My Little Trip to Sri Lanka

By Brenton Chibuwe

My recent little trip to Sri Lanka turned out to be one of the most exciting vacations I have had in a while. It was perhaps an odd choice for a vacation, given the plethora of options: Sri Lanka, an island in South Asia that lies in the Indian Ocean, southwest of the Bay of Bengal. It was a country I had gotten to know through my interest in cricket. I appreciated the greats that the country had produced, the likes of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. But my interest in cricket had waned over the years because of my busy schedule as an accountant. Growing up, I was an avid cricket fan from primary school on. Zimbabwe was not a world-class team but had some splendid talent in its ranks. The likes of Andy Flower and Heath Streak were capable of producing world-class performances and as a result we used to beat the big teams occasionally. It used to bring a lot of joy to my heart and my sense of patriotism was strengthened by these amazing victories.

Then the rebel players came to prominence, and a lot of players left Zimbabwe. During the so-called black armband protest, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga “mourned” the death of democracy in Zimbabwe. This was roundly condemned by senior political figures. And it played a huge role in players leaving Zimbabwe as they stood in solidarity with Andy and Olonga. We were left with a team of high school kids. They were talented, sure, but competing at the very top was expecting too much. And the drop-off was severe: loss after loss and record-breaking defeats were now the order of the day. I could not stomach these humiliating defeats, and I slowly but surely lost interest.

My vacation took an interesting turn when the Zimbabwean cricket team checked into the same hotel as me. On enquiry, the team had come to Sri Lanka for a three-match series. My love for cricket, which had been a dying flame in my heart, was instantly rekindled. I decided to extend my stay for the three-match series and to root for my home nation.

It was a bit peculiar, particularly in the first encounter, as I had the impression I was the only away fan in all of Pallekele. The Zimbabwean players gave me permission to sit with the rest of the team in the stadium, which was a great honor for me. The locals came in their numbers to support their nation—cricket is popular on the subcontinent. Zimbabwe was batting first, and I was eager to see how we’d perform. I prefer watching my team bat to watching them bowl. I don’t particularly like to see our bowlers being smacked all over the ground. I ordered my new favorite dish, chicken vindaloo, and a liter of Coca-Cola to wash it down. The Zimbabwe batsmen played well, putting up 296 runs from their allotted 300 balls. I was particularly impressed by Regis Chakabva, who was still a teenager in the time I used to follow cricket. He set the tone up the order with some scintillating batting. Sean Williams’s experience was on full display as he got 100 runs. I enjoyed watching Williams bat: his shot selection was impeccable, and he anchored the Zimbabwe batting innings. There was also a new guy, Kaitano, who was making his first appearance for the national team. He impressed me with his tremendous technique and good scoring rate. In my book he was unlucky not to get to his 50+ score—a half-century, as it is styled in cricket circles, and a significant milestone for a batsman. Even the chatter in the dressing room was that 296 on the board might be enough to secure victory for Zimbabwe.

To my disappointment, the bowlers failed to defend 296, and we lost the first one-day match by five wickets. Chatara in particular failed to apply pressure on the batsman bowling, missing their lengths more often than not, and the Lankan batsman cashed in with Dinesh Chandimal and Charith Assalanka and Pathum Nissanka all getting 50+ scores in a dominant batting display. This was much to the delight of the Sri Lanka fans in attendance, who erupted into singing and dancing after they had taken the lead in the three-match series.

I was disappointed and dejected after the first match, but I was confident that Zimbabwe would nab victories in the remaining matches to secure the series. And they obliged in the second match, with a much improved bowling display. Tendai Chatara in particular redeemed himself as he got three wickets. I was chuffed for Tendai—not only for his marvelous bowling performance but for the fact we have the same hometown, Mutare. It always fills me with joy when my homeboys do well on the international stage. Just as in the opening match, Zimbabwe won the toss and batted first. They scored 302 runs for the loss of seven wickets. The batting had thoroughly impressed this tour. This time around it was skipper Craig Ervine who was top scorer for us, falling nine short of his fourth international hundred. The new fan favorite, Sikandar Raza, was excellent with his quick-fire 56, while Regis Chakabva (47) and Sean Williams (48) were unlucky to miss out on their own personal milestones but provided valuable knocks for the team. I enjoyed this batting performance as the experienced players dominated the Lankans. I was still wary of our bowlers and had a feeling we would let this game slip yet again. And at one point it seemed like we would. When the Sri Lanka captain Dasun Shanaka was batting, I was on the edge of my seat biting my nails as he threatened to claw down the total and secure the victory. He was eventually caught out a few balls after getting his hundred, and I leapt for joy in the VIP section, which drew chuckles from the media section nearby. Zimbabwe had won the match by 23 runs, setting up a winner-take-all third match.

This series was more than exhilarating. I was delighted that we were going toe to toe with Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka. It was unheard of back in the day, and I took heart in the strides Zimbabwe had taken as far as cricket was concerned. In the final match I decided to neglect my VIP comforts and joined the crowd in the stadium. We seemed to have the match locked down following another impressive bowling performance, restricting Sri Lanka for 254-9 in their allotted 50 overs. I was impressed with the seam bowling trio of Blessing Muzarabani, Tendai Chatara, and Richard Ngarava, who were excellent with both their line and length. They were all utilizing the fourth stump line with the ball swinging away from the right-handers, thus difficult to put away. Wellington Masakadza also kept things tight, which led to Kusal Mendis falling as he attempted to accelerate. The Zimbabwe bowlers were disciplined overall, conceding only four extras and sharing wickets all round. The ever-improving Richard Ngarava finished with the best figures, 2-42 from his nine overs. The death bowling was also impressive as the pacers utilized their repertoire of variations, taking the pace off the ball and bowling some leg cutters. Charith Assalanka (52) and Pathum Nissanka (55) were the top scorers for the hosts.

I was happy with the bowling performance leaving us needing 255 to win. A piece of cake, I thought to myself, given our batting form in the series. We were on the verge of recording another away series victory. To my dismay the batsman imploded under the lights, with pacer Chameera taking the wickets of opener Regis Chakabva for one, and captain Craig Ervine went for a golden duck in his second over. We never recovered as the in-form batsman and my favorite player Sean Williams was clean bowled by Maheesh Thekshana for six. Takudzwa Kaitano was the top scorer with 19 before he fell to leg spinner Jeffrey Vandersay for the third time in the series after some impressive glove work by Kusal Mendis. Zimbabwe’s wickets fell in quick succession with few runs on the board—besides Kaitano, only Ryan Burl managed to cross double figures with his labored 15 off 44 deliveries. It was a heart-wrenching defeat as we went down with a whimper. The hosts took the three match series with a 2-1 victory. The manner in which we lost the match echoed the post-rebel era of 2004–2005, where we were humiliated more often than not, and it opened up old wounds. I wondered if batting under lights had been a factor. Back home we never play under lights. I had to take the defeat on the chin. As a consolation, I got an unexpected souvenir from Sean Williams, who gave me his signed team kit and helmet. I retired to my hotel room.

After the series, I left disappointed. Zimbabwe had failed to clinch the overall victory, despite some brave performances from the players. But my little trip to Sri Lanka had been a memorable one!

9 June, 2023