Galle has been a real fortress of Sri Lankan cricket. The heat, rank turners and some fine spin bowlers have ensured visiting teams last barely three days in a Test match here. England fans, though, have been attending in numbers for nearly two decades since the ground became an international venue. More in hope than conviction that their team will do well, the Barmy Army turns up just to have a good time. You would rather spend the winter in Galle where the temperature is 35C than at Nomansland in Devon or Bishop’s Itchington in Warwickshire where the temperature remains in single digits at this time of the year.
Sri Lanka is a cheap place for British tourists. A pint costs less than a pound, a decent B&B costs less than £20 a night, and Unawatuna beach offers fresh fish and chips for under a fiver.
Usually around 5,000 fans accompany the England team. This time it’s a no-show due to severe travel restrictions because of Covid and cricket is the last thing on people’s minds. Sri Lanka Cricket was forced to play the series behind closed doors on medical advice. Although the ramparts at the Galle fort are normally frequented by fans hoping to get a glimpse of the game, this time even that area is out of bounds.
Police were stationed at all entry points to the ramparts and, barring a couple of journalists, no one else was allowed. One hardy England fan, Rob Lewis, was blocked. He had come to Sri Lanka in March last year when the series was scheduled to be played but England abandoned the tour as the pandemic was getting out of hand. Lewis stayed on hoping England would return. On Thursday they did return but the police were having none of him going on to the ramparts. Lewis, however, was not so easily defeated, making a return after tea, cleverly disguised as a construction worker.
SLC had four home series postponed due to the pandemic last year. They were hell-bent on hosting this series at the earliest possible time. Given England walked away from the tour of South Africa in December when the bio-bubble was breached, the authorities were keen to ensure everything was prim and proper. The financial ramifications of the series being cancelled or postponed again would have been too hard to bear. Television brings in big money.
Not everyone is so lucky as the series goes ahead, especially the small businesses. From the pineapple vendor to the trishaw driver, all are feeling the pinch.
Saman’s trishaw stand is at the Galle fort. He was out of work for months due to the lockdown. Last year when the news came that England will be travelling to Sri Lanka in January he was quite happy. But then he realised that the second wave of the pandemic would mean airports will remain closed except for one or two special flights.
“Usually when England play a Test match, I earn about 7000 to 8000 rupees (about £30-£35) a day,” Saman says. “Most tourists come from the Unawatuna area, so one trip, I earn about 500 rupees. Some guests are generous and pay 1000 rupees if you drive carefully. They are very conscious about safety.
“When do you think England will come again? I hope they come soon and their fans too.”
On the field, meanwhile, England had a brilliant day but the celebrations were very much muted. The atmosphere when England play here is usually electric. Chanting of songs, loud applause for milestones, boundaries and wickets, there’s never a dull moment. But this time it was all slow-paced, lacklustre and uninspiring. The match lacked character. Fans are such an integral part of the game and without them the sport won’t flourish. Playing behind closed doors is not such a great idea.
Sri Lanka blew off the opening day of the series with some sloppy cricket. Their captain, Dimuth Karunaratne, was ruled out on the morning of the game with a fractured left thumb.
There were far too many soft dismissals – Lahiru Thirimanne was caught at leg slip, Kusal Perera played a reverse sweep to the second ball he faced from the off-spinner Dom Bess, Niroshan Dickwella cut one straight to backward point while the captain, Dinesh Chandimal, drove sheepishly to covers.
Kusal Mendis had a wretched tour of South Africa picking up three ducks in a row. The selectors backed him to come good as he is the best player of spin in the side but Stuart Broad dismissed him for a second-ball duck. Now he has four noughts in a row and a new nickname – “Audi”.
Luck was not on Sri Lanka’s side either. Dasun Shanaka swept one straight in to Jonny Bairstow’s ankle at short leg and the ball ricocheted to the wicketkeeper, Jos Buttler. Lasith Embuldeniya was run out by a deflection from Jack Leach while backing up too far and Sri Lanka were bowled out for 135, their lowest first-innings total at Galle.
Despite losing both openers cheaply, England trail by only eight runs and Sri Lanka have lot of catching up to do.
Some of the selections defied logic. Vishwa Fernando took a five-wicket haul in his last match but he was dropped and instead Asitha Fernando was picked. Sri Lanka’s selectors have lot of answering to do and they will be desperately hopingthat the team puts on a better show on day two.