Sri Lanka Round-up

It’s been a couple of months since I got back from Sri Lanka now, so I thought I should put down a few notes about the trip while it is still fresh enough in my mind, for the use of anyone else who is thinking of travelling there, either to watch cricket or to sightsee, or both.

Firstly, it’s a great place to travel. It’s exciting, there’s loads to see and do, most people you meet will be friendly and will speak English, and it’s a small and well-connected enough island for you to really get a feel for the place in just a shortish holiday. From the number of tourist families and small children we saw when we were there, it looks like it would be a great place to take children for their first taste of South Asia.

On the downside, the flight to get there from Europe is fairly long and expensive – otherwise I’d be back there much sooner.

For reference, our trip was intended to be “budget but not shoestring”, so that’s the yardstick that I’ll base my comments on. If you’re happy to pay a tour company to organise everything for you, it would be much more relaxing and you could probably see more of the sights, but you would miss out on getting inside the culture. To be honest, I think we missed out on that a bit in some places – the places where we spent extra to ensure we had plans in place in advance. But it’s a trade-off between reducing stress and being immersed in the country. There were definitley some times during the trip when the pressure of organising things, making sure we had food and somewhere to stay and enought money to pay for it, reduce how much I enjoyed it, so maybe it’s worth paying the extra for peace of mind. It’s up to you (and your budget) to decide where you fall on that spectrum.

Transport

The trains are great. Whenever you can, get trains. They are not always easy (or possible) to book in advance – turning up at the ticket office and asking seems to be the best shot. We got two tips from someone at the hostel we stayed in the first night, which proved to be good:

  • If you’re getting a train from Colombo to Galle, you’re more likely to get a seat if you get on at Colombo Maradana station, where most of the trains start, rather than Colombo Fort (the main station). 2nd class carriages are at the back of the train, so wait at that end of the platform, furthest from the station entrance.
  • Download the SL Railways app (only available for iPhone at the moment).

For any other information on trains, The Man in Seat 61 is your best friend.

Where you can’t get trains, local buses are super super cheap and seem to go almost everywhere. If you’re making a long or unusual journey, you might need to change buses. Ask people for help! Usually, the people where you’re staying can tell you which bus to get, where to change and so on. In order to find the bus stop, or the right bus in a bus station, again ask people! There is a good chance they will direct you to the slightly more expensive AC bus rather than the cheapest one, but in all cases the fare is a matter of a couple of pounds at most so it’s really not worth worrying about. Once you’re on the bus, relax and don’t think too much about the driving – the driver has done this safely many times before. Somehow. Buses are crowded and you may have to stand, but it’s nothing a London commuter doesn’t experience every day. You pay for your journey with cash to the conductor on the bus, who will come along and ask for the fare and can usually provide change (although might not offer it unless asked). However, they’re not very good at telling you when to get off, so having a working mobile phone with a map app is invaluable. (I’m with 3, and they allow me free use of my phone, including internet, in Sri Lanka – this was a god-send, because although WiFi is widely available, you can’t catch Pokemon with just WiFi.) Just yell when you’re ready to disembark – they’ll generally stop wherever, not just at bus stops. In general, you need patience on the buses – they don’t seem to have a very strict timetable, so you might be waiting for one for a while, or once on it it might wait around to get a bit fuller before it leaves. If you’re waiting at a bus stop you might be approached by tuktuk drivers telling you the bus isn’t for another hour – there’s a good chance this is nonsense, so only take up their offer of a lift if you really don’t want to wait.

For shorter journeys, tuktuks are the standard way to get around. In Colombo they mostly have meters, which are great because then you don’t need to haggle over the fare. We paid more everywhere else because, as tourists, we’re less good at haggling and basically a soft touch. But again, it’s a pound or two so don’t worry about it too much. It was good to have got an idea of the meter prices in Colombo, so we knew when we were being really badly ripped off later – have an idea in your head of what you’re willing to pay, and be ready to try several different drivers if the first refuses to go down to what you know is a reasonable price. We also took a tuktuk from Udawalawe to Ella, which is a good few hours’ drive. We were planning to get the bus, but our tuktuk driver from the hotel to the bus stop had a friend who was going up to Ella empty and was keen for a fare for that journey, so we got a really good price. It was still about double the bus fare, but much quicker and more relaxing. I would consider using tuktuks for long-distance journeys in future – it’s more expensive than buses, but cheaper than getting a private car.

