October 6, 2012

Cricket gives Sri Lankans a sporting chance

The war is over, the economy is booming - now Sri Lanka wants and needs a major cricket title

At the foot of Colombo's World Trade Center twin towers is a renovated piece of heritage architecture that is now home to a clutch of smart restaurants, including the Ministry of Crab, a seafood restaurant that Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara co-own with a friend, and boutiques that the city's swish set frequent. It was built as a hospital in the Dutch colonial era in the 19th century and is still called the Dutch Hospital.

The Dutch Hospital is emblematic of the renewal of a city and country from the ravages of war, fear and loathing. Not so long ago, the whole area resembled a battle zone. The World Trade Center and the adjacent Galadari hotel were attacked by suicide bombers in 1997, a year after an explosive-laden vehicle had driven in to the Central Bank next to the hospital, killing 86 people. During the war the complex, rundown and decrepit, was used as an army barracks. You couldn't drive a vehicle past it.

Today it is a symbol of Colombo shining. In fact, the whole area along the Galle Face Road, an iconic stretch that skirts the sea, buzzes deep into the night with people pouring in and out of the five-star hotels, trendy bars, cafés and nightclubs, and the metered taxis - as tuk-tuks are now officially known - do brisk business, if almost always without their meters on. The tourists are back, but outwardly the charge comes from the city's residents, young and old, hungry to reclaim their lives and eager to make up for the lost years.

The roads are swept every morning. Gleaming cars cruise past. Entrepreneurs are talking business and bankers discussing investments, the Chinese are building new buildings and Indians are looking to set up hotels. The smile never left Sri Lankan lips even during the worst times, but now there is a confidence behind it.

It's a good time to be in Sri Lanka. And it's a good time for Sri Lanka to host a global cricket tournament. It will become perfect if Sri Lanka win the World Twenty20 tomorrow.

Under the surface, though, tension and discontent simmer. Everyone complains about the cost of living. Sugar prices have risen by 60% in the past year, bread by a quarter. Despite the optimism about the future, economists worry that the economy, which took a severe beating during the war, cannot sustain itself on exuberance and positive sentiment alone.

While Ranatunga was admired for scrapping for Sri Lankan pride, Jayawardene and Sangakkara are seen as having done more than diplomats to earn respect for Sri Lanka in the Western world, and are regarded as leaders of the society

The vital indices give cause for concern. The Sri Lankan rupee has dived. The interest rates, traditionally high, have soared further, pushing up the cost of business. The budget deficit is projected to rise to 9% of gross domestic product this year, and the economy is still hugely reliant on remittances from the Sri Lankan diaspora, which account for nearly 10% of GDP.

The relief that came with the end of the war, however, can hardly be described. It's hard to put a value on not having to worry about your children returning safe from school, or families daring to travel together on a train. Some even describe the aftermath of war as surreal. To suddenly not feel fear, and have the liberty to do as you please, go wherever you wanted, took getting used to.

Cricket has stayed a constant. During the war, it was the only thing that cut through ethnic strife. And it provided escape and distraction. Those who watched Arjuna Ranatunga's team lift the World Cup in 1996 say they can relive the sensation by merely thinking about it. It heralded the arrival of a nation, a people, on the world stage. It engendered belief, shaped an identity. It made the country feel grateful to cricket. And the fans have never forgotten what Ranatunga did for them.

In post-war Sri Lanka, cricket is still doing the same thing. "It is still a form of escapism," a local journalist said to me, "It is the only accessible and affordable form of entertainment for a lot of people."

That's why the loss in the 2011 World Cup final rankled. Like all subcontinental nations, Sri Lanka's cricket fans are unsparing and slow to forgive. The most outrageous conspiracy theories, including the involvements of states, were passed around as gospel. The most outlandish involved a presidential directive at the innings break to the Sri Lankan captain. The hurt stayed for days and months. It lingers even now, but most have now come around to the view that the match was lost on the field.

It helps that Sri Lanka is led by two men of impeccable character. Ranatunga is still revered, and Muttiah Muralitharan is remembered with love for the powerful symbolism he provided. Throughout the war, the Sri Lankan team presented a picture of national integration, with Sinhalese Buddhists, Tamils, Muslims and Christians taking on the world under one flag.

Now, in gentler times, Jayawardene and Sangakkara make Sri Lankan hearts swell with pride not merely because of the runs they have piled up together but also because of how highly they are regarded in the cricket world. While Ranatunga was admired for scrapping for Sri Lankan pride, Jayawardene and Sangakkara are seen as having done more than diplomats to earn respect for Sri Lanka in the Western world, and are regarded as leaders of the society.

They are urbane and articulate, and have shown themselves to be compassionate and willing to use their position in cricket to contribute beyond it. Jayawardene is the inspiration behind Sri Lanka's first state-of-the-art cancer hospital, and both, along with Muralitharan, are associated with the Foundation of Goodness, an organisation committed to rural development.

Jayawardene is aware of how much a win would mean to the nation. But he is aware too of the consequences of defeat. When confronted with Sri Lanka's poor record in finals - they have lost in two consecutive 50-over World Cups, apart from the World Twenty20 final in 2009 - he is quick to provide perspective. He would rather be in a final and lose, he said, than be knocked out before getting there.

He wasn't pleased about not being granted home advantage - the semi-final was the third venue of the tournament for Sri Lanka, whereas India played all their matches in Colombo, where the pitches assisted spin - but there is a view that it was right for the home team to travel around the country and draw their fans to the new stadiums that the Sri Lankan cricket board has built at considerable expense.

There is near unanimity that Pallekele, unlike Hambantota which has been built in the wilderness, now provides the best cricket-watching experience in the country. The setting, in the hills, is incredibly beautiful, and during day-night matches, it provides the most gorgeous views of the setting sun. It is only a few kilometres outside Kandy, which, contrary to what Ravi Bopara would have you believe, is a town of considerable charm. But Sri Lankans even travelled by the busload to Hambantota to watch Sri Lanka take on South Africa in the league match that ended up as a seven-over slugout.

Interest has built up as Sri Lanka have progressed through the tournament. Those without foresight or faith are now madly scouring around for tickets to the final. Appeals abound on social media pages. Huge amounts are being offered to those willing to part with theirs. There is hope that the Indian and Pakistani fans who had arrived in hordes in Colombo - many with tickets for the final - will offer them up on Sunday. A T20 dance number by the local radio channel has become the rage on YouTube, and parties are being planned for communal viewing across the city.

T20 doesn't feel like the real thing, but Sri Lanka won't be holding back if their team manages to go over the line the second time. And hardly a soul can grudge them the smile.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo