Arrive at Heathrow after a long flight. Acquiring a visa for the UK was such a drawn-out ordeal, I was almost expecting to be waterboarded at the airport. The reality is far more pleasant. The border-control officer – probably of Indian descent – asks me what I’m here for.
“I’m covering the cricket over the next couple of weeks,” I say.
Her eyes light up.
“Oh, brilliant! I’ve got tickets for one of the matches. But aren’t the games a few weeks away? The team hasn’t arrived yet, I don’t think.”
”No, I’m here for the Test that starts on Thursday.”
She looks down at my passport for the first time. The words “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka” are emblazoned on the front.
“Oh,” she says.
The smile disappears. She stamps the page. ”Enjoy your stay.”
Stroll down Abbey Road of Beatles fame, in St John’s Wood, where Lord’s is. I approach that pedestrian crossing, and a group of European teenagers are taking pictures, recreating that album cover.
There are five of them. They each take a photo so every combination of four can be photographed, frozen mid-stride, evenly spaced, and in single file. A blue BMW pulls out of a nearby driveway and waits for them to finish posing. You would expect him to have tooted the horn, but the man behind the wheel is way beyond that. His face is a picture of long-standing, inconsolable defeat. When our eyes meet, I feel like I know his story.
Years ago, he bought a house near Abbey Road, thinking, “Oh that’s nice. I’ll have something to tell people if I’m ever stuck for conversation at a party.” Two weeks after moving in, the streams of tourists, seeking out the painted lines for the same reason, began to grate.
In the years since, he has stopped at the crossing a million times. He has spent more of his life watching French teenagers pretending to cross the road than he has spent with his children.
This is his life now. He is the broken man in the background of ten thousand hackneyed Facebook posts. None of the “likes” are for him.
Lord’s. The ground is full. The bell tolls and play begins with a reverent hubbub. I take a walk around the stands, as patrons sip wine and pour Earl Grey out of steel flasks. I answer a phone call and am immediately approached by three stewards, insisting phone calls are not allowed. A man in a bacon-and-egg tie yells at me: “Sit down, or get out of the stand!”
But the press box is excellent, the local journalists are friendly, and the afternoon tea is varied and delicious. A proper Lord’s experience.
|We drive past beautiful old churches and sun-bathed fields on the way to Headingley stadium. When we get there, two stewards, both locals, trip over themselves to give me directions|
The “Unity Team”, a squad of 14 Under-19 players from all parts of Sri Lanka, is at the ground. Last November, they played a tournament back home in support of post-war reconciliation, and the boys who have come to the UK have been picked from each of the schools and provinces represented in that tournament. They are from Mannar, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Seenigama and Badulla; and two are from Colombo’s St Peter’s college, among others.
Vinoshan, a fast bowler from Mullaitivu, whom I have met before, gives me a rundown.
“We beat the Trinity College combined team first. That was a good game. We had to bowl really well. But then we played Eton College 1st XI yesterday, and they were rubbish. It was barely even a decent match.”
I can’t stop laughing for five minutes. Here is an 18-year-old from the most embattled place in Sri Lanka’s modern history – a town devastated by shelling, bombs and firefights, with shops and schools still wearing bullet holes – arrogantly bagging some of the most privileged kids on the planet. Four years ago, most of Vinoshan’s friends were in an internally displaced camp. Almost everyone in his village has lost a family member to the war.
”We smashed them,” he says.
I hope I meet him again.
Heading back to my hotel at Seven Sisters late in the evening, I hear Elton John’s “Sacrifice” over the tube station’s PA. I walk a little further and realise it’s actually a busker, on a keyboard, dressed in a shiny Elton jacket and round pink-tinted glasses, doing a pitch-perfect cover.
There are about six people standing around watching. Surely he can earn more at a bar or something, I think. I look into the case laid out in front of him. There is at least £50 in there.
