I’ve only been to a few Sri Lanka matches in England. My first was a warmup for the 2009 World T20 Championships against South Africa; which we lost. Then during the tour of England in 2011, I was at the Rose Bowl which came after two days cricket at Chelmsford against Essex and at Derby against the Lions. This was my first ODI outside SL, and although I expected a decent atmosphere, I did not expect it to match the day/night games back home at the Premadasa or Dambulla. I expected the Australian fans to be outnumbered, but not to the extent they were at the Oval on Monday. There were pockets of two to four Aussie fans dotted around the ground but they were adrift in a sea of blue and yellow. That isn’t to say that the ones that were there were for their own part quiet. After a few of the generic lagers on sale, they gave plenty of stick back at the SL fans. I hate to use the term ‘banter’ but that is what it was, and good-natured too.
Over the course of this tournament (and other international tournament held in this country) it is often commented upon that the Indians and Pakistanis turn out in great numbers for their teams’ games; and this is true. But pick a venue in London and serve up a potentially vulnerable and out of form Australia side up for the taking and we’ll turn up with bells on. I get the feeling that Sri Lanka fans and perhaps even the team do not view Australia in the same way as England, South Africa and perhaps even India do – as the former superpower on a downward spiral. We seem to still view them as side that used to hand our arses back to us on a platter (and still do in Tests), and the side whose fans constantly taunted Murali when he bowled there alongside them simply being Australian. Therefore a match against the Aussies is still a big match and far from the foregone conclusion that some would have thought.
The match itself was poised very delicately with the two sides having two different circumstances to navigate. Sri Lanka simply had the task of winning, and the Clarke-less Australians had to chase down the score set in around 29 overs. George Bailey won the toss and rightly elected to bat in order to make their task more easier to comprehend and plan for. And the early wickets of Kusal Perera and Sangakkara would have seen them smell a chance of having to chase down a score that could indeed be got to in the allocated amount of time. But Mahela Jayawardene’s silky batting and a typically assured knock by the underrated Thirimanne saw SL just about get over the 250 mark, meaning that if they bowled the Australians out for less than 161, they would finish top of the group. This looked likely as Australia simply had to go hard and go hard early. Watson played a couple of lusty shots to Shaminda Eranga whose pace was just in the right zone of comfort for him, but managed to drag one from Kulasekera on to his stumps whilst playing a square-cut when perhaps a straight bat would have been better. Glenn Maxwell’s innings was aggressive and hard-hitting but so was the yorker Lasith Malinga sent down on his leg-stump. At 6 down, Australia decided to give up the chase of the semi-finals and just set about trying to win the match. This played perfectly into their hands as they had plenty of balls in hand and the run-rate was far superior to Sri Lanka’s. The equation was always in their favor, which put our bowling attack at a disadvantage as a key aspect of SL’s ability to control a chase was to take pace off the ball and restrict the flow of runs. Australia simply had to knock the ball around and stroll home in singles. Thus ensued a ‘lull’ in the game’s ebb and flow as plenty of fours and singles were scored punctuated by the odd wicket of a batsman playing one big shot too many. I thought Adam Voges built his innings perfectly and orchestrated the chase until he got out and when he did, Clint McKay was on hand to do the same with Xavier Doherty for the last wicket.
There were some SL fans who felt that the game got a bit boring at this stage but I question whether they were truly paying attention as I looked on with a growing sense of unease, which then turned to horror as I realized that these two were actually going to do it. By this point there were around 27 runs to get, but with 50 to go I felt that Angelo Mathews had missed the chance to gamble and bring the field in to restrict the singles and force them to hit over the top. They might have biffed a few sixes but they would be sure to mistime or miss one. Instead he kept the field back as the runs ticked down, hoping that they would make a mistake on their own accord. And they did as Clint McKay after offering Dilshan a caught and bowled chance that just failed to reach him, popped one back. To me and perhaps to a few other at the ground, this happened in slow motion; Dilshan was moving to his right, and the ball was going to his left. He then stuck out a left hand and by some dint of fortune the ball held firm. Cue pandemonium in the stands. To me, it was the release of a pressure that had been building up for a while, but I don’t think the fans who had been drinking, singing and dancing all through the game had been following it as closely or certainly had the same feeling of dread that I did.