Lots of places offer private car hire with a driver. It tends to be expensive, but is a good option if you want to get somewhere quickly or want to book it in advance. There’s a good chance your hotel can arrange this for you. We used them twice: once to get from Mirissa to Udawalawe, and once to get to the airport from Sigiriya.

If you want to walk anywhere, you’ll get funny looks and plenty of tuktuks stopping to ask if you want a ride. It can get annoying. But in the backwaters, for example around Sigiriya, there are some lovely walks along quiet lanes which are worth the effort. On the other hand, walking along busy, dirty roads (for example from the Dambulla temples to the bus terminal) is unpleasant and probably not worth it.

Accommodation and general observations

These are the places we stayed:

  • Clock Inn Colombo: private ensuite room with AC in a hostel. It has the friendly feel of a hostel, and the cheap price to match. The location was right opposite Barefoot too, which is (I am assured by a Sri Lanka friend) the best shop in Sri Lanka – I bought a few Sri Lankan books here, which I enjoyed reading during the rest of the trip. I would stay here again if I was in Colombo on a budget. The AC was very welcome.

We barely saw Colombo at all, so I’d like to go back one day to explore properly. The one useful tip I have is to change your money (£, $ or €) in one of the small exchange places in town (example: Prasanna Money Exchange on Galle Main Road) because you get a fantastic exchange rate – better than the current xe.com rate. However, I budgeted really badly and had to get cash out at machines several times. It’s not the end of the world, and depending on what type of card you have can be fairly economical. Never EVER change money in airports.

  • Leynbaan Villa, Galle: private room, no AC. This was a disaster. We had booked it through our travel agents, STA*, but the booking had never gone through to the host and they were fully booked. We ended up sleeping in the manager’s own room, which was fortunately ensuite and AC, while he went to stay with his brother for a few days. The “hotel” was actually a number of rooms in a building behind and above a jewellery shop. It was nice enough, but in a town as gorgeous as Galle Fort it seems a bit of a shame not to have splashed out and found somewhere nicer. The AC was a god-send, though, and the location (right opposite Sangakkara’s Galle house) was fantastic. (*In STA’s defence, everything else they booked for us was fine, and when we had a problem with this one they were there to try and fix it, which wouldn’t have been the case if we had booked everything independently.)

Galle is just gorgeous and I’d recommend everyone visit and stay in the Fort, not the town or in nearby Unawatuna. Walk around the walls at sunset and listen to the church bells and the call to prayer from the mosque, but drench yourself in fly repellent! Then wander around and find one of the many delicious restaurants to eat in, but make sure you leave some money to spend in the great selection of shops (my favourite is Embark, which raises money for a street-dog charity). It is not a cheap place to stay, but it’s really easy and enjoyable. The cricket ground, as no doubt you know, is just outside the Fort walls, and so easily walkable, or else you can watch the game for free by climbing onto the walls – you get a great view (in some places blocked by trees or the sightscreen) but beware of sitting in the direct sun all day.

  • Hotel Vacanza, Mirissa: private ensuite room with AC. A bit anonymous but a nice, big, clean room in a good position near the main road and beach in Mirissa. Very cheap.

It is ridiculously hard to get on to Mirissa beach from the road. Unless you use the stream/path just opposite Hotel Vacanza, you have to walk for miles (literally) between entrances, and then sneak through a hotel or restaurant. Once there, it’s just a beach. White sand, blue sea, palm trees, probably good for surfing and Instagram, but very little shade and can get a bit boring quite quickly. However, the whale watching from nearby Mirissa Harbour is amazing. You’ll find lots of much cheaper offers, but go with a reputable high-welfare tour company like Raja and the Whales, because whale watching is a privilege that should be paid for by you, not by the whales. You have to get up very early, and there is a risk of seasickness (take all the tablets and ginger biscuits they offer you!) but it will be worth it when you see the huge tail of a blue whale just metres from your boat. Raja and the Whales provided a pick-up from our hotel and breakfast onboard, although most people were too busy watching the whales to appreciate it. They also had an onboard photographer who got some stunning pictures which were emailed to us, so it doesn’t matter if yours don’t turn out too well – just appreciate the view.