The mood in the press box is impossibly tense during the final over. We’re all supposed to be impartial, but how can we call ourselves cricket lovers if a finish like that doesn’t get our hearts pumping? Nuwan Pradeep is given out on the penultimate ball, and a cry of jubilation goes up around me. The journalists who cheered immediately realise what they have done, and regain their businesslike mien at lightning speed. I kind of wish they didn’t feel they had to. We’re professionals but we’re also fans. Press boxes are often sterile enough already. A little unbridled passion keeps us tethered to the game.
A day at the ESPNcricinfo Hammersmith offices, followed by a beer with my colleagues by the Thames. We swap touring stories. “There aren’t that many days in the year that are this beautiful, so we may as well enjoy it,” Andrew “Gnasher” McGlashan says. The conversation snakes towards county cricket in the 1990s. Gnasher remembers almost everything that happened in domestic cricket that decade. He gives a blow-by-blow of Aravinda de Silva’s epic 1995 season with Kent. There was a time in my life when I thought myself an ardent cricket fan. Then I met people like Gnasher.
|They’re coming to take you away: men in white coats lend flavour to the second day at Headingley © Getty Images|
The first I ever heard of Yorkshire was on my radio, at the age of about 11, when Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch came on air. Since then I accumulated what is probably the stereotypical picture of Yorkshire: a cold place populated by no-nonsense, outspoken people. That was until a few months ago, when I read Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island. His view of Yorkshire was dramatically different to anything I had read before. Bryson fell in love with the gentle, soothing beauty of the dales, and felt the county’s inhabitants were as friendly and giving as those anywhere in the world.
We drive past beautiful old churches and sun-bathed fields on the way to Headingley stadium. When we get there, two stewards, both locals, trip over themselves to give me directions on how to get on the field. ”Ya go down th’steps ere and left out th’door, then straigh’ through to th’vomitory,” one says.
“Or y’could take th’lift if ya prefer,” the other offers. “Ah can take you, if y’like.”
All through the week, “Yaarkshire” could not have been kinder. Bryson was right.
The series sponsor, Investec, has generously set up a tab at a local bar for journalists to watch the England v Uruguay football match. Speak to Lawrence Booth, a long-time Manchester City fan who fell out of love with the England football team some time ago.
“But I’d rather see them playing exciting football and losing than what they used to be like,” he says.
The room is hushed by Luis Suarez’ second goal. “Come on ref! That was miles off side,” one patron bellows. A while later, the same man sees a replay and pipes up. “Oh no! It was off an England head. Oh god.”
Realise the hotel we have been booked into is in the middle of Leeds’ small but noisy gay bar district. Wander into one of these establishments that evening to find a group of people standing around watching two other people eat, like it is the most riveting thing they have seen in their lives. We ask what’s going on but no explanation is given. We exit quickly, thoroughly perplexed.
Jarrod Kimber has a hot tip about an American-style barbeque restaurant in town, so we decide to try it. We put away ludicrous amounts of meat and bourbon. George Dobell uses any excuse to turn the conversation towards how great Moeen Ali is, but the evening’s ramblings wind up, as always, at the ironic focal point of this “new era” of English cricket: Kevin Pietersen.
The Cricket Writers Club puts on a meal for the travelling Sri Lankan journalists at a fish and chips establishment in Headingley. It’s difficult to be impressed by seafood when you come from Sri Lanka, but even the visiting food snobs are impressed by what’s on offer. The restaurant doesn’t do waiters or wine lists, or even menus. Just outstanding fish and chips.
Angelo Mathews is standing outside the press conference room as Alastair Cook gets a grilling, following the series loss. Mathews is going through all the congratulatory messages on his phone, smiling like a madman when he sees a message he likes.
Someone tells him Suarez has bitten an opposition player. ”Again?” Mathews says in Sinhala. “What is wrong with that guy?”
As the Sri Lanka team and support staff pile out of their dressing room and into the team bus, they are all grinning from ear to ear. It’s a parade of exposed teeth. Leeds might be seeing a lot more of their teeth tonight, before the team departs for home tomorrow.