February 16, 2002

Dambulla looks forward to trouble free future after difficult year

Rangiri Dambulla International Stadium is finally emerging from an embarrassing string of financial and ownership disputes that have marred its short history since being raised from scrub in 155 days.

By July, the problems had became so intractable that contractors laid down their tools and the shiny new stadium, situated in the central drylands, became off-limits for touring sides.

Dambulla Stadium
Dambulla Stadium

However, the ground was reopened to stage the current third unofficial Test match between Kenya and Sri Lanka A and the Chairman of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL), Vijaya Malalsekera, is hopeful that all disputes will now be resolved in the coming weeks.

Dambulla's controversial tale started right from the projects inception, with the cricket community divided as to the value of building a 25,000 seater stadium in such a remote rural area.

Thilanga Sumathipala championed the project as the President of the BCCSL, arguing that the stadium would help develop the game in the outstations and protect television revenues from the vagaries of the weather.

Others were skeptical of Sumathipala's rationale, believing the plan to be a waste of precious developmental resources.

However, undeterred, Sumathipala drove the project with manic zeal, from the drawing board into reality in the space of just five months, just in time to stage its inaugural match against England last March.

But soon after that match, the real problems began.

Sumathipala had been so determined to have the projected completed in time for the England match that the costs had soared, from the original 150 million rupee (USD $ 1.5m) forecast to a final bill that will be close to 500 million rupees (USD $5m).

Next, in a surprise move, Sports Minister Lakshmann Kiriella - apparently acting upon a request from President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga - dissolved the Cricket Board on a constitutional technicality.

An Interim Committee was appointed to run the affairs of the board and a Probe Committee was established to investigate allegations of financial mismanagement during Sumathipala's terms in office.

Grand Stand ©CricInfo

The awarding of contracts to building constructors for the Dambulla project and the payment of those appointed contractors soon became one of the focal points of the investigation.

The Attorney General's department ordered the Interim Committee to freeze all further payments to constructors until such time as a proper investigation had been completed.

Sierra Constructors, the principal construction company, sealed off the ground, refusing access to the BCCSL until they had received full payment.

Sierra's hardline stance mellowed with time, allowing matches to be played against Canada and Pakistan A, but the payment dispute rumbled on.

Meanwhile, Sumathipala successfully challenged the Probe Committee in the courts, claiming that the appointment of its members was political motivated with the committee stacked full of opponents. The investigation ground to a halt.

Further problems arose over the legal standing of the lease signed by the Cricket Board and the Rangiri Dambulla temple authorities, who own the 65-acre plot of land on which the stadium was constructed.

The government ministry dealing with Buddhist affairs argued that the lease had been signed without their prior permission and was therefore unlawful.

As the payment dispute and ownership dispute dragged on, the Sports Ministry, acting on rumours that Sierra were considering last-minute legal action to disrupt the games, prevented three one-day matches being hosted during the Coca-Cola Cup with India and New Zealand in August 2001.

Grand Stand ©CricInfo

The venue was also avoided during tours by West Indies and Zimbabwe later in the year.

However, finally, with the assistance of a new Sports Minister, Johnstone Fernando, anxious that the problems be quickly resolved, both the payment and ownership disputes are close to resolution.

The Attorney General has now given the all clear to the Cricket Board to start paying the final balance payments due to the building contractors.

Chairman of the Interim Committee of the BCCSL, said: "In two weeks time the Interim Committee will meet and we will decide on the final payment of the outstanding balance which is approximately 162 million rupees (USD $ 1.6m).

Sierra, and the numerous other contractors still owed money, will be paid in full if they provide a detailed and acceptable breakdown of the costs incurred.

The BCCSL are also hopeful that the legal wrangle over the lease will be settled shortly after assistance from new Interim Committee member and imminent lawyer, Nalin Laduwahetty, who took over responsibility for the complex issue.

The Sports Minister has also played his part, calling for the Budhasasana Justice and Law Reforms Minister V.J.M. Lokubandara to intervene and bring about a settlement between the Dambulla temple authorities and the ministry.

It's a settlement long overdue and even those with initial reservations about the project will be pleased that one of the most scenic venues in the world will finally be able to start repaying the considerable sum of money invested in it.