Spectators at the Premadasa cheer for Sri Lanka

Triple delight: Colombo spectators are spoilt for choice

© AFP

Feature

In Colombo, three is not a crowd

Learn more about the SSC, P Sara and the Premadasa and you will understand Sri Lanka a bit better as a country

Nicholas Brookes and Benjamin Golby |

Colombo has three active international cricket grounds. Indulgent? Kolkata, Karachi, Cape Town and Melbourne settle for a single ground; even London houses merely two.

When new stadiums are built, predecessors are usually laid to rest. Granted, Antigua 2009 showed the value of having a spare venue up the sleeve. More often than not, though, cities' attempts to house multiple stadiums haven't come off (think Mumbai, or Sydney).

Not so Colombo. The city proper might span less than 15 square miles, but when it comes to cricket, Sri Lanka has made a habit of punching above its weight. It's fitting that its capital should have not one or two but three international grounds.

Each of the Colombo three has its peculiarities and complex reasons for existence, with centuries-old ethnic divisions, politics (lots), and the bumble and immoderacy of Sri Lankan cricket. Really, the city is neither populated nor prosperous enough to warrant its glut of grounds - but politics, connections and sentiment keep pragmatism at bay.

The R Premadasa Stadium was built to give Colombo a fully floodlit venue - but also as a prime minister's vanity project, a tool to score points off his rival, the sports minister. The Sinhalese Sports Club replicates what the island's colonial oppressors did three doors down the road (play cricket, dine and drink) but on an exponentially grander scale, with koi fish. The P Sara Oval came to be when a civil servant decided that, while laying a new wicket for his club, he would construct a great stadium for the nation.

Consider their continued existence. SSC is posh and makes heaps of money. P Sara serves Sunday lunch on the field of play. Premadasa has cows tied up out front next to a tuk-tuk graveyard.

Understanding Colombo's three international grounds, located in three distinctive neighbourhoods, provides a glimpse into factious, charming Sri Lankan cricket.

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The Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC)
Heart of the establishment

Gym shoes distinguish Colombo 7. While most in the city wear 100-rupee sandals, here it's legitimate branded footwear with full cushioning. Impatient men in tracksuits and ladies in shorts stridently power-walk, or trot an underwhelming tropical jog, round the Torrington Square concourse. Literally well heeled, this is Cinnamon Gardens, where Dutch plantations once scented the air, now home to the Colombo elite. On wide boulevards designed for horses, the salubrious walk their retrievers. Beam at them and expect stony eyes in return.

It's hard to imagine this oasis of space elsewhere in the scramble of Colombo. Within the city's density and bustle, respectability centres itself around a faux-fancy shopping precinct (converted from a mental asylum) and, as a beguiling monument to independence, a replica grand hall of the Kandyan kings. Follow the broad way down and around, and you'll arrive at the gates of the SSC (still spelt in the old-fashioned way as "Singhalese" at the venue): home of Sri Lanka Cricket and Colombo prestige.

This is the club of blue blood. In its ranks are Sidath Wettimuny, Duleep Mendis, Arjuna Ranatunga, Marvan Atapattu, Mahela Jayawardene and Dimuth Karunaratne. Cricketers are mere mortality, though. More impressive is to pass the giant marble entrance and amble alongside the pools moating the members, with koi, all open mouth and barbel, paying greeting. There's a garden café selling the same short eats as the bakery outside, only at inflated prices. The dress code of the oak-panelled Members' Centenary Bar keeps the flip-flopped and ill clad out (but even those poor souls can sit behind the pavilion, below television screens, and dine on a plate of pie and chips superior to the fare at any other Sri Lankan cricket ground).

The SSC has asserted itself as the most prestigious venue for Test cricket on the island. It's a lovely place to watch a match, but to say so is almost extraneous. Test cricket anywhere in Sri Lanka is a joy. The weather is warm, spectators are convivial, often knowledgeable and hospitable, tickets are inexpensive, and so long as England aren't playing (with their attendant hordes), there's plenty of space to stretch out over five days.