  • Athgira River Camping, Udawalawe: private ensuite tent. This was the most touristy place we stayed, and it felt very cut off from the real Sri Lanka. The swimming pool was lovely (floating on your back at dusk, watching the huge fruit bats flap languidly overhead), but there was nowhere to get any lunch and it was miles from the town. Breakfast and dinner were good though, although very limited vegetarian options.

We booked a safari in Udawalawe National Park through our hotel, and that was great. Safaris are always an expensive venture, but most of the money is going to keeping the park running so I don’t begrudge it. We also stopped off to see the baby elephants being fed at the Elephant Transit Home on the way home. I would recommend going to the morning or midday feeding rather than the evening one, because it got dark very quickly so we couldn’t see the baby elephants very well; it also meant the information centre was closed. You don’t get very close to the elephants, but by all accounts there is a much higher level of welfare here than at other elephant rehab centres or orphanages.

  • Little Folly, Ella: private ensuite room in a chalet. I chose this hotel because of its highly recommended vegetarian cafe, which turned out to be closed and being rebuild while we were there, so there was a building site just in front of our chalet. However, this place more than made up for that by having very friendly cats and a litter of puppies for us to play with, as well as a lovely host who hand-drew us a wonderful map, showing some of the best short hikes in the area. Breakfasts were great (lots of fruit, coffee, and omlettes). There was no AC but we really didn’t need it in Ella.

From descriptions, I was expecting Ella to be prettier, but once you get away from the centre of the town into the hills, its setting is beautiful. It’s one of the easiest places to wander around, and there are several lovely walks nearby – we went to Little Adam’s Peak and to the Nine Arch Bridge (this one is easy to miss the way to – get a local to point you in the right direction, and if you found yourself in their front garden by accident and they showed you the way from there, maybe give them a little tip). The food and drink options are generally a bit touristy, but nice and varied. We did a cooking class with Matey Hut, which was a great way to spend an afternoon and resulted in some delicious food.

  • Clock Inn Kandy: private ensuite room with AC. This was a room in a the same hostel chain as in Kandy. Unfortunately, the Clock its name refers to is not the one by the train station as I’d thought, so we had to get a tuktuk from the train. The hostel was nice inside (although even the double glazing couldn’t keep out the sound of the morning rush-hour) and did a great, free breakfast.

I was disappointed by Kandy. After Ella, it felt big, busy and dirty. We had trouble finding good places to eat, although we always managed, and the cricket stadium is an annoyingly long way out of town. The best way to get there is by bus or tuktuk. The highlight of the city was the Temple of the Tooth – we accepted a guide who helped us to get the right tickets and then showed us around. I’m not sure he told us much more than the guide book, but he knew where we had to queue and where we could just skip to the front because people were queueing for something different, so I think he probably saved us a lot of time there. It was also interesting to hear about his childhood growing up in Kandy soon after independence. We only had a few hours to explore Kandy, and I feel like if we’d had another day or two we would have found some really nice parts – the one place I regret missing is Kandy’s Botanic Gardens.

  • Sigiri Lion Lodge, Sigiriya: private ensuite room with AC. This was lovely – very helpful hosts, a nice breakfast served at whatever time we liked on the terrace, and a nice clean room (at least until we got our sandy shoes inside it). The position was good too – just off the main road, but a short walk from Sigiriya village to the east, where we could get all our meals, and from the entrance to the Sigiriya site to the west. It was pretty dark walking back along the road after dinner each evening, but it’s not far and our phone torches helped.

