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Island affair that leaves England cold

Letter from Sri Lanka

This may not be the World Championship of Test cricket, but it is difficult to over-estimate what it means to this fabulous island. Take a nonchalant comment from a high-placed chap at the launch of the series between Sri Lanka and England.

This may not be the World Championship of Test cricket, but it is difficult to over-estimate what it means to this fabulous island. Take a nonchalant comment from a high-placed chap at the launch of the series between Sri Lanka and England.

"Of all the matches we have played since we were granted Test status in the Eighties this first series against England is by far the most important," he said. "By far," he added to emphasise the importance not only of the taking part but of the winning.

In the days when Sri Lanka were trying to acquire the right to play Test matches, one of the reasonsoffered by the Imperial Cricket Conference was that the country did not have enough places to play. Visiting teams, it was said, would be permanently based in Colombo and play all matches there. Some tour.

By the time the initials ICC came to stand for International Cricket Council, in 1989, Sri Lanka had been playing Tests for seven years and had used six grounds. Galle, where the First Test of this series is being played, became the seventh in 1997.

"Not Lord's, is it," sniffed Chris, from St Helen's, on first encountering it. Indeed it is not, but it is a special ground: sweltering, humid, flat pitch, overlooked by a fort, lapped by the Indian Ocean on two sides, front entrance opposite Galle bus station on the frenetic main street. Sri Lanka, incidentally, which was supposed to be short of venues, has had as many in 19 years as England has in 118. England's last new venue was Edgbaston in 1909.

The launch was a formal, dazzlingaffair involving traditional dancers, music and interminable speeches. In England they still can't manage that sort of thing except for the speeches bit. A pity, but if it was to mean Morris dancers, then spare us.

Colour coded

Sledging is being officially frowned upon here, but England already suspect that they are the only ones who may be going into a battle without a toboggan. They have not said as much because this side are nothing if not diplomatic.

In the warm-up match before the First Test, there was some fuss about an incident involving the all-rounder Craig White when he was batting. He had an exchange with a Sri Lankan bowler and was visibly shocked by it.

White and England are reluctant to reconstruct events, but it transpires that he made an observation about Ruchira Perera being called for a no-ball, confirming the umpire's decision about the whereabouts of the line. Everyday chirp, cricketers would say.

Perera responded with disparaging remarks about the colour of White's skin and a general disliking for caucasians (all expletives deleted). The all-rounder is keeping his counsel about the incident (oh, diplomacy!).

Had England said something along reverse lines it would certainly have caused an international row. But then England should remember that centuries of colonial repression are hard to shake off, even on a cricket pitch. Or maybe especially on a cricket pitch.

A rights old mess

Two days before the opening match of the series, Patrick Murphy, BBC Radio's veteran and opinionated sports reporter, found himself without a microphone as he prepared to conduct an interview with Nasser Hussain. "As you know I yield to nobody in my esteem for TalkSport," he bellowed inthe direction of the independentstation's producer in the hope of cadging a mike.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Murphy, a Beeb man to the back of his throat, makes no secret of his animosity for those muscling in on their territory. TalkSport, the radio ball-by-ball rights holders to this series, were about to oblige before Murphy was rescued by one of his public-service chums. Embarrassment spared, but it was a portent of things to come.

On the second day of the First Test, Murphy, who is covering the series for the World Service, Jonathan Agnew, the BBC's cricket correspondent, and Peter Baxter, the producer, were locked out of the ground. The broadcasting rights holder, one WSG Nimbus, wanted cash for their admission. TalkSport had acquired their rights from Nimbus and were not entitled, said Nimbus, to give the Beeb the nod for eight minutes of reports an hour.

Aggers, Murph and Edward Bevan of BBC Wales, in characteristically stoic Corporation fashion, took up camp on the fort overlooking the ground and for two hours broadcast from there. Baxter stood heroically in the heat, letting them know he was going nowhere.

In the event they were allowed back in for the duration of the match. Cash negotiations will continue later. The entrance of the homecoming heroes was effected by the intervention of Tim Lamb, the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board.

Lamb had a word with Nimbusto gain a reprieve which may yet prove to be but a stay of execution. But there is undoubtedly a principle at stake about news access for sporting events. A little longer at the fort may have provoked a siege, leading to a battle and a war which will definitely need to be fought.

Sign of the time

England, as mentioned above, try to be endlessly diplomatic. The other day they bowled up for a team dinner and Hussain was invited to sign the guest book. "Team Dinner for 18," he wrote. "We all eventually got served and some actually liked it. We may come back." The Diary can report that though the staff were friendly the wait for dinner was 50 minutes, it was cold and extremely unappetising. Hussain deserves some runs.