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The Voyage of Spectacle Sri Lanka Superfans — Episode V

The Voyage

Spectacles

Andy and Melissa are sailing around the world on their 48-foot sailboat, Spectacle.

The Position

Bali, Indonesia

The Pictures

The Voyage of Spectacle

Sri Lanka Superfans — Episode V

 

Sri Lanka Superfans

Episode V — Barbados

Despite being desperately tired, we were awfully excited for the final battle, presumably between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  We had all but written in Australia as the opposition, but they first had to beat South Africa in the other semi-final.

South Africa was the only other team to have any serious chance of blowing up the Death Star, in large part because many of their players are too stupid to be afraid.  This team has a reputation of being comedically dim-witted, even by pro athlete standards.  One of their biggest stars, Herschelle Gibbs, once famously said that he was more nervous taking his high-school exams than playing in front of 70,000 fans in his first test match – and he’s not considered their dumbest player.

In a way, this makes them dangerous.  A great example of this is the famous “438 Game” they played against Australia in 2006.  Batting first, Australia posted 434.  Just about any other team would phone it in at that point – you’re not going to get 434 against Australia.  Except South Africa went out and did it – thanks in large part to 175 from Gibbs.  If they’d stopped to think about it, they’d have had no chance.  Thankfully (that day at least), they aren’t much for thinking.

So, while we were on the planes to Barbados, South Africa was attempting the unlikely … but far from the impossible.  And boy did they fall short.  South Africa won the toss and chose to bat.  Apparently, the strategy was “go for broke” from the start, and it certainly backfired.  Before 60 balls were bowled, five batsmen had been dismissed with only 27 runs on the board.  Game over.  South Africa limped to 149.  Australia breezed to the total with more than 100 balls to spare – a comprehensive shellacking.

Now back in Barbados, we had managed to finagle a fantastic room at a very affordable price, thanks to our friends Marilil and Joe.  You never know when it might be handy to have friends in the property management business in Barbados!  We had a few days to kill, which included a very fun night out with them in grievously mis-named Holetown (a great place).  Of course, once again mouthy Aussies found a way to cut into the fun – these people are unbelievable.

We loved Barbados, but we’re definitely not the first.  The word is out, to put it mildly.  Real estate and hotel rooms are stratospherically priced.  It’s a beautiful place with lots of fun things to do, but it is downright confiscatory, even by already elevated Caribbean standards.

The gambling sites had Sri Lanka as 3-1 underdogs.  Those are shorter odds than I would have thought, since many think the current Australia side is among the greatest cricket teams of all time.  But in talking with the Sri Lanka coaches before the game, they seemed pretty confident, with one big caveat — they thought winning the toss was going to be essential.  They very much wanted to bat first and thought it would be critical to the outcome.  Little did they know just how critical that toss would be.

Tickets in hand (thanks to the team), we set out for the game on Saturday morning.  Despite the shortage of roads near the stadium, the anticipated traffic jam never materialized and we were very early.  After an 8:30 a.m. hot dog (“breakfast of champions,” I joked), we headed inside.  Just as we made it in, the skies opened and it began to pour.  It rained and rained and rained.

Here, I must digress.  During the tournament, at least 20 different people asked me if I thought cricket had any chance of ever catching on in the United States.

“Not in the next 500 years,” was my stock reply.

“Is that because of cricket or because of America?” was a frequent follow-up.

As one who is often highly critical of my home country and who has a great love of international sports, I might be expected to answer that the problem is with America, not with cricket.  But that would be a lie.  As much as the crass commercialism, excessive free agency and dislikeable players have diminished my interest in American pro sports, cricket itself has bigger problems.

Among them (but definitely not at the top of the list) is how cricket handles bad weather.  In test cricket, rain virtually ensures that the game will end in a draw.  In one-day cricket, rain virtually ensures that (1) the Duckworth-Lewis scoring method will come into play, and (2) one team is going to get screwed.

Have a quick look at the Duckworth-Lewis Wikipedia entry, at least until your eyes glaze over.  I ask you this:  Could a sport where this is part of the rules ever catch on in the United States?  You know the answer.

And, unfortunately, the 2007 Cricket World Cup Final can be summed up in three words:

What. A. Joke.

