There’s the cityscape peaking over the SCG’s heritage-listed grandstands. There’s the mountains looming over Cape Town and Dharamshala. And then there’s Galle, the cricket stadium with its own fort.
It’s the afternoon before the second of three Tests between Australia and Sri Lanka, the No.1-ranked visitors fighting for their credibility after being tipped to canter to victory without taking names/numbers, shaking hands and/or kissing babies on their way across the lush green countryside.
And the view of Galle International Stadium from atop the 17th-century Dutch fort that surrounds the Old Town of Galle is spectacular.
Gigantic lizards roam across the grass-covered ramparts, safely ensconced on the tier below much of the tourist traffic. The ocean surges against every wall as the Earth rotates the Sun towards the horizon. For reasons best known to someone wiser than I, a cement practice wicket sits atop the Fort’s innards.
A local who claims to have once strode onto the field alongside Sanath Jayasuriya says he’ll be watching some of the coming proceedings from atop the ramparts. Suddenly, paying to get into this postcard-perfect, postage-stamp sized ground seems the most ludicrous proposition in the world.
Not that it’s a bank-breaking exercise. A ticket on the hill area across the Esplanade adjacent to the Fort will set you back 50 rupees – that’s $2.30 for an entire Test match, assuming the Aussie bats see it through to day five – while the VIP Hospitality seats top out at 1500 rupees a day. We plump for the 200-rupee Municipality grandstand tickets, which offer all-day shade yet largely cancel out the gorgeous sea breeze that swirls around the ground.
Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ lurches out of the PA, after the ground announcer confirms that Australia have lost the toss and will be batting last. Aussie kids have already kicked off a scratch match in the nature strip in front of the Stand, reminiscent of some of the epics that took place on the Gabba hill of yore. Morning one finds the stand packed with green and gold, as are all corners of the ground. Of the 1500-odd here for Mitchell Starc’s opening delivery, at least two-thirds are supporting the away team, like the crowd split between the two nations at an MCG ODI has been reversed.
The ‘stadium’ as it were, is more quaint county cricket ground than stadium proper, perhaps reminiscent of the great West Indies arenas before the 2007 World Cup sterilised them into a collection of homogenised cookie cutters.
National anthems are eschewed, the hosts perhaps not here to root spiders, as some Aussie larrikin will no doubt intone from the hill before the day is out. Mitchell Starc strikes first ball, a leg-side loosener whipped to Joe Burns at square leg, and the ‘home’ crowd erupts.
An Aussie youngster tries to initiate an “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!” chant from the nearby marquee, perhaps unaware that particular chant’s use-by date was the final day of the Sydney Olympics. His fellow countrymen applaud politely, nonetheless. At least Rio isn’t far off.
Perera and Silva are playing without confidence, and pretty soon it’s 2-9, or 9-2 in non-Australia parlance. A lone tribal drum’s thud floats forlornly skywards from the grandstand’s ground floor. Then first Test hero Mendis and his sidekick Perera decide it’s party time, pummelling Nathan Lyon and debutant Jon Holland to all corners like this is a nature-strip scratch match, not the main event.
The vibe on the hill is a ‘choose your own cliche’ type affair – carnival, casual, festival, laid-back and littered with detritus (plastic, cardboard, human) by lunch. There’s no water at the water stand until well after the first drinks break has broken. A beer queue snakes 20 metres down the hill, praying the beer at the top of it is cooler than the bottles behind the stands. (It is.)
Too many try to cram under the two meagre shade trees at the Fort end, the post-noon sun sneaking through cracks in the canopy. It’s hot work in Galle. Especially hot work under the corrugated iron roof of the Municipality stand, which treats its inhabitants like foil-wrapped fish under the grill as the day heats up. Even hotter work if you’re a luckless Aussie bowler, having just dismissed Perera only to see captain Mathews stroll out and dig so deep into the bag of tricks he appears to be playing a T20 game while the rest lumber on in whites.
Galle residents peer in through the green powder-coated mesh fence at the Fort end. Authorities wave on a bus driver who’s set up camp on the fringes of a roundabout, giving himself prime air-conditioned view from behind the bowler’s arm. Locals and tourists alike dot the top of the Fort, somehow not disintegrating under the afternoon son.
“He used to cut the grass,
And now he cuts your grass,
So you can kissss, his arse!
He’s Na-than Ly-on.
Nathan Lyon! Nathan Lyon! Nathan Lyon!”
It’s early in the final session, and this is as creative as active support gets from the Australian contingent. The song is greeted with a wrinkled nose of bemusement from Australia’s current all-round great white hope inside the boundary rope. To his credit, the GOAT pushes on through the 35th rendition of the above to snare his second for the day.
The final two hours are action-packed, and not just on the pitch where wickets tumble under a sustained assault from Mitchells Starc and Marsh. Even Jon Holland chimes in, popping his Test match cherry with as innocuous as a full-toss as the kids in front of the stands would dish up in a lifetime of scratch matches.
The post-Tea drinks queue moves so slowly that vendors sell bottled water to those willing to brave the 70-minute wait. A Sherrin comes out, cries of “Balllll!” echoing across the grass slope. Locals laugh along, unsure what this madness of two blokes rolling all over each other is all about. There are other Raiders fans, two of them, on the hill, and we bask in the semi-glory of a season not-yet entirely wasted. An old expat Brit ahead in the beer queue jokes “Do you still kill the Abos?” to some Aussies nearby and I can barely bark “You don’t call Aboriginal people Abos, mate” at him through the bile rising in my throat.
The hill is comfortably full as day one draws to a close, and the swelling Sri Lankan contingent has double the early morning crowd. Even as Warner and Khawaja dispatch their bowlers to all corners in a frenetic 13-over period, their energy can’t be dulled. Then Warner is beaten for flight and the day is called two overs early. Honours are shared.
Touring parties make their way off to nearby watering holes – the courtyard of the Old Dutch Hospital precinct, perhaps, or the even closer Joe’s Bar, which at some stage in the not-too-distant past must’ve played host to cigarette smoke-stained shafts of sunlight through shutters, and nefarious deals by unsavoury types.
The locals, meanwhile, merely sing and dance. And given the predictions for how this series would roll, they have much to sing and dance about.
By the time The Roar‘s corespondent has shaken off the day one cobwebs, Test cricket’s 42nd hat-trick has come and gone, and a horror movie masquerading as a highlights reel is playing on the TV beneath the Galle CC stand.
It’s not even one of those innovative slasher flicks, like Scream – more like Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, where it all unfolds like a instant replay of something you’ve seen previously in Pallekele, or any batting collapse from the India 2013 debacle, with one memorable new kill sequence thrown in to keep the diehards interested.
By the time stumps are called on a barely believable 21-wicket second day, the Aussies’ fight for Test credibility has become a desperate rear-guard battle to restore pride. It’s a hard-knock life for an Australian on the hill or in the stands, but you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else to witness the carnage of this film’s final act.