England in Sri Lanka

In one of Rachel Cusk’s novels from the Outline trilogy, she encounters a fellow Brit while in Greece. He tells her about how he had been sad his entire life in Britain. Every day was a slog of misery and hurt, his life lurching from one sadness to another for decades on end. And then he moved to Greece. And he sat on the beach for a few years. And he felt the damp and cold of England slowly leave him, as if his bones were literally drying out there in the sun. And as the damp and the cold left, the sadness did too, like it was baked out of him after so many years of wallow and cold.

I think about that scene a lot whenever England travels to Sri Lanka.

It’s always in February. Dark, dank, cold February. The weather for the next week in London calls for rain and wind and highs in the 40s. Sure, it will be colder here in Minnesota, with highs in only the teens, but England has that damp, that wet, that wind, creating the kind of cold that sinks into your bones and sits there and for some people there just isn’t enough sun and warmth to melt it come summer. I know this feeling. I know it well. The coming of summer in the north is something very special. But sometimes that summer never comes, and so sometimes you have to seek it out. Travel to the other side of the world, sit on the steps of an old stone fort, and take in a cricket match. And sometime around day two, in the afternoon, you realize that you aren’t cold, that you aren’t damp, and that maybe — just maybe — everything is going to be okay.

I love watching England play cricket in Sri Lanka. There is a long and storied history between the two sides, despite Sri Lanka only achieving Test status in the early 1980s. In fact, England have been playing cricket in Colombo since 1882, when they stopped in Sri Lanka on their way to Australia to reclaim the Ashes. And after that Colombo became a regular stop on the way down under, playing one day cricket under the sun and shaking off creaky sea legs.

There is a great post about these early days by Nicholas Brookes on Wisden’s blog today.

Today the England fans dress in white and their faces turn red from the sun and the beer and the scene is full of joy and heat. And the cricket is always joyful and warm and entertaining, even when the teams are far apart in the rankings. What’s fun about this year is that there are only four matches, two touring matches and two tests. So not only will the weather be warm and the sky blue, but fans will be treated to the best of what Cricket has to offer. A few lazy, hazy, hot mornings, afternoons and evenings to bake the cold and winter and sadness into submission, and then back to England to see out the winter.

I don’t live in England, and I am not going to Sri Lanka, but I will watch. For even to just be reminded that somewhere, somehow, it is warm, and skin is hot, and there’s a game of cricket on, is enough to keep the fires burning until June. There are other sports, of course, taking place in warm climates right now. And of course we also all intellectually understand that it has to be warm somewhere, that’s just how the world works. But there’s something about seeing those pale Englanders revel in the sun of Sri Lanka that does my heart good.

Cricket is a feast of traditions, and England’s in Sri Lanka is one of my favorites.

**

One note from the above linked article is what it meant for the small nation to have England — and Australia — stopping by to play cricket for more than a century.  These “whistlestops” as they were known were more than just opportunity to challenge their colonial masters at their own game — and challenge them well, something they weren’t able to do otherwise day-today — but they also gave generations of young Sri Lankan cricketers the chance to play against the best in the world. Does this small nation achieve Test status and win World Cups if these whistlestops never happen? It’s hard to imagine so. And it’s a shame that these kinds of matches have more or less gone away from the world.

As Brookes writes in the article:

Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from them is that exposure brings improvement. Given the ICC’s somewhat exclusionary attitude, we rarely see contests between the game’s giants and those countries trying to find their way. But had Sri Lanka’s cricketing infancy not been punctuated with regular visits by England and Australia, who knows where they would be today?

All those great Sri Lankan teams, lost to history. Imagine that world? I don’t think I want to. Unfortunately, as is said, we live in that world now. With each gift given, one is taken away. England in Sri Lanka is a reminder of warmth and heat, but also a reminder that cricket as we know it is slowly disappearing. Generations of Lasith Malingas and Kumar Sangakkaras and Muttiah Muralitharans playing cricket in a country the ICC doesn’t care about, lost forever to obscurity and time, never even to play with a hard cricket ball their entire lives.

What a shame.

With each gift given, another is taken away. Which means every gift needs to be enjoyed, and that is the lesson here. And that is why I will watch England play Sri Lanka, and enjoy every ball.

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