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Bleak Howzat!?— Charles Dickens pays a visit to The Cricket Club

(in loving memory of its former incarnation)

Colombo. The Galle and Pallakele matches lately over, the series lost, and the selectors falling back on Maitland Place in hopes of inspiration for the third and final test.

The last of the erratic rains now gone, the water in the half-uncovered sewers stagnant, rank with garbage. One might not be surprised to see a starving crocodile shamble desperately inland from the Beira Lake. Sea-misted smog drapes, sulkily, along the coast, the Chinese dock work hurling dust into the air as it claws land back from the ocean’s warm insistence.

The sun still harshly present, if hardly visible. The town about its routine business. Stray dogs, all indistinguishable pariahs, lying panting on the pavements; the beggars scarcely better, heat-blasted, all-too-grateful for the slightest splash of generosity. Foot passengers in moistened Bata slippers, keeping extremities beyond the reach of swerving auto-rickshaws and on-rushing omnibuses; office secretaries in saris, umbrellas jostling with a cordial lack of urgency; clerks in unsympathetically-soled city shoes, tripping occasionally on broken paving slabs and buckled tree roots, like thousands of their countrymen before them. Leather-faced, rough-stubbled sweepers fighting valiantly to remove the day’s detritus (if indeed this day is distinct from the one before it), crows, bats and other fauna adding new deposits to the crust, the compound interest of existence.

But cricket – everywhere. Cricket from the high Anglican environs of Mount Lavinia to the long-venerable sports clubs of Havelock Town and Cinnamon Gardens; cricket at the well-kempt forces grounds across Slave Island, and on north to the Premadasa stadium, which casts its shadows on the shunting yards. Cricket up the Galle Road, in narrow lanes and private driveways, and over empty strips of road at poya; cricket down the Baseline Road, at union workers’ grounds and prison yards, in the college and the vidyalaya sports facilities, and on the hardened dirt tracks of the public playing fields.

Cricket drifting in and out of windows on the airwaves; cricket dressing building sites, on half-torn fliers; cricket wrapping short eats in stapled newsprint. Cricket in the ears of the bus conductor as he counts out change; cricket in the day-dreams of white-bearded elders as they journey homeward; cricket in the oversize bags of tiny schoolboys, conveniently kitted out in pristine white.

Cricket in the afternoon on Galle Face Green, and in the lobbies of two- and three-star boarding houses. Illicit early-evening cricket in the temple courtyard, played by the young monks, after duties. Night cricket on the roofs and in the gardens round the international schools. Cricket the length and breadth of this sprawled, and sport-obsessive city.

Come rain or shine, defeat or victory, cricket on billboards, bus shelters, projector screens in pool halls. Cricket in bookies’ shops (the formal and the more informal kind), cricket on telephones, cricket in conversations at the grills of bottle stores, and in communications outlets. Cricket as a base commodity – as film, as hardware, as ritual vestment – in commercial streets, department stores and markets. And cricket peddling in its turn: the heroes of the bygone age, their names and faces writ large on the sweetshop hoardings, street signs, walls of emporia, viaducts, lending their lustre to the jewellery trade, assurance firms, vendors of soft drinks, chain stores, and providers of sundry other services.

But when the hot afternoon is at its hottest, and the bright glare is brightest, and the thirsty cricket-loving gentleman is at his thirstiest, there is, in truth, but one appropriate destination. Here, hard by the Bambalapitiya Junction – well-served by railway and stagecoach, equipped with automobile spaces, and known to every hansom driver – just across from the stately, vaulting dignity of the British Council, on Queen’s Road, at the very beating heart of all this cricket – here sits The Cricket Club Café.

Never can there come a cricketing occasion too big, never can there be a match too early or too late, which The Cricket Club, this primary temple to the gods of cricket – itself pre-eminent among the sports – is not ten times more than a match.

On such a day, as on so many like it, the Proprietress will herself be bustling about – as indeed she is now – within her avocado-painted palisade, in the garden beneath the flowering frangipani, or inside the white-walled, red-roofed bungalow, endeavouring to attend to the administration of her establishment without being drawn into a conversation with a journeyman of the enthusiastic class, who thinks – and talks, need it be said – of nothing but the cricket. On such a day – as here they are – some twenty or so members of an English village touring side will be dining at one agglomerate, unwieldy table, attempting to trip one another up over technicalia, reminiscing, in detail, on their own and international lifetime batting figures, feigning ignorance of their own grosser misdemeanors in preceding seasons, and all in all pretending to a comradeship that might be even less sincere than it is mutual. On such a day – as are they not? – at least one large Sri Lankan family birthday party will be in progress, some two or three perhaps contending to take on the business from their father, who made a fortune by it, ranged in a line, discussing legal and financial quandaries, the aptness of their academic training, headmasters’ reports, their mountainous expenditure on tuition classes, their swimming certificates… the younger offspring keeping their eyes on the unfolding innings – or folding up, as might too often be the case.

Well may the back bar be ill lit, and pervaded with the stale fug of cigarettes; well may the propinquity of the front parlour be so cheek-by-jowl that one’s conversation is clearly audible to every man, woman and child seated therein; well may the chilly, over-punkah-wallah’d family room, on the East side, be deleterious for anyone not drinking hot soup; well may each and every room have conflicting journalistic coverage (present or archival) of two or more unrelated sporting contests performed at any given time; and well, indeed, as the hours wear on, may the assembled drivers, vagabonds and passers-by out on Queen’s Road be decidedly deterred from entrance by the hearty chuntering of much-contented, moneyed folk.

But this is The Cricket Club, which has its signposts directing travellers to Newlands, Lord’s and Eden Gardens; which has its vitrines stocked with Botham’s bat, Greg Chappell’s shoes, Wasim Akram’s shirt, and caps from every franchise on the subcontinent; which has long-sleeved jumpers worn through yeoman innings; which has its signed photographs of youthful Indian legends and hard, West Indian enforcers; which has its telegrams from national premiers to their leading batsmen; which has its clocks telling the time in cricketing capitals (sometimes as much as twice a day); which has its framed newspapers celebrating Sri Lanka’s World Cup victory; which has virtual shrines to Bradman, Warne and Muralitharan; which has its punning menus, randomly apostrophised and intermittently updated, but never – like the laws of the great game – changing too radically in the fundamentals; which has its ‘slash outside the off stump’ mural in the gents; which even has that tea towel explaining cricket to ‘a foreign visitor’ (though who has given that a second glance?). From floor to ceiling, North to South, and port to starboard, these are the glories – howsoever intangible and fleeting – of cricket, the whole cricket, and nothing but the cricket, which among lesser men exhausts the finances, patience, courage, and hope, but which among heroes so overflows the brain and impassions the heart that there is not an one among the patrons here who would not – does not – hasten in and cry, with heedless confidence: “I’ll have the ‘Punters’ Pepper Chicken, please. And a pint of Lion Larger.”

Also published at The Oldie