At around 9:45, the rain stopped and the teams came out to warm up.  The coin toss was held and Australia won it.  Not surprisingly, they chose to bat.  At this point, they had won the game before a ball had been bowled – we just didn’t know it yet.

Once the toss was completed, it began to rain again, this time harder.  Pretty soon, this presented a problem.  There was no way that 100 overs (600 deliveries, 300 for each team) could be played before dark.  Keep in mind that the stadium does not have lights and that good light is essential to being able to bat (games are often suspended due to “bad light”).

By 11:00, it became clear that something drastic was going to have to happen to the scheduling of the game.  What seemed obvious to me was to have Australia bat its innings and have us all come back the following day for Sri Lanka’s turn.

At around 11:30, with the game still delayed but the rain beginning to let up, we walked out to the souvenir stand.  Ridiculously enough, Trevor Penney was in line, having apparently not yet picked up anything for the kids.  After a quick chuckle at this unlikely meeting, we talked about what was likely to happen.  He said he was pretty sure it was going to be a shortened match to be played in its entirety that day.

“What do you think, then?” I said, looking at my watch and doing some armchair math.  “30 overs per side?”

“That sounds about right,” he replied.

Not five minutes later, the PA announcer came on and notified us that the game would begin at (as I recall) 12:30 and would be 38 overs per side.

“There’s absolutely no way they’re going to get in 38 overs per side,” I said to Melissa.

“I know,” she said.  “We’re going to be batting in the dark.”

“This is NOT good,” I fretted.

If Melissa and I can figure this out as it’s happening, this should serve as some indication of just how preposterous this decision was.  What they should have done is postponed the game until the following day (the weather forecast was bright sunshine and indeed that’s what the weather actually was).  Failing that, they should have split the innings up over two days — it seems a shame to play a weather-shortened match for the World Cup Final.  But if they felt absolutely compelled to finish the game that day, the least they could have done is picked an appropriate duration so that both teams had a chance.  They failed on all three counts.

As if on cue, at 12:30 the skies cleared, and it was suddenly bright sunshine.  The track, having been covered with tarps, was in fine shape – like hitting off a driveway, perfect for batting.

Leading off the batting for Australia were Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden.  Gilchrist is one of the all-time top wicket-keepers in cricket history, but at 35, he’s getting older and was having a decidedly mediocre tournament (including going out for 1 against South Africa in the semi-final).  Hayden, by contrast, had been having an absolutely superb tournament, leading all batsmen in scoring and looking quite imposing while doing it.

Turns out, it wasn’t Hayden we needed to be afraid of.  In the bright sun and on a flawless track, Adam Gilchrist clobbered the ball all over the park.  He scored 149 (the highest total ever in the World Cup final) off just 104 deliveries.  He was absolutely splendid, and we were in big trouble.

However, the other big guns for Australia didn’t fire. Hayden made a slow 38 and captain Ricky Ponting (arguably the world’s best player right now) was out for 37.  Australia finished with 281 – a very big score for 38 overs, but certainly not impossible to chase down.  As Australia’s innings was winding down, you can probably guess what happened.  Back came the clouds and a light rain.

It was fully 3:30 p.m. before we batted.  The sky was covered in clouds and it was already pretty dark. Although Tharanga went out cheaply (a fact that was heavily punished in the Duckworth-Lewis calculations), Jayasuriya and Sangakkara ripped it up, both making speedy half-centuries on this batter’s track.  Indeed, after 16 overs, Sri Lanka had scored 102 runs, four more than Australia’s 98 at the same point.

By the time Mahela Jayawardene, the tournament’s second-leading scorer, walked in to bat four overs later, he was batting against at least six opponents:

(1) Australia (being the best team in the world, that’s enough of an opponent right there).

(2) The Duckworth-Lewis scoring system, which over-rewarded the taking of one extra meaningless wicket (Upul Tharanga’s for 6) by Australia.  At the time (and under decent conditions), Sri Lanka were in absolutely no danger of being bowled out – that wicket didn’t matter at all.

(3) The rain – there was plenty.

(4) The mud – a product of the rain.  The driveway that Australia had been enjoying was now a mud puddle.  It’s pretty hard to hit a ball on a bounce out of the mud.  This would most starkly come into play later.