Sigiriya Rock is one of the most amazing sights in Sri Lanka. Definitely go. However, it’s an arduous if not dangerous climb, there will be lots of other tourists everywhere getting in the way, it gets very hot very early, and sometimes it’s closed because of killer bees. Useful things to know: you can refill your water bottle with drinking water near the lions’ paws (we were thirsty enough to risk it and we didn’t get ill, so I believe the claims that it’s filtered). Once you get to the top, all the hordes of tourists you had to climb up with get swallowed up in the vast area, so it’s really quite tranquil and interesting to explore. And my top tip: on your way down, just after the lions’ paws, follow the signs to the right and clamber round behind the rocks – you’ll find a small abandonned area of ruins that, when we were there, was absolutely covered in butterflies. I’ve never seen clouds anything like that before. We spent ages admiring and photographing them, and just as we had had our fill, a huge land monitor lizard lumbered out into the sun to sunbathe, and a troupe of monkeys swung past in the trees. You would never believe you’re only 50m from hordes of sweating tourists. The rock gardens and water gardens around the base of the rock are also well worth exploring – you could happily spend a whole day here and take a picnic, although we only spent half a day.

From Sigiriya, we had day trips to Dambulla Rock Caves, Polonnaruwa and Pidurangala Rock. In the first two cases we took buses, which ran smoothly (if a little quickly for my liking). We got a tuktuk from Dambulla bus station to the cave ticket point, which was well worth doing – we should probably have done the same on the way back rather than trying to walk along the main road, which was fine but unpleasant. The caves are very impressive, but the golden temple at the foot of the hill is the ugliest thing I have ever seen.

Polonnaruwa was one of my favourite days out – a huge site covered with ruins, some of which are truely stunning. Everyone will desperately try to convince you that you need a bike or a tuktuk to get around the site, but it’s all lies, it’s a nice gentle stroll. It’s worth looking around the museum first to get a feel for the site, then just throw yourself in and explore – the signage is generally good. I would recommend taking a picnic if you can, because food options there are pretty limited. It’s also really difficult to catch a tuktuk at the northern end to take you back to the bus stop by the museum – maybe it would be a good option to get a tuktuk first and start at the northern end? But in either case, don’t miss the huge carved Buddhas at the northern end of the site. And take a waterproof, because the rain can strike at any time and although there are enough trees for shade, there’s not much cover from heavy rain.

Pidurangala Rock is an outcrop just north of Sigiriya, about the same size but with fewer ruins, and which give an amazing view of the plain and Sigiriya itself. It was about a half-hour walk there from our guest house, skirting the edge of the Sigiriya enclosure. The climb starts by going through a temple compound – take your shoes off for this bit – and then is a lot of stairs followed by some serious scrambling over and between rocks to get to the top. For some reason, a lot of Sri Lankans seem to enjoy taking their small children and elderly relatives up here, so there are some major traffic jams at the top where one slow climber blocks the route in both directions. But once you’re at the summit it spreads out and there is lots of space to enjoy the view. The whole trip took 2-3h, which was a nice way to spend our final morning before setting off for the airport. It might also be good to combine this with Sigiriya, and I’ve been told the views are gorgeous at sunset, but be careful to do at least the first bit of the descent before the light fades!

I’m sure there were loads of amazing places in Sri Lanka that we entirely missed, and I’d love to go back again one day. Combining a cricket tour and a holiday worked really well for us in some ways, but I felt like I missed out to some degree on both the cricket and the country. However, there’s only so much you can do in just under three weeks and with a limited budget. I think we did fairly well, and we certainly enjoyed ourselves.

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Kandy Test Day 5 – from Sigiriya

England 290 and 346

Sri Lanka 336 and 243

England win by 57 runs and lead the series 2-0

This Test started with us up a mountain, trying to keep up with the score as we staggered up to the highest point of Little Adam’s Peak, and it ended very similarly, with Jon and I sharing earphones to listen to the last couple of overs, sitting in a patch of shade at the top of Sigiriya Rock.

In the end it was a very quick wrap-up of a Test that had been unpredictable throughout. England needed to take three wickets, and Moeen Ali removed both Dickwella and Lakmal in the sixth over of the day, and Jack Leach took the last, three overs later, to make it his first five-for. Barely half an hour after the day’s play had started, it was all over.

Achieving a series win in Asia is a great achievement for England, and especially against a side who have put up a very good fight, especially in this Test. There were certainly times during the last five days when I would rather have been in Sri Lanka’s shoes than England’s. I think the two real strength of this England team which have allowed them to do well in this series are, firstly, a strong spin attack: none of the four spin bowlers (Joe Root contributed too, occasionally) are as good as Graeme Swann in his pomp, but having four good spinners is better than having one great one, over the course of a whole Test.