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Gaze out on the pitch where Shane Warne came good in his third Test, and where Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara put on a world-record 624 for the third wicket. Eight years later, Jayawardene was feted here with a truly monumental retirement procession. It has been a happy hunting ground for Sri Lanka's bowlers too: from Vaas' ODI record to Herath's historic 13 against Australia. Murali has 14 five-fors here; no other bowler comes close to that tally at a single ground.

The club, like the neighbourhood, is rich, exclusive and a place of the establishment. Three of its presidents have held the nation's top job. Situated next to the club, sharing the same street address, Sri Lanka Cricket's offices overlook the ground: if the club was ever in doubt of its primacy, powerful neighbours are on hand to offer some gentle reassurance.

The club existed for 50-odd years, playing from a municipal park, before taking these premises.

Through the offices of DS Senanayake (orchestrator of independence, national prime minister, and club president) an opportunity emerged to repurpose a defunct air base in Colombo's plushest neighbourhood. The new digs were across the road from the former centre of cricketing prestige, the Colombo Cricket Club. Throughout its days of proud eminence, this white European club barred visiting players (of "colour") from using the nets or visiting the bar. When the SSC's ground was laid in 1953, the club's new president (another prime minister) performed the honours.

The SSC was the venue for the biggest partnership in Test cricket: 624 between Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara

The SSC was the venue for the biggest partnership in Test cricket: 624 between Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara © Getty Images

The SSC truly came into its estate with international cricket status in the 1980s. Club president JR Jayewardene, who also happened to be the president of Sri Lanka, entrenched privilege within the club - with more seating constructed and more oak lined into the bars - and Gamini Dissanayake, an acolyte of Jayewardene (and the sports minister who orchestrated the drive towards Test status), established the headquarters of what is now Sri Lanka Cricket at the SSC. The club styles itself as the Lord's of Sri Lanka and has hosted the lion's share of Test cricket on the island since the early 1990s.

The SSC has made the most of its opportunities, and the handsome ground is a graphic testament to the ascendency of Sinhalese Sri Lanka.

Where to sit: The best viewing is found in the Dialog Stand. Diametrically opposite, a new stand - named after Col FC de Saram - was under construction during the recent South Africa Test, and the view from there is equally superb, but it's hard to tell what the finished pavilion will be. The SSC Members' Pavilion is a striking place, but unless you can wangle entry into the members-only air-conditioned buffet upper level, it has a poor vantage, at deep midwicket, and metal bars obstruct the view.

© PA Photos

P Sara Oval
The shunned elder

East from the city is Borella, where the suburbs begin. Here, tucked away in a neighbourhood crook, behind a magnificent leafy cemetery, humming thoroughfares and chaotic adjoining ways is a cricket ground. As Ishmael to Isaac, or the Iliad to the Odyssey, so the SSC has an older, hoary counterpart in the Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu Stadium Colombo Oval (most settle on calling it P Sara Oval). It is an unlikely spot, abutting an urban slum on one side and a series of quiet middle-class backstreets on the other, but for 40 years this was Sri Lanka's Mecca of cricket, graced by the likes of Gavaskar, Sobers, the three Ws and Keith Miller.

Hedges of ivy bedeck the Oval's clock-crowned manual scoreboard. Square of the wicket, a neatly gated seating reserve for pensioners - with their newspapers, bifocals and beatific expressions - sets the tone. At the base of the Sathasivam Stand, one can procure a frosted glass bottle of ginger beer from the memorabilia-walled Members' bar, and beneath ceiling fans, languidly watch play from behind the wicket.

P Sara is the preserve of the Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club, marking a bygone time of affluence and connection among the island's minority group. Well-educated English-speaking Tamils enjoyed elevated social status in pre-independence Ceylon, dominating the white-collar professions and merchant classes. The ground's establishment was spearheaded by a visionary, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a civil servant recently returned from a prolonged stint in the provinces.

Tamil Union, who solicited the future prime minister DS Senanayake, and the colonial governor, were beneficently granted some canal-side marsh on the edge of town. Saravanamuttu raised a fortune through his fellow club members, and in the midst of World War II, obtained scarce supplies through the amenable, all-powerful military Commander-in-Chief of Ceylon.

