The ongoing Sri Lanka vs India opening cricket Test at Galle made me recall India’s very first international game at the paradise-like venue in southern Sri Lanka.
The June 25, 1998 Sri Lanka vs India fixture in the Singer-Akai Nidahas Trophy triangular series there was a non-event, abandoned even before you could say Romesh Kaluwitharana.
Galle did not have as many hotels as it does now. Only the teams stayed at the Lighthouse Hotel, while the travelling journalists were 20 km away in a hotel in Hikkaduwa called Coral Gardens.
Spectators run for cover as a rain storm sweeps the Galle cricket stadium on June 25th 1998. The Sri Lanka-India match was abandoned without a ball bowled. Pic/AFP
Two of us took a rickshaw (called tuk tuk in Sri Lanka) to the ground from Hikkaduwa to report on the June 27 New Zealand vs Sri Lanka tie. The Saturday ride would cost us Rs 250, but that was not a problem — the wet, narrow road and our fearless driver was. When I asked him why was he in a tearing hurry, he said, “I want to reach before the rains arrive in Galle and I don’t want to drive back in the rain.” Fair point, and he was right, because a few minutes after we reached the ground, it started pouring.
Rarely do three games in a row get washed out but it happened in 1998 at Galle. Those were the days when there were no daily press conferences and churning out copy to send back home was a task. There were fewer journalists on tour though, and news channels were absent.
One got to see more of the Indian team at the hotel than the present scenario and you couldn’t get a better man than the then India coach Anshuman Gaekwad to get some of his players to be interviewed. In those days, no media activity could be conducted without the coach’s permission.
A memorable off-field moment was Aravinda de Silva walking into the poolside of the Lighthouse Hotel with a tall, stunning female friend that attracted the attention of some cricketers during their water polo game.
The Coral Gardens hotel housed some of the television commentators as well, Ravi Shastri included.
Shastri now appears to always be in a combative mood with the media as team director, though he has always been known for a no-nonsense attitude. But I saw a soft side to him one night in Galle. He was enjoying his drink at the bar when he noticed a journo on his first international tour, worried about not being able to establish contact with his mother back home on his birthday. Shastri offered to let the journo use his mobile phone to call his mother. In those early days of costly mobile rates, Shastri obliged with no ‘keep-the-call-short’ instructions whatsoever. That was kind and memorable.
With three Galle games abandoned without a ball being bowled, the final leg action was held in Colombo, which hosted the first leg. Again, media activity was near negligible. The tight Sri Lankan security wouldn’t let me near their captain Arjuna Ranatunga for his post-match comments. Staying in the same hotel, I spoke to Ranatunga about my problem and he offered to speak to me over the house phone after his team returned to the hotel either after practice or a match — unthinkable in today’s world even if there were no anti-corruption guidelines to abide.
Ranatunga was always approachable but he shared a rocky relationship with the local media. He told a fellow journalist on this tour, “In the 16 years I have played for Sri Lanka, I have never been quoted correctly.”
India had to take on world champions Sri Lanka in the final at Premadasa and their pre-final press conference was conducted by the pool of the Taj Samudra with the full group of reporters in attendance. By full, I mean five. Azhar rued the fact that India could play only two completed games in the first phase of the tournament and he called it the most frustrating tour he has been on, with rain not only ruining matches but practice sessions as well.
India went to beat Sri Lanka in the final — a rarity in that Lankan-dominated one-day international era. Sachin Tendulkar (128) and Sourav Ganguly (109) put on a record 252 for the first wicket.
Sri Lanka fell short of the 308-run target by seven runs.
There was a party organised at the team hotel for which the media was invited too. I got hold of Tendulkar for a few quotes (no post-match press conferences, remember!) and he said, “I feel on top of the world.” Many a time, his century efforts have gone in vain. It could have been the case in Colombo too, had Aravinda de Silva gone all the way. Tendulkar added: “A loss would have been a pity. Imagine losing after scoring 300 runs with two guys getting hundreds.” With those words, he left to join his mates to celebrate a significant title triumph.
The next thing we heard was that the presence of a freelance photographer in the party room was not appreciated by some players who were not comfortable being seen with a glass in their hands. We promptly decided to leave, even as a few players urged us to stay.
That, alongwith the rain, was the only sore point of the tour. Hope the weather stays good in Galle. It’s a beautiful place to watch cricket down by the sea and it’s good to be there even if you have nothing to do with cricket.
Clayton Murzello is mid-day’s Group Sports Editor