What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone says Wellington? How about windy?
When someone says anywhere in England? Damp and dreary and depressing, right?
Perth? Searingly hot.
Dunedin? Bitingly cold.
Across India? Hot and humid.
Multan and Faisalabad? Incredibly dusty.
And throughout all of Sri Lanka? Muggy and wet.
Just as pitches in different countries across the world have traditionally had an unmistakable characteristic, weather patterns during the cricketing season too are fairly unique and predictable.
Teams that travel to India, for instance, try their best to simulate the heat and the humidity, and the constant buzz from the stands, in a bid to prepare themselves for the road ahead, though it is debatable if such simulation can come anywhere close to the real thing.
While it is the Indian subcontinent that is often canned for the extreme weather conditions that can sap the body and drain the spirit out of the heart, unbearably demanding conditions prevail in other parts of the world as well, and particularly in New Zealand where the cold and wind of the South Island is matched for degree of difficulty only by the swirling, blustery wind that sweeps across Wellington, the national capital.
In Australia, Perth can leave you scurrying for cover, literally. The heat there is just indescribable, even for us Indians who would be expected to be used to it, and the harsh rays of the unforgiving sun can do more than just superficial damage. The west Australian city has amongst the highest incidences of skin cancer anywhere in the world, and when you are at the WACA ground, you are constantly encouraged over the public address system to make liberal use of the free-of-charge sunscreen placed helpfully at stands across the stadium.
When cricketers travel to these places to ply their crafts, they mentally bargain for what lies ahead. Bounce, turn and heat at the WACA. Hands-in-the-pockets cold and generous seam movement in Dunedin. Sharp turn, indifferent bounce, potential dehydration and sunburn in India.
And, turn, uneven bounce, humidity and large pockets of rain in Sri Lanka.
Over the last three weeks, there has been turn, there has been unpredictable bounce, there has been high humidity, but the rain has by and large been conspicuous by its absence. It’s like you are in Sri Lanka, but you are actually not in Sri Lanka. The place is as beautiful as ever, the people as warm and friendly as always, the tuk-tuks driven as manically as before, the skyline getting more and more adventurous as it has with each passing visit. But the rain, the Sri Lankan rain that arrives in a torrent, lasts a while and disappears as quickly as the mighty sun explodes the ego of the precipitation-bearing clouds, has largely been missing in action. And that has been a little bit of a letdown, truth to tell.
The rain is an event at any cricket ground here in Sri Lanka. The covers, smelly but sturdy, sit protectively just outside the boundary rope, able and willing allies in the efforts of the massive army of ground staff to keep the pitch and the entire outfield safe from the after-effects of precipitation of any length and intensity. As the clouds, dark and angry, come menacingly rolling in, the ground personnel troop out of their shelter to take their positions. At the first hint of a raindrop, they are ready to sprint to the middle lugging the heavy protective layer behind them. Several times, and especially in this era of third-country umpires, the match officials take their cue from the degree of concern that dot the weather-bitten visages of these men.
As the clouds deposit their load, it takes no more than five minutes for the entire ground to be draped in covers, the thunderous downpour drenching the men but not the unexposed earth. To watch these men go about their duties is like watching an orchestra in action; the chief curator is the conductor, waving his imaginary baton and directing his already well-oiled crew to do his bidding. When the wind picks up speed, the big tyres are wheeled in as enormous paperweights, man’s ingenious way of using a tool meant for one purpose with great intelligence and cunning for an entirely unrelated exercise.
Some grounds have the modern and the state of the art drainage facilities – including the SubAir system that the Chinnaswamy in Bangalore has embraced in a trend-setting enterprise. In Sri Lanka, they have the Sri Lankan way of tackling this problem, the investment in basic infrastructure and immense manpower their perfect recipe to tackle nature’s fickleness. Admittedly, it takes a lot longer for the covers to come off than on; the process of scooping off stagnant water kicks off the mopping up operations, the super soppers then sponge residual water out and finally, the by-now-even-more-incredibly-heavy covers are slowly, carefully, meticulously returned to their original state, ready for the next act, whenever that should happen.
It’s a particularly impressive and heart-warming routine, for some reason. Everyone would love for the game to start the moment it stops raining, of course, but there is something innately and inherently refreshing and freeing up about this entire process. Even the players aren’t immune from being transfixed by this routine; sometimes, I suspect, they want the rain to come only so that they can see this spectacle unfurl before their eyes.
Through eight days of play spread evenly across two Tests in an otherwise unequal contest, there has been just one serious rain interruption this series – on day three of the first Test at the Galle International Stadium. Rain had threatened to delay the start of the Test when the skies opened up just after the coin-toss, preventing Rangana Herath from even revealing his XI as the covers came sweeping to the middle. But there was just wind and clouds and mugginess for the next two and a half days until, midway through the middle day, the familiar friend arrived, lashing the ground with varying measures of force and keeping the players off the park for 106 minutes.
That was all the opportunity the experienced Galle warriors got to put on their rain shoes and battle with the rain Gods. What has in the past been the norm has now become the exception. Again, ‘rain stops play’ isn’t what most people want to tune in to, but what is the Antarctic without ice? What is music without Lata Mangeshkar? What is art without van Gogh? What is cricket in Sri Lanka without the rain?
The old pal has made his presence felt here in Pallekele over the last couple of days, firing wet darts quite regularly. The chairman of Sri Lanka Cricket has promised more rain during the final Test, starting at one of the more modern venues at the country – the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium – on Saturday (August 12). There will be exasperated sighs should that happen, but I certainly won’t be in that vast majority. So long as it isn’t a damp squib in its entirety, of course.