Swamp was converted into a first-rate pitch, offering those most un-Sri Lankan characteristics, pace and bounce, and pavilions and seating were constructed for the thousands who would come to watch not only cricket but anything else important happening in Colombo. The Oval housed hockey, athletics, greyhound racing, and when jazz musician Duke Ellington visited as America's Musical Ambassador to the Far East, it was the only venue capable of hosting the show.

The quaint members' stand: good for watching cricket and solving crossword puzzles

The quaint members' stand: good for watching cricket and solving crossword puzzles © Nicholas Brookes

Notwithstanding the ground's impressive 1945 baptism - when Sri Lanka's greatest batsman, Mahadevan Sathasivam, made a century for Ceylon against India, and Keith Miller scored 132 in an innings defeat over the island side - the only event widely remembered today from those times is when Bradman captained the Invincibles here in 1948.

"Bradman came here," any kindly old uncle about the ground will tell you. Two full-length photographs in the members' bar - with the Don strangely garbed in dark glasses, tie, high-waisted trousers and pith helmet - attest to the grand man's presence. Around 20,000 came by rail, bus and foot, cramming into and around the recently constructed ground (and the trees above) to watch Bradman make 20 scratchy runs. Fittingly, the pitch was 20 yards in length rather than the regulation 22. The same kindly uncles will likely blame this, in charmingly modulated misogynist tones, on P Sara's ground lady.

Yes, ground lady. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of P Sara among international cricketing venues is its succession - matriarchy even? - of female ground staff, commencing with the appointment of head ground keeper Mariamma in 1947. While the good matron is generally credited for the pitch mishap, carping critics of Bradman's have alleged the captain made a fuss after his unflattering innings, and that re-measuring the pitch was simply a result of Sri Lankan politeness and deference toward their distinguished visitor. A line of female groundskeepers has continued to the present day. Stalwarts of the club say these "Indian Tamil" ladies, who reside beside the ground, have an almost mystical connection to its earth. This strong female link to turf and surface is seemingly a unique characteristic of the P Sara Oval, at least among international cricket grounds.

Earth mothers: Female ground staff tend the pitch at the P Sara Oval

Earth mothers: Female ground staff tend the pitch at the P Sara Oval © PA Photos

Bradman's visit set in train 35 halcyon years of cricket, both local, regional (against neighbouring Tamil Nadu) and international. Sides stopped at the island while headed elsewhere in the subcontinent or further abroad. However, while many sepia moments of the island's cricket history played out on this fine wicket, increasingly fewer are being made.

Sri Lanka's maiden Test, in 1982, should have marked the ground's apogee but instead presaged its decline. The next year, a miscalculated ceremony at the Borella cemetery, for soldiers slain by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, turned into a riot. Vigilantes targeting Tamils ravaged the way through the neighbourhood - beating, killing, raping and burning - and sacked the club, looting the bar and razing the ground. Instead of succour in its hour of need, the combination of burnt-out ground, inconvenient Borella location and, ostensibly, prejudice (as the civil war raged on) led to the passing of cricketing pre-eminence in the city from P Sara Oval to its Colombo 7 counterpart. From 1982 to 2001, the Oval hosted six Tests; during the same period the SSC held 21.

P Sara's fate is not all dour. Tamil Union rebuilt the Oval, hosted Sri Lanka's first Test victory, and began to conduct international matches again during the 2000s. Today it is Colombo's second-string Test venue, but faces an uncertain future of international cricket. Sri Lanka has regular Test grounds in Galle and Pallekele, and there are three other stadiums in the country that could be used for the purpose (with yet another supposedly under construction outside Jaffna - as yet, a pile of rubble). Then, of course, there's Sri Lanka's ever-dwindling home Test schedule to contend with.

These days, the one-day games that once brought crowds flooding to the ground play out at a stadium two miles up the road. Like the P Sara, it was converted from swampland, but here you'll find no rattan or remnants of the past. Sri Lankan cricket's present - and perhaps its future too - is a purpose-built, concrete monster.