The second strength has been the batting of the lower-middle order. Root may have been the stand-out batsman in England’s second innings, batting at four even when there had been a nightwatchman, but it was Jos Buttler and Sam Curran in the first innings who kept England in the game at all, and Ben Foakes in the second innings who really worked to make sure there was a total to give England’s bowlers some hope. This really only reiterates what we found in Galle: England don’t have a very strong top order at the moment, but they bat very deep. A fifty looks as likely to come from the number nine as the number three (whoever that might be on any given day).

England’s next job is to see whether they can play well and compete in a dead rubber. It has been one of their failings in the past, so it will be interesting to see how they tackle Colombo next Thursday. We should get a good idea of their mindset once we know the team: it would be tempting for the selectors to rest a few overworked players and give some of the others in the squad a run, but that might signal a lazy don’t-care attitude. Eoin Morgan tried something similar in the last of the ODIs before the Test series, and it went horribly wrong for previously unbeatable England. But on the other hand, it feels like Jonny Bairstow in particular, and possibly Broad too, really deserve a go. So we’ll see what happens.

Once the game was over, Jon and I spent the rest of the morning exploring Sigiriya, the ruins of a 4th Century palace built on the top of a huge rock outcrop rising above the jungle, with almost sheer sides only punctuated by the precarious steps and ledges that allow a stream of tourists access to the summit. It is surrounded by further ruins, of palaces and monks’ retreats, in an intricate and extensive water garden. A really amazing place.

By noon we were drenched in sweat and ready for a break, when conveniently the heavens opened. We spent the afternoon in Dambulla’s Cave Temples – carved out of the rock in a hill south of Dambulla are five chambers decorated floor to ceiling with Buddhas, some standing, some sitting, some huge ones reclining; some sculptures, some paintings on the walls and ceiling, but all quite incredible: there are more than 150 in total.

So that was two World Heritage sites and a series win. Quite a successful day all told.

EDITED to add another highlight for the day: my stats question was read out on the BBC’s Test Match Special podcast, with Dan Norcross and Andy Zaltzman, and Zaltz failed to answer it. To be fair, it was a pretty tough question or I’d have looked up the answer myself. My question was: “So far in his Test career, Rory Burns’ scores have been 9, 23, 43 and 59. This means that each innings has become his highest score. What is the longest streak that a cricketer has had from their debut in which the number of runs they score in each innings has been higher than all previous scores?” If anyone can shed light on this, I think both I and Andy Zaltzman would like to know!

Kandy Test Day 4 – from Sigiriya

England 290 and 346

Sri Lanka 336 and 226-7

The end of day four, and the game that at one stage looked like it would be over in less than three days is still going strong. And it is not much easier to predict a result now than it was at any point during those four days.

Back in the mists of time when this tour was first arranged, the Sri Lanka Cricket Board announced that England fans would only be able to get into the Tests by paying about £60 each per day for a luxury hospitality package. None of the experienced campaigners believed them, and it ended up being nonsense, as predicted, but there was enough doubt in my mind that when I planned this holiday I decided to block out the whole Galle Test, but only to stop in Kandy for two nights. If I could get affordable tickets, then we’d go to a day of the Test; but if not, no matter, we’d see the sights and then move on to a bonus three days in the Cultural Triangle before flying back to the UK. Which is why the afternoon of the fourth day of this Test saw us on a bus heading away from the cricket ground and out of the hill country.

The morning we spent visiting the famous Temple of the Tooth in central Kandy, one of the most important religious sites in Buddhism and home to a relic of the Buddha himself, which was rescued from destruction in India hidden in the hair of a Sri Lankan princess. The temple complex is an elegant collection of building, decorated with delicate carving and colourful frescos, and very much a working and bustling religious site rather than a tourist attraction. We were shown around by an elderly guide who remembered the last two British governors of Sri Lanka, and had been living and working around the temple ever since. I was glad we found the time to visit this important site while we were in Kandy.

