An island's spirit
Sri Lanka is a friendly, but feisty nation, where cricket is the unifying force.
PHOTO: V.V. KRISHNAN
Celebration Time: The Sri Lankan crowd's enthusiasm was infectious.
THE sun drifted back into the horizon, the evening hue cast its blanket. As the day veered towards its pre-destined conclusion, the blue waters of the Indian Ocean glistened briefly, much like the last flicker of a guttering candle.
Amid the tinge of gold that the fading minutes of the day often bring, those brilliantly-coloured ferries returned from their last trips, and playful birds embarked on short flights before settling back on land. There was a sense of stillness in the air, as if the moment was meant to be frozen in time.
Excitement all around
A bright-eyed boy roaring along the seashore breaks the calm, his tiny hands wielding a Sri Lankan flag. Six-year-old Gamini Jayasekara, on an evening sojourn with his parents to a Colombo beach, had a ticket for Tuesday's final of the Indian Oil tri-nation series. India faced off with Sri Lanka in the bullring that is the Premadasa Stadium, and little Gamini could barely hold back his excitement.
Hours earlier, even as we were gorging the delicious food on offering in a beachfront restaurant, a suburban train had flashed past, ripping through the silence. The track on which the locomotive journeyed had been uprooted by the Tsunami last December.
While desperation and chaos suffused the nation in the immediate aftermath of the killer waves hitting the coast, Sri Lanka had, fervently, risen again... the re-laid coastal railway line reflected the island nation's resolve.
I was on a two-day trip after an invitation to witness the final, sent to The Hindu by Ten Sports, was passed on to me. It would be a short blast in a country where fresh air is seldom at a premium. Sri Lanka is a friendly, but feisty nation, where cricket is the unifying force. And none captures the spirit of the nation better than its former captain Arjuna Ranatunga.
The casually attired Ranatunga entered the hotel foyer, and strode through the lobby; his eyes, still mischievous, probing and penetrating, now picking out an image from the corner shop, now looking into you and asking questions, when you are interviewing. His batting was seldom vacuous; he was a street smart captain who believed in ambushing the opponent through clever strategy, whose game was shrouded in the kind of intelligence that, in cricketing parlance, bordered on subterfuge. "Cricket has unified the nation," said the squat man who comprehended the pulse of a country craving for respect. A busy politician these days, Ranatunga still delves into the game for inspiration.
The summit clash arrived, and the bus teeming with Indian supporters, bumped along the road leading to the venue. Will India be able to break the final jinx?
Day of the clash
Serpentine lines formed outside the Stadium, a cop threw a furtive glance and then hollered at a fan attempting to jump the queue, but extended a friendly arm in a trice... acrimony had no place during a huge occasion where Sri Lanka was favoured to triumph in its bastion.
Inside the stadium, old men clambered to their seats in the top row with the enthusiasm of schoolboys, and the younger bunch, their visages painted, waltzed with the infectious rhythm that is synonymous with the islanders. Even the otherwise sullen-faced officials sported warm smiles.
The Indian side appeared famished for most part of the tournament, an outfit that seemed to have sloughed off its competitive edge. Sri Lanka had the momentum. So did Sanath Jayasuriya, who biffed a haze of shots, even as the sky opened out into a vast expanse of blue. The ground turned a sea of emotions.
The bright afternoon gave way to evening and then night. The Indians built a solid platform for victory before an all too familiar mess-up in the end game saw the Sri Lankans clutch light when darkness loomed. The Lankan crowd exploded.
The Indians appeared grumpy as they trooped back into the waiting bus, the agony of defeat accentuated by a feeling of being drained out in hot, humid, energy sapping conditions. And the hush in the Indian camp was deafening; sometimes silence can be heard more than a million sounds. Another tournament, another final was history. For the Lankans, it was a night swaddled in celebrations. From an Indian perspective, it was a scene from the climax of a sad movie. Cricketing tales are often bound by contrasting characters, much like an epic cinema that has threads of varying shades and hues running through it, and in the story at the Premadasa Stadium, the Sri Lankans found protagonists who came alive at the death.
Next morning, media personality Harsha Bhogle would say, "It (the Men in Blue choking in the final) is in the Indian DNA." Certain words drift into the realm of nothingness to be eminently forgotten. Some set you thinking long after they are spoken out. The difference between the two, often, might just be subtle. Bhogle's words stung, but they mirrored reality.
The winds from the Indian Ocean roared over the stalls lining the beach, blow past the highway and sweep into the team hotel. The Indian team boarded the bus, which, wading through the bustling Colombo traffic was to transport them to the airport. It will be a long, hard season ahead. One dream dies but another begins and the Indians will surely get their opportunities. Will they take them?
After a brief shopping stint in the afternoon where I met the legendary West Indian cricket commentator Tony Cozier, saddened by the contract dispute rocking Caribbean cricket, I make my way back to the beach.
There was no sign of Gamini, but his spirit and that of this enchanting island nation cried out from every corner.
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