Where to sit: Affluent-looking foreigners are inevitably goaded by ticket staff to sit in the air-conditioned glass box, the Sathi Coomaraswamy Upper Stand. Do so if you can't bear the heat, but it's sterile and at square leg. The M Sathasivam stand, in front of the members' bar, behind the wicket, is the supreme spot to watch play. As it is not always open to the public, consider its elegant neighbours, and the advice of ESPNcricinfo's, Sharda Ugra: "For heady nostalgia step into the Murugaser and Tryphon Mirando stands on a blazing day and feel both cooled and warmed. Wooden benches, rotating fans, the names of the club's cricket and hockey captains and its internationals on wooden boards on the walls."

© Getty Images

Premadasa Stadium
The enfant terrible

The Premadasa is not prepossessing. Outside the stadium, shells of tuk-tuks are sprayed, repaired and upholstered. Cattle and goats graze on the banks of a fetid river. A shanty stands, bulldozed but not cleared. Children play amid the carcasses of buildings and shards of broken glass. The traffic is bad. At one corner is a temple, partitioned from the Premadasa by a fringe of palms. Its proud white dagoba looks almost lost in the surroundings. In reality, the SSC is just down the road, but genteel Cinnamon Gardens feels a million miles away.

Here you'll find no stands commemorating de Saram or Sathasivam; no honours boards adorned with names of captains and presidents past. At the purpose-built Premadasa, most choose to sit in the unromantically entitled Blocks C and D: ground-level, concrete rafters that arc around from mid-on to fine leg. Sure, it lacks the history of the P Sara Oval or the SSC, but this stadium can lay claim to something its older counterparts crave: people.

On match days, crowds flood through the gates. Groups of guys idly chat, half of Colombo's schoolboys search for a spot in the shade, even a stray dog finds its way into the ground and lopes excitedly back and forth. The more expensive stands - which come with an actual seat, coloured Lankan yellow or blue - start to fill up too, albeit more slowly. Boundaries bring boisterous cries of approval. Drums appear from nowhere and pockets of dancing spring up. The disjointed sound of multiple papare bands is din to the uninitiated but sweet Ivesian cacophony to lovers of chaos. The occasional punter lies passed out, the combination of arrack and sweltering sun suddenly too much. Toilets become a destination for smokers. Once night falls, the party really gets going.

Of course the Premadasa's popularity owes less to the stadium itself and more to the kind of cricket that's played there. Younger Sri Lankans fans have shown a marked apathy towards Tests for some time. Everything about the Premadasa - the floodlights that loom over the ground, the less than salubrious setting, and its 35,000 capacity - suggests that this was a stadium designed for short-form cricket.

Indeed in its 26-year history, only nine Tests have been held here, four of them against Zimbabwe or Bangladesh (including last year's romper). Still, it will likely remain part of five-day cricket folklore for as long as the game lasts, thanks to the monstrous 952 for 6 dec Sri Lanka racked up here against India in 1997. Some reports claim that on the final day - with Sanath Jayasuriya well set and Brian Lara's 375 in his sights - 30,000 responded to the call of free tickets, cramming into a ground, which at that stage, was only meant to hold half that number. Rarely since have so many turned up for a Test in Sri Lanka.

The raucous, festive atmosphere at the Premadasa gets all too much for a couple of spectators

The raucous, festive atmosphere at the Premadasa gets all too much for a couple of spectators © Nicholas Brookes

Limited-overs games, on the other hand, have often been sellouts. So much so that in late 2009 the Premadasa underwent a total redevelopment and a little over a year later, it was rocking when a packed house watched Lasith Malinga, Murali and Ajantha Mendis bowl the home side into the World Cup final.

In the shortest form of the game, the place has brought Sri Lanka little joy. Fortunes looked to be changing in the 2012 World T20 final - but a blistering Marlon Samuels knock and a batting collapse from the home side saw them lose their fourth consecutive major final. All in all, Sri Lanka have won four T20Is and lost a whopping 16 at the ground.

But most of the complaints about the Premadasa have nothing to do with the home team's performance. You're more likely to hear locals moaning that it's difficult to get to, that there's nowhere to park, and that they wouldn't be caught dead walking outside the ground after dark. Certainly, none would put Khettarama in their list of Colombo's friendliest or most charming areas. So how did it come to be home to the city's largest stadium, its international poster boy?

