Chances are you’ve never heard of the smash bowler Lasith Malinga; unless, of course, you are either Sri Lankan; or a follower of that most genteel of sports, cricket. This thoroughly British institution was exported to her colonies like the penchant for tea or driving on the wrong side of the road, and no self-respecting member of the commonwealth would be caught in polite company without at least an inkling of the latest test match results. While football (or soccer, as Americans insist on calling it) belongs to the world, cricket remains a distinctly British creation–the only game on earth that takes several days to play in which participants wear white sweaters and slacks and enjoy frequent tea breaks. Though I have tried many times to get my head around jargon like ‘wickets’ and ‘overs’ or just sit back and watch a match, anything requiring several hours of your life in which not a whole lot is happening proves taxing for the uninitiated spectator. But there is always hope: As golf has Tiger Woods, cricket has Lasith Malinga.
For several weeks, as Sri Lankans eagerly watched their team unseat rival after rival in the 2007 World Cup Cricket Tournament being played half a world away in the Caribbean, I came to know about this young sensation from the rural south, who only six years earlier was climbing coconut trees and playing cricket on the beach with his village cronies. Beneath his signature mop of unruly curls, dyed blonde at the tips, he was about to lead Sri Lanka against Australia in the championship showdown. No, I’m not a big fan of cricket, but when a friend invited me over to watch The Match, how could I resist.
The World Cup of Cricket, like football’s World Cup, is played every four years. This year sixteen teams—including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Bermuda, and The Netherlands—participated, playing a total of 51, single-day matches from about mid-March to the end of April. As these games were televised in the late-night/early-morning hours in Sri Lanka, you could tell exactly who the die-hard cricket fans were—those bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived individuals like my cousin Sam, playing the equivalent of Monday morning quarterback, and chanting Malinga like a mantra as he sipped his tea.
The streets, of course, exploded with images of Malinga on posters and billboards, rock star locks flying and huge mouth agape in another chest-pounding victory roar, as he brought some much-needed thunder to this typically staid sport. Ironically, the big story surrounding this cricket championship up till then was the mysterious death of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer, found asphyxiated in his hotel room in Jamaica after his team’s loss to Ireland. Football may be known for its rowdy ‘hooligans,’ notorious for starting street brawls and riots, but Woolmer’s apparent offing following a loss that eliminated Pakistan from the competiti on smacked of a Mafia-style hit in comparison–and in a sport of gentlemen at that. Such was the sum total of my knowledge of cricket as I prepared to sit through my first match.
My friend Jayantha, who extended the invitation, runs a charity foundation that was instrumental in rebuilding a whole village devastated by the tsunami. He also happens to manage Malinga and another legendary Sri Lankan cricketer by the name of Muttiah Muralitharan, or just plain ‘Murali’ to fans of the sport. If Murali is the Michael Jordan of Sri Lankan cricket then Malinga is Le Bron James (with a little of Dennis Rodman’s visual flair). Jayantha was responsible for Murali’s face being plastered all over Colombo on billboards and TV through the many lucrative endorsement deals he negotiated. But the world cup has already thrust celebrity status on Malinga, an impoverished kid who bypassed the old boy network of private schools to leap directly into club cricket and subsequently the Sri Lankan team. At 22, he’s making more money than the last several generations of his family have ever seen in their lives, and he’s on the brink of so much more. But with national pride on the line, this night was not about individuals. For a small island recently plagued by disasters both natural and manmade, cricket was the one reason for Sinhalese and Tamils, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims alike to wave a flag and cheer on their boys.
I arrived at Jayantha’s house around 9 pm with the match already in progress. Cricket tends to move at its own molasses-like pace, but since I knew my host was serving dinner, I didn’t want to miss out—especially since I was familiar with his reputation on the dinner party circuit. Already the smells of various curries wafted out of the kitchen and up onto the rooftop deck where the festivities were taking place, and I took a generous whiff hoping it would suffice until dinner was served. One thing I did miss, however, was a drink. Even though I assumed that big sporting events are synonymous with the imbibing of alcohol, I had forgotten that Jayantha, a strict Buddhist, eschewed the stuff. So I sipped on a passion-fruit cordial instead, and thought about what a long night it was going to be without so much as a bottle of Pimm’s No. 5. At least the gathering was not a gentlemen’s club: Jayantha, a divorcee, had invited several single lady friends, who were more than happy to impart their knowledge of the finer points of cricket, in which they were well versed.
The balmy tropical night was the kind you tend to take for granted in Sri Lanka if not for the fact that we were gathered on Jayantha’s partially exposed roof, where several tables and chairs were arranged café-style between two big-screen TVs. From atop this three-story perch we had an excellent view of Colombo as well, a sprawling, comparatively flat city of few high rises that is divided into numbered zones like Paris. Here in Colombo 5, Evergreen Park, we joked and chatted as the players on TV hardly broke a sweat. I feigned interest in the game while getting to know some of the ladies better: There was a young Dutch physician making her first visit to the island; a thirty-something banker; a forty-something lawyer (Murali’s, in fact); and a 50-something actress who ranks as somewhat of a legend on the island.
