England might have only won a single Test at Galle, but one of world cricket’s most stunning venues is still home to a very special relationship.
A list of Tests played at the ground begins in June 1998 and continues uninterrupted until August 2004. There is then a solemn gap of over three years until December 2007 when, shortly before Christmas, Michael Vaughan’s England played one of the most emotional matches in the history of Sri Lankan cricket.
Galle was hit hard by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 – a disaster that claimed the lives of an estimated 31,000 Sri Lankans. Its impact was also felt far closer to home.
Harrow’s under-15 team, which included Hampshire and England Lions batsman Sam Northeast, were playing a fixture at the ground as part of a festive tour to the country. But a match that would have been the highlight of that trip became memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Having arrived at the ground for an anticipated full day of cricket against a local side, the team would spend that fateful day sheltering on a roof until help arrived.
From their unwanted vantage point, they watched helplessly as debris, livelihoods and – inevitably given the scale of the catastrophe unfolding before them – bodies were washed out to sea.
Paul Farbrace, who would go on to work alongside Trevor Bayliss during his time as England coach, was with Kent at the time of the tsunami.
He was also part of the Sri Lankan set-up when the Test against England re-opened the ground just over 13 years ago.
He knows better than most the impact that the tragedy had on Galle and the important role that cricket played in bringing a smile back to people’s faces in this part of the world.
“I was academy director at Kent at the time and I helped Sam to go on that trip with Harrow,” says Farbrace. “They were lining up to the start the game as the water came round the side of the Fort. Fortunately the Fort deflected a lot of that water. They spent the rest of the day on the roof of the pavilion.
“The central bus station is right behind the pavilion, on the other side of the road and they spent the day watching the harrowing sight of buses being washed out to sea and people being washed out to sea as well.
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“It was a really tough experience for a group of young English boys who were just looking forward to playing cricket in the country.”
The stepfather of one of the Harrow team members, Julian Ayer, was on a bus when the disaster struck and was drowned as the relentless surge of water indiscriminately continued on its way.
In the aftermath, his widow Harriet Crawley donated £50,000 to Galle Cricket Club, with the money being used to help rebuild the indoor school at the ground. It’s another demonstration of just how special the bond is between the English game and a ground perched on one of Sri Lanka’s most southerly coastal tips.
The scramble to get Galle ready for that Test in 2007 was another example of the resilience shown by the country following the disaster.
“It was the last game of the tour, right before Christmas,” says Farbrace.
“Three days out from that game, there was no chance this match was going to be played, absolutely no chance. But it was so important to the country and the region to play the Test match – it was so important to demonstrate that Galle was back on its feet and that Sri Lanka was back on its feet, that we played the game.
“It was more than a game. It was unbelievable. For the city to have international cricket back after it had been decimated by the tsunami was a very powerful and moving thing. I remember going to a village half an hour outside of Galle with some of the Sri Lankan players and some of the England boys too.
“They had rebuilt some houses for people to move into and they were stood outside. In front of one there would be a lady and two children. In the next there would be a man and a child and further down there was a couple with no children. It showed how few people had escaped unscathed. Those who had perished were not there and those who hadn’t had a huge gap in their lives. It’s the sort of thing that stays with you.”
That Test in 2007 was very much secondary to the symbolic nature of cricket’s return to Galle.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, you could argue that cricket is of secondary importance this time around, too.