(5) The darkness (mostly from clouds, some from the advancing hour) – it was unconscionable.  It was dark – not “can’t see your hand in front of your face” dark but “no way we’d play a Little League baseball game in this” dark.  TV light filters simply do not present an accurate picture.  It was late-afternoon, full black-cloud coverage with a muddy ball (thanks to the rain) and no lights.  Needless to say, it’s pretty important to be able to see the ball if you are going to hit it.

(6) The ICC’s foregone conclusion that Australia would win the tournament.  This game was just one final manifestation of this fact.

And yet it was a seventh opponent that he hadn’t counted on (but maybe should have) –that ultimately got him out – but more on that in a minute.

Indeed, Sri Lanka was just behind Australia’s run total at the end of 21 overs when darkness further descended on the Kensington Oval.  Sanath Jayasuriya first looked up at the menacing clouds, then over at the scoreboard for the Duckworth-Lewis par rate (which Sri Lanka was behind only because of the meaningless Tharanga wicket), talked with Jayawardene, and finally, rightly, decided to start swinging for the fences.  I know that he did exactly this because I first watched him do it and he later confirmed to me that exact conversation with Jayawardene and that he was very, very worried that the rain was coming again and would wash out the rest of the innings.  Sitting with a better view than he had, I can confirm the legitimacy of his fears – I was thinking the same thing.

No opening batsman who is (a) right at the opponent’s run rate, (b) in a team in no danger of being bowled out, and (c) building a great innings, should ever feel compelled to start swinging for the fences. And yet that is what the Duckworth-Lewis rules and the weather dictated, and this is why cricket is not soccer, baseball, basketball, or American football.  You cannot have a farce like this in the single most important match of the last four years.  The soccer World Cup would not allow it.  The baseball World Series would not allow it.  The Super Bowl would not allow it.

Back to that seventh opponent, now that Greg Maddux no longer pitches for the Braves and Duke basketball has transformed from heroes to villains, there is simply no team in sports that gets the kind of calls from officials that Australia Cricket gets – no team anywhere.  Sure enough, at the most crucial time, came the single worst call of the entire tournament.  Check out the 3:06 mark of this clip, where Jayawardene is called out lbw at on a ball that’s about eight inches from leg stump.  This isn’t a “Gee whiz, sometimes they miss them” kind of call.  This is pretty close to Don Denkinger bad.  I’ll be charitable and say that I understand why the umpire blew it – I’m sure he couldn’t see it in the darkness.

Of course, this wasn’t even the biggest call of the game.  The biggest call was having a game at all, and then deciding to play an impossible number of overs, leaving Sri Lanka to bat in the dark.

The ridiculous lbw call on Jayawardene was the stake through the heart.  By now it was raining hard, the track was a mess, the Duckworth-Lewis number was suddenly nearly out of reach, and, most of all, it was really dark.

Not dark-“ish” – straight up dark.  After the game, I asked the next four Sri Lanka batters if they really saw any of the balls bowled to them.

Chamara Silva: “No. OK, maybe one.”

Dilshan: “No, I just swung at them.”

Arnold: “Are you kidding me?”

Vaas: “Uh … no way.”

This seemed obvious to me before I even asked – I couldn’t see anything from my $300, A-level seat that seemed nearly as close to the bowler as the batsmen were.  I couldn’t see the numbers on the batsmen’s backs, let alone the spin on the ball.  The next man out for Sri Lanka – Tilikaratne Dilshan – was run out after he slipped and fell in the mud.  At this point, the game had descended into farce – nothing but mud, rain and darkness.

The farce was confirmed shortly thereafter, as the umpires appeared to call the match due to bad light and award it to Australia.  The teams left the field, Australia began celebrating.

Then – I kid you not – the teams were called back out to the field.  It was pitch-black at this point, but they were instructed to keep playing.  They finished the final three overs in complete darkness – the teams actually agreed that Australia wouldn’t do any speed bowling, so as to avoid anyone being hurt.  Nice job, World Cup!