My attention was only diverted by the food. The arrival of dinner came as a welcome diversion to the main event, as I eyed the dishes being brought out like a stalker. A steaming platter of yellow Basmati rice topped with sautéed cashews and sultanas came first, followed by spicy potatoes flecked with pieces of dried red chili and chewy, flavorful flakes of Maldive fish; paripoo, or red lentils, prepared Sri Lankan style with coconut milk, black mustard seeds and curry leaves; chopped and sautéed greens; and an eggplant curry.
Food, unlike cricket, is something I can definitely expound upon, and when one of the ladies remarked on the rice’s golden hue, I said, “That’s saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, which comes from the stigma of the crocus flower.”
“Is that what they also use in the paripoo to make it so yellow?” asked another guest.
“No, that’s turmeric.” I replied. “Saffron has a very delicate taste, while turmeric is more medicinal.”
Finally I had put some points on the board, and the ladies were as impressed about my knowledge of Sri Lankan cuisine as I was about their knowledge of the game. I explained to them that my reason for coming here was to learn about Sri Lankan food, and that cooking was what occupied most of my days. This impressed them even more as nary a Sri Lankan woman with means sets foot in the kitchen. If they are not eating out or ordering in, maids or servants prepare the meals, and some of the best food in Sri Lanka is the province of these domestics, schooled in the traditional ways of cooking. Even though Jayantha is a vegetarian, he was gracious enough to have his cook make a superb shrimp curry for the carnivores, and I led the pack in decimating this dish. The meaty crustaceans were so perfectly cooked (not tough and not too tender) and luxuriating in a dark, spicy gravy that I ate the whole shrimp, crunchy shell, tail and all, leaving no evidence of my gluttony. This prompted my host, upon seeing my plate, to say, “What’s this machan (dude), why don’t you try the shrimp.” I replied, “Don’t mind if I do,” as I went back for seconds and thirds.
Then it was time for more cricket. Though I tried valiantly to follow what was going on, I was literally trying to stay awake as my over-extended stomach gurgled and sputtered under the metabolic processes of digestion. I actually contemplated the tried and true ploy of eating and running, but curiosity got the best of me: I really wanted to see what it would be like if Sri Lanka won her first World Cricket Championship since 1996. After all, I had experienced both World Series and Super bowl victories, and there’s nothing quite like that feeling of pure bliss when you’re running around the streets with foolish abandon embracing strangers as if they were your best friends.
With added resolve and a cup of coffee, I focused on the match, looking for similarities to the closest thing to it in my own experience–baseball. In cricket, the bowler, who is equivalent to a pitcher in baseball, is allowed a running start before throwing the ball, but he’s not allowed to bend his arm when he throws–thus the long, graceful over-handed arc and scissor-like motion of the arms. You see young boys all over the island practicing this move, but don’t appreciate its difficulty until you try it yourself and the ball thuds to a halt all of two feet in front of you.
Another difference in the sports relates to equipment, and one observes the parallels when comparing American football with rugby, another English sport. Americans play their full contact sport in the head-to-toe armor of a helmet and pads while rugby players wear no protection at all. The same goes for cricket: Players bare-hand balls that are flying at them like comets while baseball players have the protection of a padded leather glove. In both sports, only the batter or batsmen wears a helmet, but in cricket, if he gets a hit, he dashes a short 22 yards (as opposed to the 30 yards between bases in baseball), and he is able to use the flat, paddle-like bat as an extension of his arm to reach across the boundary where he is safe. Imagine if base runners in the Major Leagues carried bats with them–the sport might have more brawls than ice hockey. Imagine if cricketers chewed huge wads of tobacco–their uniforms might not be so white. Imagine the Big Game without booze, and you can imagine my wandering mind at the time.
Around 2 a.m., however, I was not alone in my serial yawning and hoping for a speedy conclusion to the match, in which Australia had gained a decisive lead. But that’s exactly when things started to get interesting. First of all, the power suddenly conked out. From our vantage point on the roof, we could see that not only the street and the immediate neighborhood had been affected, but the whole of Colombo had plunged into total darkness. Certainly this was not an anomaly: People here are well accustomed to power outages that occur at any given time. Perhaps all the TV sets tuned to the match had overloaded the circuits, I thought. Oh, well, so much for cricket. The party migrated to the open portion of the roof beneath the stars, and everyone started phoning friends and relatives around town to commiserate. Though the city was pitch black, I knew everyone was very much alive and awake and hoping for a last burst of firepower from their team, who had a big deficit to make up. Sri Lankans, in fact, relished the position of underdog as they had come from behind to win several times in the tournament already.