After lunch, we hopped on a bus to Dambulla and tuned in to Guerilla Cricket’s coverage of the second session. Angelo Mathews and Roshen Silva were the two dangermen England feared, and together they built a 73-run partnership that got Sri Lanka to 176-4, more than half way to their target, before Moeen Ali took the wicket of Silva. The previous ball, CricViz had given England’s win likelihood at 34%; after the wicket it jumped to 67%. Angelo Mathews then rebuilt with Dickwella, reaching 221 before Moeen Ali once again struck. Another wicket fell three overs later, but then the rain arrived, a little earlier than yesterday, with Sri Lanka on 226, needing 75 more runs to reach their target, with three wickets remaining.

I think at this point England are ahead, but it certainly isn’t a done deal yet. Strangely, I’m not as nervous as I expected to be at this point, and I think that’s because there’s a fairly substantial part of me that has come to really like this Sri Lanka team, and that wouldn’t be at all upset to see them pull off this win and level the series, making the final Colombo Test a decider.

Kandy Test Day 3 – close

England 290 and 324-9

Sri Lanka 336

I have had such a fun day commentating on the Test match from the Pallekele media centre with Michael McCann. His project is to record commentary, not for broadcast, but to help him practice and develop as a live ball-by-ball commentator, and he was looking for volunteers to summarise for him and asked me. So I have spent the day talking cricket, while Jon indulged his photographic leanings and took some great photos of the day’s play. It was really interesting watching from the media box, and was a nice chance to catch up with the members of the press that I know, and enjoy the lovely lunch spread they get (thanks Jarrod!)

Photo by Jon Lo (@jonlophoto)

It’s been a fascinating day’s cricket, with the Test swinging in favour of one team and then the other throughout the day. Even now, I really have no idea who is ahead. If England lose their last wicket first thing in the morning tomorrow, Sri Lanka will be chasing 279 in the fourth innings to win. It’s a pretty substantial score, especially given the deterioration of the pitch, although that hasn’t been as marked so far as we might have expected. But in July 2017, just over a year ago, Sri Lanka chased 391 in the fourth innings to win a Test against Zimbabwe in Colombo. The team for that game included seven of the players in the current Test, including most of the batsmen who made the runs. Therefore chasing big fourth-innings totals isn’t going to hold many fears for these players – they have done it before, so can do it again.

The stars of Day 3 were Joe Root with the bat, making his fifteenth and possibly best Test century, and Akila Dananjaya with the ball, taking 6 wickets for 106 runs off 23 overs. Special mentions also for Rory Burns, with his first Test fifty in his fourth innings – and the fourth time in a row that he’s made his highest Test score, how long can he keep that streak going I wonder? – and Ben Foakes who got a fifty to go with his century on debut.

The day ended prematurely with the umpires taking the players off for bad light and/or lightning, giving the groundstaff just enough time to leap into action and cover the entire outfield with tarpaulin before the heavens opened. Fortunately it was a fairly short shower, and by the time we’d cleared up the recording equipment and made way for Sky’s end-of-day summary and interviews (“Oh hi Joe, good knock today”), and gone for a quick drink with Hazel and Ian, the rain had eased off. Hopefully that means play will be able to start on time tomorrow.

Kandy Test Day 3 – tea

England 290 and 259-6

Sri Lanka 336

This was Root’s session. He went in to tea on 98 off 118 balls, looking like he’ll make his fifteenth Test century (is it only fourteen he’s made so far? More than 40 fifties unconverted.) Sri Lanka started the session looking fierce, but once again the pendulum has swung and now is slightly in England’s favour.

Kandy Test Day 3 – lunch

England 290 and 131-4

Sri Lanka 336

Just a quick update now, because today I’m commentating on the game with Michael McCann – just for some practice, and it’s not being broadcast, but it’s great fun to be in the media centre with a good view of the ground and commentating live.

The highlight of the morning was Rory Burns’ 59, his first Test half-century, but it’s a shame he didn’t go on further. Two quick wickets mean Root and Buttler are out there now, and have started their partnership attackingly, but England are still only 85 runs ahead, with 4 wickets down.

