Fight to the death

In Test cricket there is always the chance that both sides could emerge battered and bloodied but unbowed and unbeaten. There is always the chance of a draw. At least, that’s how it should be. Or normally is. But this is Galle and unless there is a tropical storm on the way you know as surely as if it was a one-day game that one side is going to win and the other lose.

The head groundsman at the venue is doing a fantastic job. Since 1993, when South Africa first played here in a warm-up match against a President’s XI, the place has improved almost beyond recognition. Warnaweera played in that match (and was the talk of the SA dressing room with his javelin thrower’s action) but retired a couple of years later to concentrate on what has turned out to be his real vocation.

The outfield resembled a waste bunker and the dressing rooms were hot and cramped. Media facilities were virtually non-existent although we were grateful for the piece of tarpaulin they stretched over our section of concrete to keep the sun off our backs.

Eleven years later and Galle can now truly and proudly call itself an international venue of some repute. The whir of air-conditioners may not be Warnaweera’s work but the outfield is green (not lush), the dressing rooms are spacious and comfortable and the surrounds include thousands of giant pot-planted fir trees and a couple of koi fish ponds. Impressive indeed.

But most impressive has been the work of Warnaweera where it really matters – in the middle. Ask any groundsman to produce a spinner’s wicket, or one for seamers or a ‘flattie’ for the batsmen, and he is almost certain to snap back: “It’s not that simple!” or a variation on that theme.

Warnaweera, however, gets it right time after time. Before Australia played here last year the home side had won five out of five on Warnaweera’s creations and they seemed on course to repeat it when the Aussies were Murali’d out for 200 and Sri Lanka replied with 400. But the tourists made an astonishing 500 and won the game on the fifth (yes, the fifth) day with something to spare. Warnaweera blamed himself: “I prepared a five day wicket and we lost,” he said before the match against SA started. “This time it is not a five day wicket.”

Without a competitive game for three months, straight out of winter, facing Murali and FOUR other spinners on a cracked pitch… South Africa don’t have a chance. Right? Well, they shouldn’t. But they do.

Ten years ago the talk would have been about survival and about the appalling state of the pitch. Five years ago the talk might have been about winning but the thinking would still have been about survival, avoiding humiliation and ruing the lack of match-winning spinners in South Africa.

Now the talk is about winning and so is the thinking. There is no secret dread or fear of failure that characterise so many cricket teams. How do I know? Because I’m here and you can’t look into a man’s eyes on a television set.

During the pre-tour camp in Pretoria Graeme Smith’s squad were put through a fitness test that was as much about mental strength as it was physical and the results are already starting to show. When most teams face a challenge that has never been accomplished before, they accept their fate – at least subconsciously if not consciously. But other teams dream of breaking records, dream of scoring 500 in their second innings, dream of the ‘impossible.’

Underneath the national emblem on this team’s training kit is a motto they adopted in Pretoria and had embroidered on arrival in Colombo. It reads: “Dare to live the dream.”

The odds are massively stacked against them, and they might still lose, but if they do it will not be for a lack of positive thinking or effort.


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