Leaving Colombo

You’re never too late or too old to learn tricks and experience new situations, so covering a cricket tournament without the national team – and without cricket, in fact – has simply been a challenge.

Part of that challenge in the days since the national team pulled out has been coming to grips with the attitude of the locals towards South Africans. No, it has not been aggressive, or resentful. Philosophically sad, perhaps, but certainly not hostile.

In a country that has been wrestling itself for decades, the latest twist in the government’s conflict with the Tamil Tigers is greeted with the same, sad shrug of the shoulders that Jo’burgers greet the news that another neighbour has been mugged, hijacked or raped.

“But you’ll be fine if you stay in the right places,” they tell people who are rethinking their holiday to the city. The same, of course, could be said for the cricket team and it would have been true. Those of us left behind (because we couldn’t get earlier flights, not because we necessarily chose to stay) have been out shopping (but to Liberty Plaza) and to restaurants. The atmosphere in the city is undoubtedly tense, but not hostile or threatening.

But, for the umpteenth time, let me remind the cynical and sceptical of a single but very important detail: “It was not the players’ decision to leave.” One more time, “it was not the players’ decision to leave!”

Like well-trained, Pavlovian laboratory rats, the national squad has done what it is told to do on tour by its security agent for the last three years. If people are desperate to blame somebody, then blame him. He recommended the withdrawal – and the players, naturally, jumped. But I suggest you don’t blame him unless you are qualified to do so. The best security businesses, naturally, are based on secrecy. He had his reasons for making his decision.

Anyway…without cricket to cover, allow me to fill in the time with some ‘diary’ moments from the city of Colombo over the last four days:

Having successfully kept a low profile for three years as ICC vice-president after his infamous “falling out of trousers” episode during the 2003 World Cup, former UCB president Percy Sonn has done himself and his country proud by assuming the ICC presidency. But there will always be those damn, irritating little reminders, however inadvertent or accidental: “The ICC has said it would not act immediately on the South Africa pull-out,” fumed the Sri Lanka Daily News. “The ICC is headed by South African Percy Sonn and, in not acting, they have been caught with their pants down!” Ouch.

The 10th South Asian Games (SAG) were officially opened in Colombo on Friday with a typical dance and culture pageant and the inevitable fireworks display. The Games feature ten countries with India and Pakistan at one end of the scale and the Maldives and Bhutan at the other. 20 sports will be contested over a period of ten days. The opening ceremony featured an illustration of the ancient sport of Pora-Pol (coconut fighting) but there was nobody on hand to explain one of the 20 sports due to be contested now – Wushu.

One sport missing from the list is the one the South African team and about 50 or 60 journalists set new records in – milling. Confined the hotel for over three days, the players milled around the lobby, the bedroom corridors, the team room, the coffee shop and.back to the lobby. And the journalists milled, too. Patrick Compton, being the only journalist not staying in the team hotel, set the national record of six hours of milling on the day the team finally flew out of Colombo but it was less than half the time spent in the lobby by an Indian cameraman assigned the task of getting footage of the Proteas leaving. He arrived at 10.00am. The team left at 11.00pm, 13 hours later. “I have had a lot of tea,” he sighed wearily as the Proteas’ bus finally pulled away.

Talking of cameramen, Thandi Tshabalala passed the ‘lobby time’ by filming the cameramen filming him. Turning his recently acquired minicam towards two SA pressmen as they passed by, the Eagles off-spinner, providing his own, documentary-style commentary, said: “And here are two of the men who have been working very hard.doing nothing.”

The camera was purchased in Colombo with the vast pile of ‘meal allowance’ money handed to the players – in cash – when they arrived. Many players felt it more prudent to turn this wealth into dvd players, cameras and other electronic goods which could be kept secure rather than have hundreds of thousands of rupees in their bedrooms. Trouble is, when the tour ended prematurely the Sri Lankan Board asked for the excess money to be returned. Shaun Pollock was assigned the job of collecting 51,000 rupees form each player before they could leave.

After sharing the same hotel with the Indian SAG contingent numbering 418 (three or four to a room) several things became clear. They were expected to, and probably would, win just about everything and the average age of some of their teams – notably the soccer team – seemed remarkably low: “It is our under-17 team,” explained the manager. “We must be fair to the other nations.”

In a country being bled of both lives and livelihoods by civil unrest and a dwindling tourism industry, the games seemed to be an extravagance too far at a cost of 1 billion rupees. At least the fireworks were free – the Chinese government donated them at a cost of 17 million rupees (1.1 million rand).

Finally, with apologies to a passionate AB de Villiers suffering from cabin fever after three days in the hotel, we can’t keep this line secret: “I love my cricket. I’ll give my balls for cricket, but not my life.” Cricket balls, that is.

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