From this distance it seems to have been a tricky little start to the tour of Sri Lanka, where England spent three days locked up inside their hotel rooms, then had one half of their only warm-up game washed out by rain. Still, Joe Root has handled these little challenges with more grace, and good humour, than some of his predecessors did.
Sri Lanka has always been a delightful place to visit but at times a taxing place to play cricket. There’s a story about England’s tour there in 1934, when their captain, Douglas Jardine, was two hours late for the start of the game because his taxi broke down on the drive down the coast from Colombo down to Galle. The car suffered a series of punctures and the driver didn’t have a spare tyre to hand.
Jardine had the knack of rubbing people up the wrong way. Not just Australians. When the local fans barracked him for his slow play in Colombo, he is supposed to have refused to continue until those doing the heckling were kicked out of the ground. When the MCC wired him to ask exactly what was going on, he wrote back: “Simply, these fools had allowed lunatics from the asylum to witness proceedings.” In SS Perera’s official history of Sri Lankan cricket, he wrote that “because of his snobbism and arrogance, the name of DR Jardine has been permanently cut out of our island’s history.”
England were the opposition in Sri Lanka’s very first Test, too, almost 50 years later, in February 1982. The match was tagged on to the tail end of a dreary six-match series in India, which England lost one-nil. The players were demob happy after four months on tour, and enjoyed a VIP reception, first-class train travel, a spread of receptions and banquets. According to the Guardian, they were “delighted to find that such things as crispy fried bread, real Scottish Scotch, and St Bruno tobacco really exist and were not after all mirages from some long ago incarnation”.
Better yet, they were put up in a hotel that had Guinness on tap. Of course it was an artfully laid trap, and after three days England found themselves scrambling to get back into the match, as Sri Lanka were 150 runs ahead and had seven wickets left in their second innings on a tricky, spinning pitch.
It didn’t help any that their captain, Keith Fletcher, kept putting his foot in it. The country had changed its name from Ceylon a decade earlier, but, according to Frank Keating, Fletcher struggled to get his head around this and kept calling it “Sri-Lon” in his speeches to the local dignitaries. (Fletcher, Keating reports, had already got himself in a spot of bother with the foreign office earlier on the tour when he’d called the Maharajah of Baroda “old cock”). Worse, the day before the Test started he grumbled that the pitch was being over-watered, and said that Sri Lanka weren’t “County Championship standard”.
It had been a long, hard, few months, and Fletcher wasn’t at his best. He was sacked him as captain soon after and didn’t play for England again. Which was a curious way to repay him for his decision to turn down a £50,000 offer to join the rebel tour to South Africa, which was being organised in the background all the while that winter.
He was replaced by Bob Willis, who took charge of the Test against Sri Lanka, too, when he stood up and told his teammates: “Here we are, limply rolling over to be beaten by this lot: a humiliation is staring us in the face and all we can do is whinge on about the flaming umpires. We should be ashamed of ourselves. Let’s just get up and get out there and win.” The next morning John Emburey took five for five, Sri Lanka were bowled out for 175, and England ended up winning by seven wickets.
It was Fletcher’s lot to end up back in Sri Lanka, as England’s team manager this time, when Sri Lanka did beat them for the very first time, in 1993. Arjuna Ranatunga, who had been a skinny 18-year-old kid batting at No 6 back in 1982, had grown into a stout and redoubtable captain, and led his side to victory by five wickets.
England were still grumbling about the umpires, and the weather (“It’s very nearly too hot here for Europeans to play cricket,” Fletcher said), and the muttering about the bowlers’ actions (Muttiah Muralitharan took five wickets). “But overall,” Wisden wrote, “England had nothing and no one to blame but themselves.”
It was only after England’s humiliation at the Oval in 1998, when Sri Lanka (incensed that they had only been invited to play a single Test) thrashed them by 10 wickets, that England stopped treating them like underdogs. After all, it’s hard to condescend a side who have just handed you a beating like that, and on your own patch.
Their series since have been played on an equal footing and have mostly made for brilliant viewing, too, from England’s famous victory away in 2001, to Sri Lanka’s back in England in 2014. Let’s hope for more of it in the next fortnight. Goodness knows we could use the distraction.