A file photo of popular Sri Lankan cheerleader Percy Abeseykera, at the R. Premadasa International Cricket Stadium in Colombo.
A file photo of popular Sri Lankan cheerleader Percy Abeseykera, at the R. Premadasa International Cricket Stadium in Colombo.Sachintha Wijayatunga/ Wikimedia/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Sri Lanka -- a country that offers entertaining cricket and lasting friendships

Vijay Lokapally, one of India's best-known and most respected cricket writers, goes on a nostalgia trip about his five visits to the island-nation over the years to cover India-Sri Lanka matches

New Delhi, August 11, 2021

The drive from the Bandaranaike International Airport to Colombo city is long but pleasant. The assignment begins on a bright note with the friendly immigration staff and the ease with which you collect your baggage and hop into the available transport. The air is clean and the greenery soothing as you begin your cricket tour to the tourist-friendly Sri Lanka with high expectations of some good competition and, of course, the attraction of visiting some historic spots.

For years, India and Sri Lanka have had very lively cricket exchanges. They love Indian cricket. And love it even more when Sri Lanka beats India. The MJ Gopalan Trophy annual cricket match between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka was a much-awaited event which sadly faded away due to the hectic international schedule that involves these two nations.

Sri Lanka and India have enjoyed healthy rivalry and there is a rich history of cricket contests beginning with the unofficial fixtures before they played the first Test at Chennai in 1982. Indian fans have always held Sri Lankan players in high esteem and the admiration is mutual. When India plays in Sri Lanka, one can expect fierce competition.

As the team led by Shikhar Dhawan experienced recently in the six-match series - three ODIs and three T20s - from July 13 to 25, it did face some stiff challenges from the Sri Lankan players and the playing conditions. The pitches have become mostly slow and demand an approach different from the perfect batting tracks of India and Pakistan.

The grounds in Sri Lanka are quite spectator-friendly with the atmosphere strikingly similar to what one experiences in the West Indies. The Lankan fans can be noisy but they love their cricket. There is music at the venue with groups of drum-beating fans keeping the audience at the ground in good humour. Cricket can never be boring in a Sri Lankan stadium.

On my numerous trips to Sri Lanka, I have loved the passion the fans have for the game. Grounds fill up much ahead of the start of play and the discipline in and outside the venue is an exemplary trait. It was on my first tour in 1993 that I discovered the friendly police at the entrance. The frisking was always accompanied with a smiling “thank you, enjoy your cricket” remark that one had never experienced at Indian grounds.

Sri Lankan cricket is marked by a flair and grace that makes cricket a feast of joy really. Having watched batsmen like Roy Dias, Sunil Wettimuny, Aravinda de Silva, Roshan Mahanama, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Sanath Jayasuriya, one fell in love with their artistry and skills over the years. In Arjuna Ranatunga they had a leader who inspired a World Cup win in 1996 and the Sri Lankans revere the 2014 World T20 triumph against India at Dhaka.

Cricket is widely acknowledged as the most popular sport in the sub-continent but it is rugby that engages the common Sri Lankan. The national inter-school final is a huge event in their sporting calendar and I have witnessed the madness for the final even as India and Sri Lanka played a Test at the Sinhalese Sports Club. The most memorable take-away from covering a match at the SSC would be the open air Press Box and the annasi (pine apple) seller, who was as good a cricket expert as any.

An abiding memory of my connection with Sri Lankan cricket is Percy Abeseykera, the most fascinating cheerleader in the world. He was sponsored by players and other stakeholders of Sri Lankan cricket and it was a wonderful sight when Percy greeted the teams, waving his country’s flag, and sometimes accompanying the incoming batsmen right to the crease. Only Percy had that privilege. I spent many evenings with him, enjoying the arrack and his favourite prawns, not to forget the stories that livened up conversations.

The essence of history in Sri Lankan cricket is evident in the club house tradition in Colombo. The members are well-versed with the game’s past and take pride in knowing the visiting players equally well. The lobby of the hotels where the teams are put up are witness to the popularity of the cricketers from India especially.

