Wildlife comes to play

Matthew Hoggard, dog handler turned fast bowler with ambitions still to be a vet and the owner of a couple of canine pals, has no hesitation in picking up one of the snakes to the horror of watching pressmen, writes Ted Corbett.

December 3: This not just Murali’s Test, Sangakkara’s record, Sri Lanka’s win and England’s fighting finish but the match in which wild life had its own part to play. When is a game last halted for a swarm of bees, for instance? When is a groundstaff lad last stung by a scorpion? Of course many parts of Sri Lanka are still virtually jungle, incidents involving leopards and crocodiles crop up in the newspapers on a regular basis and already on this tour there are a couple of snakes around during the warm-up matches and we meet a monitor lizard in a hotel garden. Matthew Hoggard, dog handler turned fast bowler with ambitions still to be a vet and the owner of a couple of canine pals, has no hesitation in picking up one of the snakes to the horror of watching pressmen. The 18ft creature is clearly not hungry and unlikely to do him any harm. My guess is that Hoggard is well aware of that fact.

December 4: The Test Match Special broadcasters are a rich source of material for the diarist and this match proves the point all over again. Kevin Howells, a reporter with a voice so powerful that a microphone is probably surplus to requirements, is responsible for the news updates on various BBC outlets but gets a shock when he goes over to Radio Five Live. This station is rather more jokey than many of the stiff upper lip stations — why else would that organisation be known as Aunty — and he finds they are discussing The Osmonds. Without hesitation he gave them a chorus of Puppy Love and apparently it goes down a storm with the half dozen insomniacs listening at 3 a.m. Expect a CD soon, followed by his own sit-com, a visit to Hollywood and, who knows, a place on the screens showing Bollywood movies. Simon Hughes, fast bowler turned TV analyst and newspaper columnist, is recruited for TMS on this part of the tour but finds the lack of cake a misery. Ladies from all over England send their finest cakes to microphone men like John Arlott, Brian Johnston and Henry Blofeld in their day but there is nothing for the new boy Hughes. He says plaintively that he is forgotten; but is tropical Sri Lanka the right place for a slice of chocolate cake? One member of the team remembers the arrival of such a delicacy in Colombo a few years ago and that within minutes it was a molten mass. Not that it stopped the team eating it.

December 5: Bob Taylor, once the best wicket-keeper in the world but not good enough to play for England who have the wonderful Alan Knott, a batsman as well as a brilliant ’keeper, is a regular guide to parties of supporters on trips abroad. Of course he has plenty of stories to tell about the old days when — at least in the memory of such veterans as he and I — life was perfect. I must say I have to agree with his comment that the football millionaires like David Beckham and Co. ought to be able to kick with both feet, head the ball cleanly and go through the motions of a throw-in without being penalised. Bob’s father is a footballing professional with Sunderland and then Stoke City and spends hours coaching him. “He insists I learnt properly,” says Bob who gets a “well done, son” when the things go right and, sometimes, a slap across the legs to encourage him to do better.

December 6: The on-rush of large lorries, single-decker buses, fast cars, slow cars, the ubiquitous minibuses, the occasional elephant and a driver with a twitch that causes him to brake without reason means it takes us four and a half hours to cover the 100 kilometres from Kandy to Colombo. Our driver is not the only twitchy man on the road. When we arrive in the capital we face regular halts by soldiers concerned about terrorism after three bombs in a week. When our driver fails to notice one sentry post hidden under a bridge he has to screech to a halt and is reminded in no uncertain terms about the consequences of failing to stop. It is a hair-raising moment for those of us unused to such security — even at the height of the IRA bomb campaign 20 years ago — so I am more than pleased to get a grin and a wink from the heavily-armed guard who has just handed out the dressing down to our driver.

December 7: I mean sometimes you just cannot get away from the cricket. I have a real bad toothache and someone recommends a dentist just off Havelock Road — you can’t miss it, they say, because he has a huge picture of a tooth outside his surgery — so off I go and spend a couple of hours in his place discussing Murali’s action. Why does he throw? What is a throw? Why did those scientists in Perth say his arm was straight? Is his life any easier now that the laws are changed? I mean all these guys at the dentist’s are less concerned about my aching wisdom tooth than whether Murali can get to 1,000 wickets. Anyway the dentist gives me a magic potion and tells me to come along at 7 a.m. next Thursday — the 13th if you please — and he will get a surgeon to take away the nasty tooth and stop all the crippling pain. In the meantime I have to wash my mouth with some rinsing fluid and clean my teeth more often. Well, ok, but don’t think you hear the last of this serious illness because you have not.

December 8: MCC and Surrey are in Sri Lanka to put the final touches to their plans to help out after the tsunami destroys so many homes and families near Galle which means that Graham Morris, chairman of the Cricket Writers’ Club, who make a contribution to this scheme, drives all the way to see the new homes which form the backbone of the plan and, for once in his life, never opens the shutter of his ever present camera.

December 9: Is the entrance to the Sinhalese Cricket Club headquarters the prettiest in the world? It may well be. Under a covered porch lies a tiled path and at either side many-coloured koi carp swim. In order to make way for this lovely walk-way several frangipani trees — temple trees to the Sri Lankans — have to go but the overall effect is so beautiful that I will not have it any other way. Behind the building you can order food, or a beer or a lime soda and I notice the presence of several Barmy Army types, suitably respectful as they often are, of their surroundings and very impressed by the fish.