Don’t get me wrong — Australia is a better team than Sri Lanka in the same way that the Death Star is a better team than Luke Skywalker and his friends.  Usually the Death Star wins – everyone gets that.  And it’s likely they would have won anyway — Adam Gilchrist’s 149 was sublime and their total was imposing.  But Jayasuriya and Sangakkara out-batted Hayden and Ponting (117 off 119 versus 75 off 97), and the wicket was as batter-friendly as they come — until it started raining hard and the sun went down.  We were right at their run-rate when the weather, light and officiating all turned.  Australia is the better team – they’d win more than 5 out of 10 games.  But anyone who thinks Australia won this particular game fair and square simply wasn’t there.

Bottom line — if the weather dictates a change of scheduling plans, you simply have to change the plans.  Yes, fans might have flights, but you’ve already done so much to shaft the fans this tournament, I submit to you that bastardizing the final in order to help spectator flight plans would be only an ironic gesture.  I understand you have a $750,000 closing ceremony that you don’t want to put off until tomorrow.  Too bad.

I’ve never seen a more outrageous sporting event in my life.  The West Indies – bad as they are right now — could have beaten Australia today if only they had won the toss.  I would go so far as to say that there isn’t a single test-playing team in the world that would have lost to Australia today if they had batted first.  I realize that sounds outrageous, but several seasoned-veteran players from the Sri Lanka team privately agreed with that assessment and not because they were whining.  Australia batting second and losing, under these absurd conditions, would have been the biggest scandal in cricket history.  Of course, they never would have announced 38 overs per side if they knew Australia was batting second, so I guess my hypothetical is flawed.

Cricinfo’s on-line commentary said it best:

“It’s really a sad finish for the Caribbean.  We have dancers who have been rehearsing for ages for the post-match celebrations out in the middle around the podium, but nobody can see them as it is now night.  Clearly, nobody stopped to consider that the game might not finish on time.  …  There’s a certain irony that cricket’s four-yearly showcase ended in farce … Australia, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and millions of spectators deserved more but given what has gone before today, it was almost inevitable.  You can spin it all you like, this tournament has not done the game any favours and people at the top, if they had any decency, would be contemplating their futures.  But we all know that won’t happen.”

Rather that stick around for the trophy presentation, we decided to head back to the team hotel.  We opened a door to head down a staircase and nearly knocked over Brian Lara, the West Indies captain and a legend of the game (he holds the all-time single-innings test scoring record with 400 and the career test runs record with 11,953).  He had just retired days earlier.

“Great career, man,” I said.  “And good luck to you!”  “Thanks!” he responded, looking a bit puzzled to see a white guy with an American accent decked out in Sri Lanka gear.

We headed back to the hotel and awaited the team.  Obviously, it was a sad affair.  Across the board, every last one of them thought the conditions were ridiculous – a few (like Jayawardene) sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, “Well, that’s cricket.”  Others were visibly deeply disappointed to have lost.  And more than a few others (not to mention any names) were absolutely seething at the absurdity of it all.

Before the match, we had brought several bottles of champagne and left them with Trevor.  We thought we might be celebrating a victory, but we instead took the chance to toast team and individuals alike on a great tournament.  It was an emotional good-bye for us, particularly with Kumar and Yehali, Chaminda and Vasana, Mahela, Murali, Sanath, Maharoof, and Russel (who retired after the match).  It was also especially tough to say good-bye to Tom and Trevor, knowing that there was almost zero chance they would stay on as coaches (and for good reason – among other things, they are embarrassingly underpaid, overworked and required to spend months at a time away from their families, who live in England).  Indeed, shortly after the tournament, Tom took the head coaching job for Western Australia, soon to be joined by Trevor, who is currently the Sri Lanka interim head coach.

Having had such a wonderful experience, we couldn’t just wait until February 2009 and our scheduled arrival in Sri Lanka.  Fortuitously, Sri Lanka will be playing in Australia when were are supposed to be in New Zealand.  Throw in a little schedule shuffling, and next February 22, 26, and 29, we plan to be in Australia to watch three matches of the Commonwealth Bank Series – two in Melbourne against Australia, and one in Tasmania against old nemesis India.  It may not be the World Cup, but it’s another chance to see all of our friends – and, for us, that’s what it has become all about.  And maybe I’ll finally get to take those swings against Murali!


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