Kandy Test Day 2 – from the train

England 290 and 0-0

Sri Lanka 336

Today, Jon and I got the train from Ella to Kandy – one of the most famous and scenic train journeys in the world. It was glorious: impeccable mazes of tea-covered hillsides, the bright green of waist-high new leaves interlaced with indigo convulvulus flowers; mud-brick cottages in hidden dells, surrounded by the elegant white trunks of eucalyptus, the peace only disturbed by the six daily trains; and mountain streams, meandering quietly or leaping from rock to rock down into the valley below, joining together to become fierce torrents or trickling into carefully carved rice paddies, hanging in narrow steps along the contours of the hill. The train passes sedately through all this at a gentle pace, through tunnels and over impressive viaducts, along the top of mountain ridges, stopping at little, immaculate stations, until it arrives, more than five hours later, in Kandy.

And what’s even better, for much of the route there is good enough phone signal that I was able to listen to the Test on Guerilla Cricket.

Everyone’s expectation at the beginning of the day was that Sri Lanka would be rolled over and England would be well into their second innings, and heading for an easy victory, by the close of play. The TalkSport team ran a book on how many wickets would fall in the day, and the lowest number was 11. In fact, only the nine remaining Sri Lankan wickets fell, and it took all but ten minutes of the day for England to take these.

Despite the turnover and high-profile retirements in recent years, Sri Lanka are still a force to be reckoned with, especially at home, and I think the English press are guilty of underestimating them. The star of today was Roshen Silva, who, batting at number seven because of the night watchman, made 86 runs in substantial partnerships with all four of his lower-order colleagues. If England’s tenth-wicket stand was frustrating to Sri Lanka yesterday, all four of the last Sri Lankan wickets had to be ground out by England, during which time Sri Lanka almost doubled their score, from 165-6 to 336 all out – more than fifty runs ahead of England, and certainly now favourites in this game.

England had to bat one over before the close of play, and sent Jack Leach out to face all six balls, with Rory Burns his partner, which adds another name into the long list of people who have opened for England since Strauss retired. Unless of course they’ve decided they need a new number three for each innings from now on; this time Jennings drew the short straw, and so they’ve had to shuffle the batting order accordingly.

Kandy Test Day 1 – from Ella

England 285

Sri Lanka 26-1

We were nearly at the top of the mountain when the first wicket alert pinged on my phone.

Jon and I had decided not to rush our travelling and to make for Kandy in time for Day 3 of the Test, spending the two preceding nights in the hill town of Ella. Dutch Bird Kate, having insisted she was only here for the cricket, succumbed to the lure of the famous Sri Lankan mountain railway and made an overnight trip up to Ella from Kandy. She got the train back down today, in time to get to Pallekele for Day 2, but had just enough time before the train this morning to join us hiking up Little Adam’s Peak, a local mountain which looks impressively high but is in fact just a 45min walk. The steps are steep and tiring, but the views from the top on a clear day like today are sublime.

Four England wickets had fallen by the time we got back down the mountain. Having waved Kate off, Jon and I found the only café in Ella with the Test on the telly, and settled down to watch it with a steady stream of food and cool drinks.

Having started with their now-traditional top-order batting collapse, England’s innings was steadied a little by Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali – although “steady” is probably the wrong word for Buttler’s constant sweeping. However, Buttler’s wicket fell with England still just 171-7, and no recognised batsmen left.

(It’s slightly ironic that England men’s team have an abundance of world-class middle-order players and are really struggling for openers, when England women’s team, at the World T20 in the Caribbean, have a very strong top order and an inexperienced middle. Together, they might make one very good team.)

Enter Sam Curran. Batting with Buttler, Rashid and Leach, he played a supporting role, scoring 16 runs off 64 balls. But once the ninth wicket fell and Anderson joined him, he let loose and made 48 off 54 deliveries, putting on a frustrating (for the Sri Lankans) 60 for the last wicket and helping England achieve an almost respectable first innings score.

We had to leave the café at the innings break, with an hour to go until the close of play, to go to a Sri Lankan cookery class at the Matey Hut. An impressive Sri Lankan woman called Madhur taught a group of us how to make eight different vegetarian curries (the secret is onion, garlic, pandam leaves, curry leaves and lots of coconut) as well as popadoms and rotis. I’m looking forward to trying some of the recipes at home, if we can get hold of all the ingredients. Although it won’t be the same, not cooking in an open classroom overlooking twilit tea plantations, with a constant flow of cats, dogs and kittens looking for dropped scraps and playing with our apron strings.

