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After the flood: England witness a triumph of the spirit in Sri Lanka

Test cricket returns to Galle today almost exactly three years after the region was devastated by the tsunami. Stephen Brenkley explains why, after all the suffering, the third Test is now about renewal and remembrance

In a dusty corner of the Galle Stadium yesterday, under the searing early afternoon sun, a touching little ceremony took place. Kumar Sangakkara, the great Sri Lanka batsman, presented a posy of flowers to a handsome and composed Englishwoman. He thanked her very much and she responded with a short, unfussy, dignified speech. A gathering of about 25 gently applauded.

She then snipped the blue ribbon hanging across a plaque. This explained what it was all about. "The Julian Ayer Cricket Centre," it says. "This building stands in memory of Julian Ayer, a British citizen who died in the tsunami on December 26th 2004. Julian loved cricket and this centre was paid for by his many friends, family and well-wishers."

The woman was Julian Ayer's widow, Harriet Crawley. In her understated but remarkable way, she personifies what is taking place in this country this week. There might have been a more significant cricket match than the Third Test in Galle but researching the point would be an unrewarding exercise.

What is happening here in the next five days is, for once, truly more than a game. It is about renewal and regeneration and the triumph of the human spirit. If Sri Lanka win to take the series 2-0, or England prevail to make it 1-1, so be it. Everyone concerned in this contest is aware of the need to play. This is the first match at the ground since the natural disaster almost three years ago which cost anywhere between 31,000 and 40,000 lives on this island.

Here at last is a new beginning of which Harriet Crawley and the Test together seem to be tangible evidence. There have been several uplifting events in the past few days. MCC opened a centre of excellence, Surrey County Cricket Club showed off the new houses built with proceeds from their Tsunami Relief Match and Harrow School formally opened Vidyaloka College.

That the ground is still a work in progress and is not, in truth, ready for the match matters not. There is virtually no permanent seating or other infrastructure, the relaid surface has had only one exceedingly minor match played on it. Unexpected rain in the past few days, which returned in late afternoon yesterday, has exacerbated the difficulties.

The teams were able to practise in the middle yesterday but the outfield still looked as though a herd of elephants had recently passed by. The start was delayed until noon today. Its beauty, however, was unimpeded because the old Dutch fort still overlooks it, unmoved by the tsunami, definitely fit for purpose.

Michael Vaughan, the England captain, said it all when he commented: "We have no reservations about playing the match. As we speak it is not in ideal condition but there is a bigger picture here, more than just a game of cricket. We have to realise that a lot of time, effort and commitment has been put into this ground and we are delighted to be the first side to play here after such a huge disaster."

Cricket has a small, but inescapable role in the tsunami story. On the morning of Boxing Day, Julian Ayer and Harriet Crawley were making their way by local bus to the Galle ground to watch a team from Harrow School play a match on their Christmas tour. In the Harrow team was Spencer Crawley, Harriet's son and Julian's stepson.

The bus was hit by the tsunami.

"I think Julian saved my life because he shoved me through the window," said Harriet. "There was only time for one person to be saved. There were three Sri Lankan boys who got out and me. I had a very strong feeling that I was not saving myself. We were only two or three kilometres away from the ground in a small open clearing. There's a village before and a pretty thick wood after and if we hadn't been in the opening and 30 seconds either way we possibly would have been all right."

While the bus was being submerged and Harriet was being swept away on the tidal wave, before clinging desperately to a tree ("it was like being inside a washing machine") Spencer and his team were fleeing the field at Galle. They were in the eye of the storm but they survived first by making their way to the pavilion and thence to the Galle Fort Hotel.

The school bus, which had carried the boys to the ground, will be an enduring image of that day. "It was taken like a toy in a bath, swept right across the pitch and smashed into the pavilion," said Harriet.

Somehow in the months that followed she took the decision that something positive, something useful had to be born out of the tsunami. Harrow School were busy raising funds, eventually reaching 475,000, but her friends urged her to try to establish a more personal memorial for Julian. This must have taken extraordinary resolve because her life had already been touched by tragedy. Her American mother died in a car crash in France and her two brothers, Andrew and Randall, were killed when their private plane hit a mountain on their way to her 40th birthday party.

Her father Aidan Crawley was a politician and television executive who played first-class cricket for Oxford University and Kent (scorer of 11 dashing centuries) and was a president of MCC. He died in 1993 having lost a considerable amount of money in the Lloyd's crash.

Harriet and Julian, the adopted son of the philosopher, Sir Alfred Ayer, got together in 1999. "I miss him enormously," she said. "But I'm also terribly, terribly glad that I knew him. It was so intense, our relationship. Of course, it was much too short in every way, but in a sense we packed in almost a lifetime. Do you know what I mean, when these things are very intense? We were inseparable, we really were. No question, he was the great love of my life."

The idea for the cricket centre, which has turned out to be a splendidly appointed building, emerged eventually by consensus. In Sri Lanka, Nikhil Hirdaramani, an old Harrovian who had seen the team during their tour, ran the project. "The only pointer I could give was cricket because Julian so loved cricket and we had come here for the cricket," said Harriet.

Money poured in. It came at first from friends and then from well-wishers, people she has never met, who read a piece she wrote in the Daily Telegraph (as she related this, she said with some earnestness that she was an ardent reader of the Independent because Julian had been).

"My own contribution was minute," she said. "I would say friends contributed 80 per cent and well-wishers the rest, in all 60,000." For their money they have a well-lit, well carpeted centre which will shortly have a bowling machine and video equipment, both de rigueur in cricket nets these days. She was extremely excited yesterday when it was confirmed that the bulk of its use will be by local schoolchildren.

This has been a tough week for her. She returned in 2005 and went by herself to the site where the tsunami hit her bus, but she knows that this week, with the opening of the centre, represents closure as well as a beginning. Spencer is with her, his first visit back. He took himself off for a while round the Galle ground on Sunday, revisiting the places and the memories.

He is a stylish batsman who scored 40 not out for Oxford University against Cambridge at Lord's last year, helping to win the match after they were in the mire. His mum was worried about him here but Spencer seemed to be handling it well. He was much taken, as everybody is, with Sangakkara who chatted to the Crawleys before the other opening ceremony yesterday.

This was of the ground itself, and was much grander, being conducted by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, but no more resonant. Sangakkara was charming, gracious and grateful. "I hope," said Spencer, "he gets a hundred." He might well oblige.

If Harriet Crawley's story and its aftermath somehow embody the tsunami, it should not be forgotten that every family round here was affected by it. Somehow they too have come to terms with it. "I was with my rickshaw when the tsunami came," said tut-tut driver Keerthi Karananayke. "I was washed away but held on to a tree. I was worried about my wife and three children nearer the beach, but they were all right. My mother who was 75 was swept away and she died." But he and others speak in a matter-of-fact way, as if to indicate that what happened was of such enormity that you have look forward.

Harriet Crawley said: "I think of what happened often but not everyday because for many months afterwards I was shaking when I told the story. I have the most amazing, supportive son with his love and his strength. I asked him if he was worried about me during the tsunami and he said 'No mum because I thought Julian would look after you.' And he did, and he did."

The Julian Ayer Cricket Centre is there in the corner of the Galle ground as a lasting memorial. "I'm so grateful," said Harriet. "Everyone has been so wonderful. And now we have a great match. My only regret is that I was hoping to get Freddie Flintoff's autograph but I gather he's not here. A pity, but of course I'll be thrilled to get everybody else's." The players should be beating a path to her door to sign.