Either way, it was a a fitting end to a match and an experience that I haven’t had since my last ODI in Sri Lanka which was all the way back in 2004 against South Africa where a six by Kaushal Lokuarachchi off Shaun Pollock ended a tense affair. The reason limited overs cricket is so popular in the sub-continent isn’t the fact that India, Pakistan and SL are particularly good at it, it is just the spectacle of it. Coloured kits, under lights, white ball. At its best, ODI cricket has everything that we love in Tests with everything that sets the pulse racing in T20s. I’ve never been to an ODI in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, but from what I have watched over the years compared to what I have experienced at SL games, is that more so than anybody else outside the Caribbean, the Sri Lanka fans capture the spirit of calypso cricket. It isn’t about winning or losing, its just about having fun. The colour, the papare bands all lend themselves to the party atmosphere. In India the fans are perhaps louder and more frenetic but I’ve always got the feeling that there is an edge to the atmosphere. Again, I stress that this is just the impression that I get from watching them via television broadcasts. It might be different at the actual games, and I would jump at the chance of experience it first hand.
Feed the snake and it will grow
On the subject of having a good time, I thought the attitude of the stewards to confiscating all beersnakes was a bit daft. Given that the record for the longest beersnake was set at the washed out ODI at the SCG between these two sides earlier this year, what better way of commemorating this achievement than building another one?
Right. This has been bugging me ever since I looked back at some of the tweets that were made on Twitter after the match. It relates to the scuffle between LTTE Supporters and Sri Lanka fans. Everyone should have the right to protest, but when you have a group carrying LTTE flags no more than a few paces from Sri Lankan fans in high spirits – most of whom had been drinking for the best part of 8 hours, trouble was always going to arise. Would a load of bevvied up England fans simply walk past a group waving blag Jihadist flags without a second glance? As I was walking past, there was chanting on both sides and for a while that looked as if that would be all it was. But then bottles were thrown and I am in no doubt that they were first thrown by SL fans from the other side of the road. These were plastic and did not cause injury and were thrown back the other way. Things then got confusing. I don’t know what truly caused the first ‘charge’ but I saw the group of fans that were directly in front of the protesters run at them. They never actually reached them as the few policemen and women stopped them from doing so, then stopped some of the protesters from doing exactly the same thing. Backup was promptly called as a couple of squad cars came haring up the road to block the traffic and calm the situation. More plastic bottles were thrown and the police got more firm with both parties as the situation threatened to get nasty. The extra police though seemed to do the trick though as most of the fans stopped watching or chanting and started to make their way to the tube station. This is where me and my friends left the scene. I don’t know how many stayed behind or what happened after but from what I saw the police were thoroughly professional in handling it. Some of the tweets I saw of SL fans “assaulting” Tamil protesters was simply not the case; both sides were equally culpable for their actions. The vast majority of SL fans were in full voice (me included) but they refrained from actively taking part. If they did, I doubt whether the police would have been able to hold them back. It should also be pointed out that the LTTE protesters were present before the start of the match as everyone was entering the ground and that passed largely without incident so the role alcohol played in this.
As I said, when I left the area the police seemed to have gained a semblance of control. The allegations of SL fans intimidating the protesters are definitely true but I have no way of verifying if bricks were thrown as some of the news reports state but there are some videos and pictures doing the rounds of some of the protesters being threatened to their faces. I don’t deny this because I cannot prove that it didn’t happen. What I do take exception to is the notion that this was racially motivated and is systematic of the way Tamils are treated in Sri Lanka. For one, all these fans had only half an hour earlier been cheering for a team who is captained by a Tamil, and they/we cheered when Angelo Mathews came out to bat as if he was wearing a red cape and a had a giant ‘S’ on his chest. Secondly, it is one thing for protesters to have placards calling for the boycott of Sri Lankan products – that was the object of their protest and it is their right to do so in this country. But it is another thing entirely to wave the LTTE flag and simply hide under the tagline of “a peaceful protest”. I don’t condone the fan’s behavior (mine included) but any protester carrying that flag clearly has an intentions other than a peaceful protest.
Going back to the cricket though, it was a memorable day out. All Sri Lanka’s group stage matches have been thrilling games. I do not expect us to beat India in Cardiff but given that I was skeptical about this tournament and for a while was not intending on getting tickets in the first place. Even though it was great to win and go through to the semi-finals, win or lose it was great fun which, at the end of the day is why we bother watching sports in the first place.