Whilst we were cooking, Sri Lanka made it to close having scored 26 runs, and lost Silva’s wicket to Leach.

Uda Walawe

We have spent the last two nights in Athgira River Camp, near Uda Walawe National Park. The main draw here is the safaris, and it all feels much more like somewhere in Southern Africa than Sri Lanka. The River Camp turned out to be a safari camp with the “tents” being permanent chalets with fully plumbed bathrooms, their only tent-like feature being canvas roofs. It is set back several miles from the town, meaning you are stuck there for meals (which are much more expensive than outside), but it does have the unexpected bonus of a swimming pool, which we thoroughly enjoyed in the midday heat.

In the mid-afternoon, we set off on our dusk safari to the National Park itself, which is centred around a huge “tank” (man-made lake, created by damming a river, which has been done in Sri Lanka for millenia). I have been on safari in more than a dozen African National Parks and reserves, but this was my first South Asian one. Immediate impressions: although it doesn’t have some of the big draws of African safaris, such as herds of antelopes and zebras, or visible big cats (the leopards in Uda Walawe are very elusive), it has some of the best and easiest game viewing I’ve ever experienced. Within a couple of hundred metres of the gate we were watching and elephant have a mud bath just ten metres from the path, and the viewings continued thick and fast for the full three hours we were there. Wild buffalo, mongooses, monitor lizards, crocodiles and a hare, as well as dozens of birds – a keen birdwatcher would have a field day here, while amateurs like us were satisfied with brightly coloured bee-eaters, rollers and peacocks, as well as huge kites, eagles and hornbills. But the stars of the show are the elephants – smaller than their African cousins, and totally relaxed around vehicles, they don’t even glance up when you pull alongside them, and happily wander right up to the vehicle, ignoring its occupants and the furious clicking of their cameras.

On the way back we stopped at the Elephant Rehabilitation Centre, which rescues young elephants that have been orphaned or abandoned, and raised them until they are old enough to be re-released. We arrived just at feeding time, and the sight of forty hungry baby elephants, some as small as a Shetland pony and some as big as a cart horse, is certainly one to remember.

Mirissa and Ude Walawe

Today can be summarised in animals:

  • Spinner dolphins: a whole pod of them which we came across soon after our whale-watching boat had left Mirissa harbour early this morning, and a nice distraction from worrying about getting sea-sick. (In the event I wasn’t sea-sick at all – I credit the tablets given to us before we boarded the boat, although they may also be responsible for both of us falling asleep in the car in the afternoon.)
  • A sail fish and a flying fish – turns out these are both real things!
  • A Bryce’s whale: huge and low in the water, most easily spotted by the spume from their blow hole as they breathe.
  • A blue whale: even bigger – at least twice the length of our boat, we just saw the length of its back with an unbelievable distance between the blowhole and dorsal fin – it just goes on forever! – and then once it had finished breathing, after five minutes or so at the surface, it would curve over and dive, sweeping its tail out of the water in farewell salute. Its tail alone must have been as tall as me! Then ten minutes underwater and up it would come again – four or five times we saw it surfacing before our crew decided we’d bothered it enough for one day.
  • A mid-sized monitor lizard of some sort, scrambling along the riverbank as we walked to our favourite roti café for lunch.
  • A puppy on the beach, which Jon played with (supervised by its owners – it’s not always easy to identify street dogs from domestic dogs here, but this one definitely had a home) while we sipped our drinks in the shade and enjoyed the beautiful Mirissa beach one last time.
  • A friendly tortoiseshell cat which came and sat in the middle of the court when Jon and I were trying to have a badminton match in our new accommodation, Athgira River Camp near Ude Walawe National Park.
  • Bats – lots of bats! The huge ones I saw in Colombo, leaving their roost for a night’s fruit-hunting or something and flying right over the swimming pool where Jon and I were having a dusk dip. First one or two appeared, and then whole families at a time, with their distinctive slow wing-flap.