February 23, 2011

The story of Hambantota

How politics influences cricket in the subcontinent, and particularly in Sri Lanka

The road from Colombo is cosy and potentially dangerous. It might not look so severe on a map, but driving along it feels like navigating a particularly aimless, thin jalebi, escorted along both sides by thick, beautiful jungle. Intermittently appear signs of life, brief stretches of thatched shops and houses, relief from overwhelming beauty.

About five hours in arrives a junction, at the village of Suriyawewa. The left takes you into a new country. It is the road to Sri Lanka's latest venue, the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Stadium in Hambantota. The road is wide, that darkish sheen fresh roads have, with bright white lane markings. You could skateboard down this, or luge it. Ten kilometres later appears the stadium, an ode to the way the subcontinent works: if there is political will - and no doubt self-interest - great things happen with greater haste.

In a very modern way, like a new Apple gadget, the stadium is beautiful. It stands alone, a little sad and out of place. As you drive through the gates, the back of the grandstand building looks like the front grille of a nifty vintage car. Around the ground, the earth's trees battle the sky's clouds for fluffy beauty. The playing field is deliberately large - apparently with other sports in mind - overlooked at one end by the towering grandstand and at the other by the media centre. On either side are the general stands, two blocks covered and with seating. Two other chunks are grass embankments, so that the whole picture is not too distant a cousin of Supersport park in Centurion. They will soon become covered tiered stands: a shame. The Mahinda Rajapaska Stadium is but a nose job in the vast facelift of the region. But it is currently a most visual symbol of the potential of the district and the power of a president, and above all, proof of just how deep into the soil of the subcontinent cricket has gone.

The town
In one of those common quirks of geography, both the district and its capital town answer to the name Hambantota. This is the deep south of Sri Lanka and almost entirely rural. The economy is essentially agriculture-based: paddy-milling, fruits and vegetables the big earners as well as a developed fishing culture. The King coconuts are magnificent and rightly popular.

Miles pass without a sign of life. Half a million people in this district, which by the standards of the subcontinent is nothing. Even that, in the days spent here, feels an exaggeration but from somewhere, nearly 35,000 came to the first international game. Miles and hours pass without life and then you come across the almost-complete building of an international convention centre. The driver points out structures in the distance towards the coast: the new deep-sea port. An international airport will soon be up as well. Regions and cities take generations to develop. They undergo a gradual transformation. Here, one day this will be a cluster of villages and small towns and the next a leading economic trading hub in South Asia. Currently we're stuck in the time warp, which is a mildly disorienting place and time to be in. We haven't been able to find a packet of crisps in two towns and yet a global sporting event is taking place here. In 2018 they might be hosting the Commonwealth Games. Nothing has felt less like a hub of anywhere, though that is not to fault it. There is an endearing, admirable straightforwardness about life - wake up, eat, work, eat, sleep. People smile and at the same time look on with mild suspicion.

These big plans for Hambantota, says the head of the local chamber of commerce (sparkling website incidentally) Azmi Thassim, go back years. "The idea for the sea-port has been in place for years and the airport too, though that was for a neighbouring district. It has been accelerated and implemented since the president came to office, and that has been an advantage for us." It is a familiar, if flawed, regional development tale.

China is heavily involved, not only in the deep sea port but also with the stadium and airport. One foreign correspondent based in Colombo says up to 50,000 Chinese workers have been in the region for five years. More than ever these days, the Chinese have only to sneeze for the world to start deconstructing and analysing it as the next stop in their domination of the world. But given Hambantota's geographical proximity to key Indian Ocean shipping routes, it was only ever a matter of time before someone came along and utilised it properly. Those who don't believe in great strategic games say simply that an alternative economic base to Colombo is being developed and Hambantota, by dint of producing the president, is it right now.

Cricket development in the subcontinent
The link between politics and cricket in Sri Lanka, as Mike Marqusee observed in his cricket travelogue War Minus the Shooting, is more explicit than elsewhere. Here senior politicians have been board heads and the sports minister's say in team selection changes only by degree.

