England supporters watch the match in Kandy

England spectators at the Asgiriya, 2001

Rebecca Naden / © PA Photos

Dear Cricket Monthly

The year of travelling placidly

Letter from... Iloilo, Philippines

Benjamin Golby

Dear Cricket Monthly,

I am lying here scanning the ICC Future Tours Programme. It's like being a child with a toyshop catalogue during some impossibly long period before a birthday. The games are playing about in my imagination before I even have the means.

Thing is, last year I went abroad to watch Test cricket. It was a move made in optimism, for there was no information available on the internet, fixtures were set merely a few weeks beforehand, and heavens above, where was one supposed to procure tickets?

You know, Cricket Monthly, that lovers of the game indulge in travel and follow it around the place. Many shadow the Ashes, some arrange holidays around series in the Caribbean and South Africa. Only imagine how glorious New Zealand might be, too. For Westerners, the subcontinent lights up more exotic sides of the cricket-travel spectrum. It was there that I met John. Have you met him? Tall and bronzed with the air and resplendent hair of an actor no longer upon the stage.

The phenomenon of affluent travellers visiting the developing world to gad about like princelings on the strength of their native economy is stronger than ever

The night before our introduction I was bailed up by a red-eyed chap in a dark corner of a railway station. Not having attended international cricket in a foreign land before, I gave far too much credence to his telling me I hadn't the faintest chance of getting in on the opening day of a Test in Sri Lanka. Accordingly, the next morning, in a little panic, I trotted down to the Galle International Stadium some three hours before play. The shattering emptiness of the venue - two security guards, someone who had to be roused to sell the ticket, and myself - was broken about 130 minutes later with a distinguished hoy, from John: "You've picked a rotten spot. Too much sun, no air." So I joined him.

John was once an air-force officer, pensioned out on a minor medical problem, who then undertook an international modelling career (Paris, Milan, New York), later hosting television travel programmes (he showed me the press clippings). We strolled homeward through the dusk each evening and invariably dined together. I learnt more of watching a Test in four days with him than ever before.

That is, how to observe and partake in all the jamboree of the pavilion, to engage in obscure chatter on bygone players and the cricketing esoteric, to show due respect to the Galle CC members - represented usually by Mr Dharmaratne's musical troupe, who, with tambourine and guitar, were glad of a captive holiday audience and the opportunity to get a few up dancing - and yet to never miss a ball and where it went while in play. When a new group of short-sleeved, sunglassed, sandalled day trippers slopes into the Galle cricket ground - which acts, rather wonderfully, as a great roundabout at the entrance of the historic fort - John will boss them like a benevolent autocrat: "No, don't sit there, darling, you're actually behind a pillar! Two seats to the left. Yes, much better."

Come for the cricket, stay for the tans

Come for the cricket, stay for the tans Rebecca Naden / © PA Photos

It's not that my cricket following wasn't equally enriched by locals: gentlemen who, when the afternoon became serious, would invite me out to their parked car for a snort of arrack and divulge details of their mistresses; kindly and hospitable journalists passing the time of day and thinking my mere presence newsworthy; urbane denizens of Colombo and Bangalore who impressed all sorts of local cricketing lore upon me; and the glorious spirit of Sri Lankan cricket, Percy Abeysekera, a friend of thousands, peaking in performance each day with what I assume is his favourite song, "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain", delivered in such precise tones.

I wrote this letter to you, though, Cricket Monthly, to speak of foreigners.

John was a part - the leader really - of a small coterie of foreigners who follow Test series through the Sri Lankan international cricket season. There was Paul, who arrived early each day from his beach lodgings to move entire rows of seats slightly along as to afford himself greater legroom, and left the ground punctually at 5pm to make the hotel happy hour, ordering three double-gins to be left behind the bar and brought to him during the course of the evening. There was Ervine, pulling at his pipe before the Sathasivam Stand while on his ninth beer of the day and - ostensibly addressing me - castigating Marlon Samuels for his careless attitude, at a volume perfectly calculated to reach the athlete stretching on the boundary.

My cricket following was equally enriched by locals: gentlemen who, when the afternoon became serious, would invite me out to their parked car for a snort of arrack and divulge details of their mistresses

Some Westerners are put off the subcontinent by stories that go the rounds, of someone's uncle who once went to the Taj Mahal and a train conductor was officious, and some beggar without a leg was gruesome, and their hotel room was dirty and then he got the runs, and why on earth would you want to go there? Among the many reasons for visiting (including that such stories are often told by bores), is that these are comparatively cheap destinations. The phenomenon of affluent travellers visiting the developing world to gad about like princelings on the strength of their native economy is stronger than ever. Couples take romantic beach holidays they could never afford at home, while youth on government study subsidy spend their summer holidays backpacking.

There are ways to undertake such fiscally exploitative travel in boisterous company. The Barmy Army has driven a juggernaut of mass tourism with English cricket tours. A less voluminous behemoth, the Fanatics, offers Australians package cricket tourism among their other chest-beating Australiana tours to Oktoberfest and Gallipoli.

More placid it is - and for many from those two nations, confusingly so - to follow a touring side that doesn't attract such rabble. Perhaps a side with which one has no clear affinity. To simply hold an interest in the game, like John. While, like Paul, not driving oneself into penury.

Primate position: a langur invades the field in Galle

Primate position: a langur invades the field in Galle © AFP

With the great pleasure of having now followed several tours around India and Sri Lanka, I shall struggle to attend international cricket within the strictures of my own country, Australia. I'll miss empty grounds, spectators who don't drink to excess, play being held up by the unforeseen, like the smoke of home-made fireworks issuing from dustbins to fete Jayawardene and Sangakkara, or balloons from a local political demonstration drooping en masse into the ground, or a monkey running onto the pitch.

I commend, Cricket Monthly, (but not too loudly because I don't want the practice spoiled) that those of your readers who can afford international travel might countenance the idea.

I do hope that I can write you all about it again before long. I'm going home now.

Your friend,
Benjamin

Benjamin Golby took a sabbatical last year after having swotted up on Bradman, to follow Tests and live in the very un-cricketing Philippine city of Iloilo

 

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