning a competition against any Sri Lankan licence holder and ought to be imported to hand out a few lessons in the art of vehicle control. We arrive shaken and stirred to find it has been raining for two days in this central highland that is completely free of the noise of mobile phones since there is no service anywhere. In addition the pitch is damp and Sri Lanka have added a third paceman in the belief that this will be a flier. The word from Colombo is that the crisis that brought about a state of emergency is finished and that the cricket can continue for the next six weeks in peace.

November 18: They say that every hour of every day of the year someone somewhere is watching The Simpsons but I can also tell you that most days of every year Ashley Giles is smiling, having a chat with a friend and telling whoever it may be that all is right with the world. I dash past him — my computer is giving me trouble and that is headache time for any sports writer — as he goes into the hotel lift but then next morning when we have a little more leisure he is the same affable fellow. It is all the more surprising since half the cricket fans back home are demanding his head on a platter because his recent results have been ordinary going on downright miserable. "What's wrong, Ash?" I ask. "Just trying a few things, bit of an experiment going on," he grins. "Can't stand still, must make progress."

A bit old to change?

"Not at all." It is not his fault England lose the first one-day international after making their second lowest total of all time. Cheerful Ashley hits 21 which explains, in part, why Michael Vaughan insists on keeping him in the side.

November 19: We meet many a vivid personality on our travels but few to equal the daintily-built but determined traveller Emma Lavene. She is a Yorkshire woman in every inch of her slight frame, never to be deterred by sickness nor the lack of backing for her adventures among the stranger sports of central Asia which she turns into a highly amusing television series and a book with the weird and wonderful title of Polo With the Carcass of a Dead Goat. Now she has taken to life in Turkey by buying a flat in the middle of Istanbul, which has the advantage that a basket lowered from her bedroom window each morning returns with fresh, hot bread. Emma has a rare failure when she tries to bluff her way into the Turkey-England European soccer match in Istanbul last month but is caught out in her pretence to be a Turkish woman and has to watch from the nearest bar. I last hear her voice the next day as she heads for the Syrian border — "Don't ring, I'll be on a train for 36 hours," she bellows above the roar of the railway station but her next email says she has a secret project in India on the stocks. I am forbidden to hint at its nature but whatever else I know there will be no let-up in her life spent in the footsteps of those women explorers of the last century and getting more exciting by the day.

November 21: Neither the Barmy Army nor the local fans are amused when the second one-dayer at Premadasa is abandoned without a ball being bowled. In fact some of the England supporters boo Michael Vaughan, the England captain, when he goes to inspect the patch of mud that is the main cause of the trouble. It is a pity, in my opinion, that the ground authorities take so long to decide. One former England bowler is heard to call the decision "a big confidence trick" and he has a point. The game is never playable and it is wrong to schedule the match in the middle of the monsoon. Why start now when no one-dayer has been played in Colombo in November for 20 years? Because the fixtures are so congested that matches are being played at the most unsuitable periods of the year. I suspect that September in England is not the ideal time for the ICC Trophy but that has to be crammed in at the end of the summer because it cannot be arranged at any other time.

November 22: We watch England's victory — over Australia, how satisfying — in the Rugby World Cup in a bar in Colombo surrounded by 50 happy Englishmen, 50 Sri Lankans and half a dozen noisy Aussies who show the true sporting side of their nature by offering handshakes all round as England sneak in 20-17 with the last kick of the match. Among the viewers is one Tony Greig, born in South Africa, captain of England and now, of course, a doyen of the very Australian Channel Nine commentary team. He underscores his various national allegiances by standing for both the British and Australian national anthems and cheering good moves by both sides. How even-handed can you get?

November 23: The call goes out before every function, press conference or announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen please turn off your mobiles." Of course, media folk being impatient, never happy without their means of communication or just plain difficult they don't always obey this order. So on the sad occasion of a funeral service for a dear friend of mine — Robert Mills of the Yorkshire Post who follows the same path towards a good career as me 20 years later — it is unfortunate that during the Lord's Player a mobile rings out loud and clear. The vicar remarks on the fact during his homily. "I should have known," he says, "to ask you to turn off your cell phones during the service, but I suppose that I cannot expect reporters and sports writers to be without their last line of defence." Only afterwards do we discover the culprit. Step forward, Dickie Bird, umpire extraordinary and now the man whose forgetfulness would certainly have amused Robert Mills, even on this unhappy day.