Politicians build stadiums in their own names in their own districts. And stadiums and grounds in general remain the strongest currency of cricket development in the subcontinent. The idea is simple: build a stadium, in an underdeveloped region preferably, and soon players will emerge. If one player becomes a biggish name, then further, continuing development of that region is set. It has been one of the major steps in democratising cricket of the region, of spreading it and tapping talent in areas untouched. And it has worked, in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka Cricket's (SLC) chairman Somachandra De Silva says they have brought cricket to a village. "Because in the last two decades it was all Colombo. We also have plans to build an academy for youngsters of Hambantota and the adjoining areas, and also a indoor stadium. After the World Cup we will hold a Test at Hambantota when Australia tour in July this year, and also one or two one-day in that series. There are also plans to host World Twenty20 matches here."

There is inevitably cynicism about such ventures. According to estimates, the stadium in Hambantota has cost nearly US$ 9 million to build so naturally there is plenty of talk of corruption and kickbacks. The previous sports minister famously called SLC the third most corrupt institute in the country - after police and education apparently - and you'll find enough locals who agree with that assessment. But just to see the stadium and to know the story of its construction wipes away some of the doubts, especially the concerns about its readiness before the tournament began.

The driving force behind the idea was the president's son, Namal Rajapaksa. The sweat came from the Chinese engineers (them again), the army (which seems to permeate through life here as it does in Pakistan), the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, which built the two main buildings, and the SLC, who funded it. It stands now as a shining testament to Just Getting Things Done. A series of photographs of the various stages of its construction, taken by Lt Colonel Shanaka Ratnayake, the project coordinating officer, tell an extraordinary tale. Only by the end of 2008 was paperwork for the project completed - itself a gargantuan, bureaucratic task - and clearances obtained. At that stage, where now stands the stadium, was jungle. The actual work began on May 19, 2009, by which time land had been cleared.

Growing grass for the playing area was the most difficult task; though you wouldn't be able to tell, Hambantota is a dry, arid region. But with a fancy sprinkler system in place and help from the national curator, brown turned green towards the close of 2009. The ICC inspection team arrived for a first visit in February 2010, at which point there was only the playing field and nothing else.

Only after that did construction of the buildings begin, but even by June, the grandstand was barely a structure. Pakistan A played a four-day game against Sri Lanka A in September, while construction was ongoing. Unusually heavy rains hampered work severely so that by December, just two months before the first match, nothing about the ground suggested it was remotely near completion.

Two photographs, on December 17, 2010 and January 24, 2011, when the ICC's inspection teams were openly concerned, are particularly revealing of the acceleration of work. In the first is the grandstand as it might look in the process of a demolition. In the second, from a distance admittedly, it appears complete. The army's manpower in those final days, says Ratnayake, was crucial. On February 20, just 21 months after construction began, the Mahinda Rajapaksa stadium was ready, a jewel from out of nothing.

What will come of this jewel? Thassim is unsure, as are others, of the viability of the enterprise. The teams have stayed in hotels 70kms from the stadium. It is not yet an easy place for fans to access. Players have found the distances too great. Tellingly, neither Australia nor New Zealand from the group played matches here. "I was very happy and proud for such a stadium," Thassim says. "But the viability of this, personally, I feel it could become a burden on resources."

The whole idea of Hambantota as an international commercial - and sporting - hub seems to be getting ahead of itself, of flying before it has started walking. It is audacious, but also flimsy, heavily dependent on political largesse and foreign investment.

Businessmen and traders question whether the local private sector has the capacity to cope with the development. They insist that it must eventually become more involved in that growth. The local population has begun to benefit. Land prices have gone up, more local produce is being sold as more people visit. Big multinational firms, such as India's auto giant Bajaj, are setting up plants here, boosting employment. But real, deeper benefits and change are still years away, maybe another 15 or so.

They might produce an international cricketer before that though.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of ESPNcricinfo