The clue is in the title. Those well versed in Sri Lankan history will know that Ranasinghe Premadasa was Sri Lanka's third president. And while the idea of a Tony Blair Oval or John Major Cricket Ground would make most English fans shudder, in Sri Lanka it's not so unusual for politics and cricket to become intertwined. When Premadasa initiated plans for the Khettarama Stadium in the early-'80s, one of his main presidential rivals was Dissanayake, the charismatic minister who had just masterminded Sri Lanka's final push towards Test status. Building a cricket ground in the impoverished neighbourhood of his youth was the perfect way for Premadasa, whose family belonged to the lowly Hinna caste, a people traditionally associated with clothes-washing, to drum up popular support while giving something back to the ordinary folk of Colombo.

In the far-off days of Premadasa's youth, cricket remained tantalisingly out of reach for the working classes. The game belonged to the elites: SSC was the club for the wealthy Sinhalese and Tamil Union for the affluent Tamils. There was nothing for the common man - and in many ways it remained that way right up until the 1980s. The Premadasa Stadium went some way towards redressing this.

The street outside the Premadasa: get your tuk-tuk repaired here

The street outside the Premadasa: get your tuk-tuk repaired here © Nicholas Brookes

The well-to-do who live south of the ground will never understand the Premadasa's placement, but ultimately it wasn't built for them. Its proximity to the transport hub of Colombo Fort means fans can flock from far afield. The birth of the stadium brought new economic opportunities to one of Colombo's most deprived areas. The Premadasa, rising from the slums like a beacon of hope, nods to the idea that cricket belongs to everyone; it is a reminder to the underprivileged children who play in its shadow that the game is close enough for them to grasp.

Where to sit: If you want to be at the heart of the party, it's hard to beat Lower C and D. This long stretch of concrete rafters, either side of the scoreboard, is bound to get rowdy. Be prepared to drink, dance and madly cheer every boundary. The views are good from the far corners, too, and this is as close to being behind the bowler's arm as the public can get. Those who prefer an aerial view (or want an actual seat) should look upstairs, to Upper C and D. The most expensive tickets, for the Grand Stand square of the wicket, should be avoided like the plague.

Can the Colombo three continue to coexist harmoniously? As hopeful as we remain, it looks increasingly unlikely. To all on the outside, the P Sara, one of the few Asian grounds that retains any long-toothed sense of history, is being ejected from the international scene faster than a streaker at the Boxing Day Test.

As Perth learns in a blaze of nostalgia, cricket memories are dear and not so easily made in bland, functional surrounds.

One of the most appealing reminiscences (a national pursuit in Sri Lanka) encountered in the course of this article came from Ceylon fast bowler Darrell Lieversz:

"My first visit to the P Saravanamuttu Oval was when my father took me to watch Australia play Ceylon; I was about eight or nine years old. It was quite a memorable day, which is still vivid in my memory. When the Australian team was walking to field, I ran out with my autograph book. I nervously approached Keith Miller, who was lagging behind the rest of the team. When he saw me he scooped me up in his arms, carried me almost up to the centre wicket, signed my book, gently put me back on the ground and gave me a pat on the back. I ran back towards the boundary line but I could not find my way back to my seat. Being totally lost, I started to cry until a good gentleman guided me back to my seat in the midst of laughter and applause. From that day Keith Miller was my all-time hero."

Double down: the future of international cricket in Colombo is likely to be restricted to two grounds

Double down: the future of international cricket in Colombo is likely to be restricted to two grounds © AFP

If P Sara were to fall, Colombo would be left with two grounds, neither of which will be going anywhere fast. We would mourn its loss, but two is still better than one.

There are grounds outside the city, though. Nice ones, too: Galle beside the sea, Pallekele in the Hill Country, Dambulla, Hambantota in the backwoods. Want to hear about them?

Nicholas Brookes is currently working on a book about the history of Sri Lankan cricket. Benjamin Golby lives and works in Melbourne

 

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