By Rex Clementine
When you are young if you like cricket, you dream of playing for your country. But, only a handful can go onto achieve that rare milestone. So what do you do if you are not good enough to represent your country? Well, there are other ways and means to follow your dream. Some take up coaching, some take up other roles like physiotherapist, trainer and so on which enables you to be part of a cricketing set up. For those who don’t fit into managerial roles, there are opportunities like umpires, curators, ground staff, and scorers.
If none of that interest you, then you can think of journalism. A profession that gives you the best seat to watch the game and bump into greats of the game like Virat Kohli, Ben Stokes and Pat Cummins.
If you win his trust, sometimes you will be tolerated to stand next to the great Shane Warne and enjoy a smoke. If you have been in the trade for long enough, John Wright will send you a text message to meet him for a beer. The problem is it never ends with one beer. When in Christchurch, he will be your chauffer driving you around the city. Once there was a visit to the local gun shop to purchase bullets to scare away rabbits who destroy his farm. First time in life when you hold a gun, there are chills going down your spine. You also wonder how a sweet chap like Wright can be brutal when it comes to looking after his property.
Trust is very important in this game and if you had earned that trust, Sanath Jayasuriya in middle of a game in Nottingham will text you from the Manager’s phone asking you to go to the train station and buy him a return ticket to London that night.
For the 2006 tour of UK and Netherlands, Jayasuriya had been flown in as a replacement. Since he wasn’t in the original squad, he had got only his British visa but not the Schengen Visa. He was held up at the airport while rest of the team went through immigration. The officer then looked at him and said, ‘Listen, I can’t let you go without the Schengen Visa. But then, they are all coming to see you and without you the games would mean nothing. So, you are good to go.’ Not often you can go through Gatwick without a Schengen Visa, unless of course you are Sanath Jayasuriya. The fan in you will see unique moments like that if you spend enough time watching the sport.
Five years later, again on a tour of UK, Kumar Sangakkara had been invited to deliver the Cowdrey Lecture. When asked for a pass to attend the speech, the MCC head of Communications turned you down saying there’s no free seats available. But the person provides a counteroffer, there are tickets available for GBP 120 though. So, if you want you can buy that from the ticket office. You get cold feet and all your enthusiasm goes away as 120 GBP is half of your monthly salary. But there are other ways to get around this delicate issue. The President of MCC that year in 2011 was late Christopher Martin Jenkins, bless him. He was a fine cricket writer and needs no introduction. All it took was a mail to the man known as CMJ. A free pass was at your feet in less than 30 minutes.
And what a night that turned out to be. Sanga got a standing ovation from the august gathering at Lord’s as he delivered a stunning speech off the cuff. Vijaya Malalasekara, a Cambridge blue and a former President of Sri Lanka Cricket was in tears. So were many of us, proud Sri Lankans.
When Sanga was new to the international circuit, he was a poor keeper. He once went and told coach Dav Whatmore that he wanted to leave practice early. Whatmore inquired why. Sanga said, ‘My mum is not keeping well.’ Without batting an eyelid Whatmore replied, ‘Your mum also.’
You also bump into leading politicians who are cricket lovers when you travel around the world. John Major and Ed Miliband frequent cricket grounds in England and at times you can discus cricket with them over a cup of tea. Then there’s John Howard of Australia, who calls himself a ‘cricket tragic’.
Once when the Sri Lankan team was in Australia they had visited the opposition dressing room after the game as it was the custom. Word went around that the Prime Minister of Australia was going to come over to greet the teams. The Sri Lankans were on their feet to greet the PM. As Howard entered the dressing room, someone shouted at him. “Hey John, how are ya. Come mate, come. Have a beer mate.’ That was Matthew Hayden. He was in his underpants. The Sri Lankans were in shock. Chaminda Vaas mumbled to Rumesh Kaluwitharana, ‘imagine this happening in our country!’
Once Julia Gillard, another Aussie PM invited the Sri Lankans for tea at her Canberra residence. The press were invited too. As the Prime Minister moved about greeting the players she stopped at a fast bowler and asked, ‘How are you keeping.’ Our man replied, ‘I am not a wicketkeeper, I am a fast bowler.’
Imran Khan was Prime minister of Pakistan when Sri Lanka toured the country in 2019. Team Manager Ashantha de Mel sent word that he wanted to meet the Premier. They had been rivals in 1980s. They were called up to Islamabad and a few from the press accompanied some members of the team. Some officials of the World Bank were at his office to discuss a loan for Pakistan. They had to wait as Imran greeted his Sri Lankans friends. Imran was a man who got his priorities right.
Touring Pakistan poses a few challenges. If you are not staying in a five star hotel, you have got to go to the reception and order alcohol which will be delivered to you the next day. You have to fill a form. The first question asked in that form is, ‘The drunkard’s name’. And the second question, ‘The drunkard’s father’s name’. You don’t feel having a drink after filling those first two questions.
Pakistan also gives you some exciting moments beyond the cricket field. The Sri Lankan team bus was shot at during their tour of 2009. The ground was cordoned off as the injured players were treated by medical staff before being airlifted to an airbase. Nobody was allowed in. Usually, the Sri Lankan passport is not well recognized around the world. But for once, when you went up to the elite forces guarding the ground and showed them your passport and said you are from Sri Lanka, you were allowed to go in. Then from there on, all the news organizations around the world be it BBC, CNN, SKY, NDTV, Reuters, they all depended on what you are saying from the ground.
So, if you are not good enough to represent your country in cricket, don’t feel disappointed. There are many ways to follow the beautiful game. The fan in you deserves it.