One More Time with Feelingby Telford Vice / 05.04.2011
“When did you become a Sri Lankan,” he scoffed with a skeef look. Not that I could blame him. It isn’t every day a pale face walks into a betting joint in Galle on the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka. Nevermind a pale face wearing the national team’s famous blue and yellow cricket shirt. But this wasn’t every day. It was Saturday, April 2, 2011 – the day India and Sri Lanka were to meet in Mumbai in nothing less than the World Cup final.
Outside, a tuk-tuk cackled past in the sleepy silence of a town gone home to watch the cricket. Inside, flies froze, cleared for take-off, on the table between us. There were no tumbleweeds, and it wasn’t High Noon. But it was pretty damn close. Just before 2pm, actually. The first ball was half-an-hour away.
“This morning,” I replied, slumping into the nearest chair and refusing to look at him looking at me. It helps, in these situations, to have grown up so far on the wrong side of the tracks that you saw your first ballhair before you saw your first train.
He was tall and lean, withered in the cheeks, steely in the eyes, and edgy around the shoulders. In fact, he could have charged Clint Eastwood with identity theft.
Then he tried to make my day.
“Where you from?”
“South Africa? Ha! Hansie Cronje, what a player!”
There aren’t many ways to provoke me to violence. Mentioning Wessel Johannes Cronje, the dead crook, the failed aviator, in favourable terms, is among them. But, this being the World Cup final, and all, I cracked my knuckles and ignored the sudden hot thumping in my chest.
“Wait,” he said with a frown. “I’ve got something to show you.”
He slung an arm wide to grab a copy of the form guide. Then he licked a finger, delved into the pages, and slapped the paper onto the table in triumph.
There, splashed across the top of a page like mud from a gutter, was the name of a respected but unloved place: “Turffontein.”
That’s right, sportslovers, it is entirely possible to bet on a horse race in Joburg from the entirely un-South African southwestern tip of Sri Lanka.
But I wasn’t there to bet on the races, and he knew it.
“Is this place legal,” I asked.
“Legal? Yes, of course.”
“So, not like India?”
“No, no. Not like India.”
And a good thing, too, because page four of Saturday’s form guide was devoted to the World Cup final. But not in the way of other newspapers. Instead of previews and interviews and former players’ opinions on who would do what to whom, the page was a mass of odds offered on likely and less so outcomes of the big and small moments ahead of us.
You could, until 30 minutes before the start of the match, place bets in around 35 different markets involving everything from who would win the toss to who would win the match, to the chances of particular bowlers taking four wickets, or no wickets, or starting their spells with a wide, or batsman hitting a four off the first ball, or being dismissed by the first ball, or their odds on being runout…
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him looking at me like a boxer studying his opponent’s guard.
“You’re not from the Sri Lankan government, are you?”
There was a sudden sliver of respect in his voice as he asked the question. Or was that suspicion? I pretended to ponder, under my breath, whether Sachin Tendulkar was more likely to hit the first four of the game than Virender Sehwag. And why was every batsman a 4-to-1 shot to be run out? Surely some were more liable than others?
“No,” I said eventually, into a void of mistrust.
A few overs into the match, I took my leave. Betting shops are invariably grubby little holes filled with the desperate and the dangerous and the just plain dumb. This one had too many of all of them for so auspicious a day.
So what could I do but repair to the grandest hotel in town, the Lighthouse, to take High Tea. Anxious Sri Lankans watched their team struggle to find the gaps in the field, as if they were trying to button a collar two sizes too small. There’s nothing like tension to sharpen the clink of a cup of Ceylon’s finest. However, middle overs are middle bloody overs, even in the World Cup final, and as the 30-somethings arrived my eyes slid closed. I was jolted awake by the emotional release sparked by Mahela Jayawardene reaching his century, and when I saw India needed 275 to win I was not an unhappy so-called Sri Lankan.
For one thing, no team had ever won the World Cup on home soil. For another, only twice in the nine previous finals had the chasing team won. For still another, only four times had a team scored more than 275 in an ODI at Wankhede Stadium in a record that stretched back to 1987.
But the clincher was that the lusty Lankans possessed a pair of bowlers who delighted in launching unpredictable Molotov cocktails at opposing batsmen. Lasith Malinga came screaming in at a nasty pace with his arm jutting out at an angle that would seem best survived with a periscope rather than a bat. Muttiah Muralitharan, the finest bowler of his generation, spinner or seamer, cracked a whiplash action that defied any reasonable guess of what the ball might do after it pitched.
When Malinga removed the deities known in the non-Indian world as Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar, there were reasons for Sri Lankans to be cheerful. Alas, Gautam Gambhir is the kind of miserable shit who makes a fine top order batsman. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the kind of bloody good bloke you would help out with a condom if he turned up ubberless on a date with your sister. He has verve, nerve, and a keen sense of occasion.
Champions like those tend to win games. Long before Dhoni sent that fateful six arching out of the world as we knew it to seal India’s deserved victory, the truth was writ large and ugly in the minds of most of those who watched the game on a big screen erected on
Their silence was deep and dignified. So much so that an ill-mannered Indian fan, who shrieked like a banshee at all the wrong moments, was endured stoically. But that, too, had to pass. When he cheered one leg-side wide too many, a Sri Lankan near him lurched at him and snapped, “India! Go home!” It was a snarl not to be fucked with, and he didn’t. Did he shut up? Like a BBC reporter at a Julius Malema press conference. At least, until the winning runs were smote. It was an impressive flash of anger by the local, not least
because the target had by then done more than enough to merit a beer bottle across his forehead. Watching all this with the neutral’s curse of an unfluttered heart was an out-of-body experience. Perhaps my most prominent thought was to wonder whether the Proteas were watching, too. Were they gaining some insight into how a game should be won and,
indeed, lost? Both sides of the equation were accomplished properly on Saturday.
We’ve seen South Africa win properly. Their victory over India in Nagpur in this very tournament is the best example I can think of. But their pathetic crash to defeat in the semi-final against New Zealand was the worst way to lose. The thing is, one result mattered a lot more than the other.
Taking the train back from Galle to Colombo the next day, a journey of some three hours, offered time for reflection on the magnificent seven weeks I had spent reporting on the World Cup. India was large and in charge, Bangladesh was crazy chaos, and Sri Lanka was, well, perfect. As I clickety-clacked past idyllic beaches, I saw earnest young couples, content parents and carefree children. All seemed as it must have been for centuries before.
But I knew that, on Boxing Day, 2004, two brutal waves rose from the ocean beyond the same serene sandy stretches we passed to take the lives of 1000 people. The same train I was comfortably ensconced in, the Queen of the Sea, was shoved off its tracks by the tsunami and sent tumbling into the hills.
I knew, also, that the Tamil Tigers had been defeated only recently after waging more than 30 years of cowardly, deadly terrorism against their compatriots. How did Sri Lankans come through such horrors with their exemplary national character intact, ready to take on the world on its own terms?
My question was answered when a boy, no more than 10 years old and hotly embroiled in a game of backyard cricket that whizzed past my window, played a perfect leg glance. He didn’t hit the ball; he allowed it to caress his bat. His head was as still as the tree at midwicket. His hands made a singular, deft movement. His hips swivelled like the swell that broke gently not 20 metres from where he accomplished his fine feat.
As the ball disappeared into the shrubbery of the boundary, I understood: if, after everything, you are able to do something so well, at such a young age, anything is possible. And, so, I became a Sri Lankan.