Sri Lankan cricketers are among the most friendly and some of them have a cult status amidst their followers. I and my friend, Dwarkanath Sanzgiri, were overwhelmed by Aravinda de Silva offering to drive us around in his red coloured Ferrari on one of our tours. A visit to Roy Dias’ home for lunch, a breakfast meeting with Arjuna Ranatunga, where he insisted I had appam and idlis, and friendships with Roshan Mahanama and Sanath Jayasuriya are some of my gains from my travels to Sri Lanka. The infectious affection by the local people are among my fond memories of travelling to Sri Lanka.

I can never forget the gesture by former Sri Lankan skipper Anura Tennekoon. This was during a match at the SSC Stadium when I received a word that Mr. Tennekoon wanted to see me in the club house. I lost no time and joined him at the table he had reserved. After a round of tea and biscuits, he pulled out a copy of The Sportstar from his bag, turned to the page where his interview had appeared, and asked me to sign. I had done the interview of this most humble cricketer but this gesture just floored me. A player asking a journalist for his autograph. “I can tell people I got the author to sign,” he smiled. That wonderful afternoon has stayed with me with vivid and fond memories.

Much before the BCCI started the system of a season’s accreditation, Sri Lanka took the lead by offering us an all-area media pass. The pass allowed us entry from any gate, access to the Club house facilities of the venue and, importantly, to the dressing room zone. Those were days when anti-corruption measures were not in place and one could have interactions with the players right outside the dressing rooms.

For players and us, shopping in Colombo was a must. One tour I remember the team and the media contingent raiding a particular mall to pick some of the finest Japanese cutlery at shockingly cheap prices. The baggage claim belt was proof of our shopping, a long stream of cutlery packings, not to forget the immensely popular Odel Showroom where I accompanied Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli to buy clothing stuff that would last us two seasons.

My most memorable days in Sri Lanka were spent in Kandy in 1993 when the Test match was washed out. Only 12 overs of play was possible but there was so much to cherish off the field. A trip to the Temple of Tooth Relic with some of the Indian team members was unforgettable but what I loved was some quality time spent with Sachin Tendulkar.

One afternoon, with the day’s play called off due to rains, Sachin suggested we play some table tennis. It so happened that we were joined by another journalist. Sachin challenged me to take even one point off him. I accepted the challenge. But lost miserably. Sachin slammed me 21-0, 21-0. Later, the journalist, who had taken two points off him, spread the word to embarrass me. “Ek bhi point nahi liya isne,” he mocked. Well, I mentioned it casually to Sachin. There was no play the next day and Sachin again suggested a game of table tennis and insisted I invite that journalist too. The generosity of Sachin was seen in him conceding me five points and blasting the journalist 21-0, 21-0. The difference was Sachin played left-handed against the journalist. It was his way of making me comfortable in the media fraternity.

Sri Lanka was a favourite for former India captain and coach Ajit Wadekar, who had more friends there than any Indian. How can one forget his love for crabs and fish and the attention with which he taught us to relish seafood in Colombo, again Tendulkar and Kambli being regular partners in those unforgettable food sessions.

This nostalgia piece would be incomplete without sharing my respect for Leo Wijesinghe, an elderly cricket official, and a dear friend of Wadekar. Leo was the "Tour Father" for me, a one-stop solution actually for anything under the sky, from organising discounts at hotels to organising sightseeing at a cheap price. Leo, now in his 80s and confined to bed, has been a true friend of Indian cricket and well-wisher of Sri Lankan cricket too.

Sri Lanka has been a favourite cricket destination for me. Cricket, food and people have been a great attraction. The Dhawan-led team, after winning the ODI series 2-1 and losing the T20 series 1-2, would have won many new friends. The gesture by Dhawan to speak with the young Sri Lankan team at the end of the tour was a splendid one that received huge appreciation from the home audience. They can look forward to playing good cricket and making friends for life. Sri Lanka graciously offers them entertaining cricket and lasting friendship.


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