Riding the Whitewash
You could try to be there for the full moon in march for the famous ‘Vesak Poya’ – the festival of lights. Or you could try to visit the east coast in the low season to avoid the crowds at Arugam Bay. For my money though the best time to visit is immediately after Sri Lanka has thrashed your country’s cricket team in the last test series. During that brief window you can ride a wave of sympathy that diffuses any misunderstandings.
Near Anuradhapura there was an army base where the entrance gate was sculpted into a giant yawning lion’s head. I chatted to a young guy guarding the gate and asked if I could take a photo. He immediately looked concerned and went to his superior- a serious-looking older man with a moustache. They chatted briefly in Sinhalese. When the word ‘Australia’ was mentioned the older guard lit up; ‘Sri Lanka win’ he said to me. I asked him if I could take a photo ‘no problem’ he said.
Outside of Trincomalee a few nights later we came across a pair of traffic police by the side of the road. They noticed our little convoy of motorbikes and began directing us to pull over. I barely saw the signal. Matt was close behind me so he could plausibly have claimed he didn’t notice either. Ryan, not so much, he just breezed right by them. Five minutes later, lights flashing, the two cops pull alongside us on their big Yamaha patrol bike. At this stage I was fairly sure we were going to be arrested. We pulled onto the road shoulder and I started with my apologies but when they learned where we’re from they just smiled and sent us on our way.
Everywhere we went people graciously reminded me that Sri Lanka had won the last test series. Sometimes they even provided the score. But it’s not hard to see why it was such a cause for celebration. In 33 years of competition between the two nations Sri Lanka had only managed to win one test match against Australia. As sports writer and professional smartarse Geoff Lemon points out:
“Not to mention that this lone was almost a fait accompli, played against nine men after Steve Waugh decided to break Jason Gillespie’s leg with his face.”
By all accounts the Australian team treated this 2016 test as little more than a formality given the run of wins leading up to the tour. But in the space of a month the Sri Lankan side managed to win all three test matches back-to-back. Writing for the Guardian after Sri Lanka’s victory Lemon explained the lop-sided nature of sports funding between the two nations:
“Of course the current Australian team is not as strong as times past either, but it is supported by a board with enough money to stitch playing kits out of $100 notes. The fried-chicken lucre piles up in drifts in Jolimont hallways, so that maintenance chaps with leafblowers do regular sweeps to uncover buried staff. Sri Lankan cricket, meanwhile, is so far in debt that a financial rope ladder may be the only way out. Given the gulf in facilities, player development, professional opportunities, and pay packets, for this Sri Lankan side to beat this Australian side is an extraordinary achievement.”
There were still a few one-day matches on the tour. We knew the odds of getting in at the last minute were slim but we travelled to Dambulla stadium and tried to scrounge some tickets anyway. Matt plucked someone from the crowd and asked him to write ‘we will buy tickets’ on a sheet of cardboard. He looked confused but graciously obliged. We interrupted him a second later and explained that we wanted it written in Sinhalese. He started again- this time he looked less confused.
The sign found us a few people willing to part with their tickets for several times the standard price. Dambulla Stadium is built on land belonging to the Buddhist temple nearby so vendors can’t sell alcohol and tobacco products. To to be discouraged our Rastafarian friend invited us for pre-drinks in the parking lot before we joined the crowds heading through the gates. The locals were still riding the high of that test victory. Fifteen thousand people, almost all men, painted up and flying the flag. Australia managed to salvage a bit of dignity by winning the match we attended but that minor victory did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the Sri Lankan supporters. Police had to use tear gas to disperse fans at the next match who tried to force their way in after the stadium reached capacity. ‘Full capacity’ seems to be have a somewhat loose definition though given the amount of people we saw in trees and perched on light masts and other vantage points.
In the corporate grandstands in Australian capital cities it’s easy to forget that to be a ‘fan’ is to be ‘fanatical’- the original definition was of a person ‘insanely but divinely inspired’. The definition still seems to hold true in Sri Lanka – at least in the aftermath of historic sporting achievements. I’d recommend planning your trip after the next test whitewash. There’s really no better time to visit.
The Guardian: Sri Lanka’s unheralded side manages what its most distinguished could not