All of a sudden, the unimaginable occurred: A huge explosion lit up the horizon followed a few seconds later by a deep rumble. The blast was so vivid against the pitch-black sky that it seemed surreal, as if we were watching a movie. To compound our confusion and surprise, red tracer rounds, presumably from ground-based anti-aircraft batteries, started shooting wildly into the air. It was like being in a life-sized video game, or the beginning of the siege of Baghdad. These glowing red hyphens soon filled the sky seemingly moving in slow motion. We could hear rounds exploding in the distance, and just barely make out the whir of a single engine plane, though no lights were apparent.
At this point a wave of high-pitched, excited chatter started rising among the guests as everyone shared whatever bits of information they had gleaned from their phone calls. I’m sure even President Mahinda Rajapakse, who had made a special pilgrimage to Kensington Oval in Barbados to support the national team, was on the hotline to his capital at this moment. The story we pieced together was that the notorious Tamil Tigers had struck, bombing an oil refinery outside of Colombo. They accomplished this daring and unprecedented feat with two single-engine propeller planes flying below the radar and without lights. Only recently Colombo newspapers had reported that the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), one of the best-organized and most well financed terrorist groups in the world, had acquired two airplanes. It made perfect sense that they would strike on a night when Sri Lanka’s collective attention was riveted on cricket. It now dawned on me that the government had probably anticipated an attack because there had been two citywide power outages in as many weeks, probably as a kind of rehearsal. After all, when there is no light on the ground, potential threats from the air cannot find their targets. Somewhat panicked by now, the guests collectively decided it would be better to get off the roof and down to the street. Ever the accommodating host, Jayantha maintained his good humor, taunting his friends with jokes and bringing a portable radio down to the street so everyone could at least listen to the game. But nervous eyes remained on the alert scanning the sky as we each privately mulled over this recent turn of events.
When power was finally restored about 30 minutes later, team Sri Lanka was trailing badly. The players’ despondent expressions could not have been eased by the fact that the games’ commentators had announced news of the attack back home in Colombo. It was now a war on two fronts, and everything rested on Malinga, whose turn it was to bat. With his trademark locks hidden by a helmet, all I could see was the look of gritty determination in his eyes as he made contact with the hard red ball, time after time, staving off the inevitable for at least another round. While the commentators called the match mathematically impossible for Sri Lanka to win, Malinga swung the bat as if his life depended on it, ensuring himself, at least, of a bright future in this sport.
But, once again, the power went out, and almost on cue we saw more red anti-aircraft tracer rounds spewing into the air. This time, however, their apparent target was identifiable–what appeared to me to be a commercial airliner at very high altitude. As it turns out, I was right. It would have proved even more disastrous if the Sri Lankan army, who missed two single engine propeller planes, had brought down a commercial jet carrying civilian passengers instead. Someone had obviously messed up, big time, and as a result of this incident Bandaranaike Airport was subsequently closed at night forcing all flights in and out of Colombo to fly during daylight hours (thus playing havoc with airline schedules).
After a brief respite when the power returned, we discovered that the officials had called the match in Australia’s favor, and ground crews had gone into action to set up the field for the awards ceremony. As players from both teams milled about—the Aussies relishing their victory with hugs, hoots, and hollers—the officials then made the dubious decision to reverse their initial ruling and play the game through to the final out. Confusion ensued onscreen, but by now, even the most die-hard Sri Lankan cricket fan must have been thoroughly dejected. Jayantha chose to cut the power himself this time.
At four in the morning as I returned home in a trishaw, I wondered what these same deserted streets would have looked like had Sri Lanka won. For me, the night was not a total loss, however: At least I managed to get the recipe for that amazing shrimp curry.
Shrimp Curry (Isso Curry)
1 lb. (450 g) shrimp
2 tbsp. roasted curry powder
1-2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. fenugreek
2 tbsp. oil
1 onion, chopped
1 tbsp. ginger, crushed
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2-3 green chilies, chopped
1 sprig curry leaves
1” piece pandanus (optional)
1” stalk lemongrass
1” stick cinnamon
1 cup coconut milk
salt to taste
1 tbsp. tamarind (dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water)
juice of lime
1.) Wash, shell, and devein shrimp.
2.) Slightly roast curry powder, cayenne and fenugreek for 2 minutes. Toss shrimp with spice mixture and set aside for 30 minutes.
3.) Heat oil in pan. Sauté onions until translucent. Add ginger, garlic, green chilies, and curry leaves.
4.) Add shrimp and stir-fry with other ingredients for 2 minutes.
5.) Add coconut milk, salt, tamarind solution and simmer until done. DO NOT OVERCOOK.
6.) Squeeze lime over shrimp before serving.