There had been a degree of trepidation, for those of us who were not here for the last Twenty20 at the R Premadasa Stadium, as to how security would be handled for tonight s game. I had read in the web versions of the Island and Daily Mirror, and later been told first hand by local reporters, about just over three weeks ago, policemen baton-charged spectators outside the gates of the venue.
On that unfortunate evening, the main gates had been closed as security guards began individual checks on ticket-holding spectators after forcing them into a small side entrance. As men, women and children were jostled and pinned against steel blockades, anxiety swelled and in a panic police offers manning the gates resorted to assault some spectators.
The issue did not go down well in the local papers. The Daily Mirror accused the security contingent of not only failing to do their job but allowed arrangements to descend into what has been described as a total shambles .
On Monday, the day after the Test series finished, Sri Lanka Cricket s security unit held a press conference at the board headquarters spelling out the security arrangements. The aim was to ensure spectator safety and comfort for the two Twenty20s and the tri-series to be held at the Premadasa. The security and traffic plans were outlined and senior bigwigs from Colombo s police force vowed not to allow such an incident to happen, while SLC apologised to the crowd after three weeks.
We journalists were advised to follow a specific procedure to reach the Premadasa. I personally had no difficulty reaching the venue, but had decided to arrive well in advance. The difficulty began once I was in sight of my entry gate.
With vehicles not allowed down the road from where I has used to entering last year, I got down at Khettarama Road and decided to walk the few hundred odd meters on foot. I was stopped five times before covering 50 meters with a cordon of police officers requesting to see my media pass. After the sixth check I was directed to cross the road and go show my pass again. Then three spectators and myself were ushered single-file through a metal scaffolding-like check post at the end of which each of us was thoroughly frisked and I mean thoroughly. I had to open my bag and display all the contents. The laptop was pretty self explanatory but the cordless mouse, audio recorder and ipod needed explaining.
After about 50 meters I was again asked to show my pass. Then I reached the gate through which media and certain ticket holders were allowed. Another walk through scaffolding followed, after which I again had to open my bag. Once past the gate, I had one final hurdle to cross: the security guard at the gate in front of the media enclosure. He didn t need much convincing that I was part of the media, but refused to let me turn left even when I assured him the press box was to my left. Luckily, a member of Sri Lanka Cricket s media relations saw me and waved me upstairs.
Police and security personnel, almost as a rule, are seldom polite in this part of the world. Those ordered to man the check posts and every person not in uniform were gruff and unfriendly.
Cricket watching is supposed to be a leisurely experience, but by submitting ticket-holding spectators to near a dozen checks just to reach the stadium is frustrating. It will be all the more uncomfortable when India play here next week and the crowd turnout is way more. It s also tough to see how World Cup matches will be held here in 2011 with the current situation. When planning for the World Cup, putting in place security measures that don t leave you feeling violated can be a starting point.
Given the fiasco that happened last time, it s not easy to see why there isn t a packed house here this evening. They d probably much prefer watching it on television than being charged by baton-wielding police and navy officers.
But once they re inside the ground, the fans who have gathered put up a good show. They make for a fun and colourful audience, in a literal sense. Standing outside the media box and hearing the fans go wild is good fun. Standing, swaying, shouting, blowing para pan trumpets, waving Sri Lankan flags with the trademark lion embossed in the middle and inflatable thingamajigs, dancing the bayla, this crowd has enthused an energy that the New Zealanders could only have envied. And this is in the hour leading up to the toss.
Unlike back in India, the fans don t have it bad once they re inside the stadium - water bottles are allowed, food stalls are a brief walk away and there are toilets.
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Move over, Sanath, there s a new rock star in Sri Lanka. Tillakaratne Dilshan is doing what he does best, batting with characteristic belligerence as he thrashes New Zealand s new-ball pair all over the ground in Sri Lanka s reply to target of 142. Shane Bond s first over for New Zealand in nearly two years goes for 16, Dilshan taking four successive boundaries. The ground is nowhere near its 30,000 capacity but the noise is electric. Then comes the Dilscoop off Kyle Mills and it's delirium in the stands.
Chris, the only touring New Zealand journalist, shakes his head he wears a look that suggests that for him this was almost as inevitable as the sun setting in the west.
Jayasuriya departs for another poor score but the crowd is hardly bothered. They re here to see Dilshan stick it to New Zealand. Not happy with just boundaries, he runs like a hare on heroin, pinching manic singles from under the New Zealanders noses. Dilli, as he s called lovingly by the spectators, is going ballistic and the fans are going mad. Sri Lanka! Sri Lanka! Sixer! Sixer!
A superb throw from Jesse Ryder at backward point runs out Mahela Jayawardene. There are a few oohs as the big screen confirms the direct hit got Jayawardene short. Then Dilshan hits consecutive fours off Ian Butler, one through point and the other paddled over short fine leg. The crowd goes berserk.