There's a lot to like about Hambantota. You can almost smell the paint off the markings on the broad roads; the ocean adds scenic variety to the bulk of the journey from Colombo; the fledgling harbour is a tourist attraction; the countryside is serene; signboards in Chinese spark curiosity; the Mahinda Rajapaksa stadium pops out of the horizon like a mirage, and a closer examination reveals an engineering marvel. A once economically backward district is undergoing a facelift, backed by the country's president, who hails from there.
The dream of Hambantota becoming the next big sporting hub may have been dealt a blow when the town lost the bid to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games - the bid itself could be considered, at best, exceedingly optimistic - but the overriding theme of the area seems to be that nothing is impossible.
The district is thriving on investments that have been made. The new international airport in Mattala is expected to launch operations by the end of the year. There's also talk of a monorail service connecting the airport to the stadium. The Chinese-built Hambantota port recently began commercial operations by unloading a fleet of 1000 cars from Chennai.
The district is the constituency of Namal Rajapaksa, the president's son. The various development projects, completed and ongoing, are spread out across the region, and it could be years before they are all complete. It was Namal's dream to build the stadium in the village of Sooriyaweva, and through political will it was readied before the 2011 World Cup. Sooriyaweva, approximately 14km from Mattala, was chosen because it had tracts of government-owned land. Privately owned property would have been too costly for Sri Lanka Cricket to acquire.
For the moment, cricket is the crowd-puller in the district. Six international matches have been played at the ground, starting with the 2011 World Cup. India are now in town. Come September, it will host three games of the ICC World Twenty20.
Hambantota means business as far as cricket is concerned, but what remains out of cricket administrators' control is attracting a diverse spectrum of fans from across the country and the world. A year since it began operations, it's still very inconvenient for fans travelling from elsewhere. Development in the surrounds hasn't kept pace with that of the stadium, and no dramatic change is expected in the coming months.
The main difficulties for fans and journalists are accommodation and travel. The newly laid highway makes the journey to the ground comfortable, but that doesn't change the fact that it's in the middle of nowhere. Civilisation appears only in pockets. The journey from Hambantota town, inland towards Sooriyaweva, is more than 25km, cutting across acres of farmland and wasteland. The nearest town, Embilipitiya, is 14km away.
There are no hotels or guest houses near the ground, so fans have no option but to stay in places between ten and 30km away, like Tangalle, on the coast, Tissamaharama to the east, Kataragama north east, and Ambalantota. The district's tourism website lists only two hotels under the Hambantota town area, one of which hosted the Sri Lanka and Pakistan teams recently. Construction of the swanky Shangri-La Hambantota began in February but it is expected to be completed only by 2014. Most of the hotels in the region are in the seaside town of Tangalle, at least an hour and a half from the stadium.
The drive from Colombo, though now made easier by the Southern Expressway, is a minimum of five hours. It's quite a trek for anyone wanting to watch cricket at Hambantota. Fans and media have to arrange their own transport, since there is no public transport to the venue and back. Lasantha, a management student living in Colombo, made it to the T20 games between Sri Lanka and Pakistan this June because his family owns a farmhouse in the district. Three British tourists, who had bought grandstand tickets, hired a cab from Tangalle, where they had been holidaying.
The local media turnout for the two matches was poor. The post-match press conferences were attended by only a handful of journalists, much to the bemusement of the Pakistan T20 captain, Mohammad Hafeez, and the team manager.
The players themselves haven't had an easy time either. Last year, for the two ODIs against Australia, the home team stayed in Kataragama. One of the players said the long drive back to the hotel after midnight was particularly strenuous after a 50-over game.
"The World T20 is expected to see bigger crowd figures, but a trip down south will remain an expensive proposition for the fans. Those hiring vans or cabs should keep the service for the return trip"
The fastest, and most expensive, way to get to the ground is by air taxi. Sri Lankan Airlines operates services to various tourist locales around the country, but they're not ideal for the budget traveller.
Not surprisingly, planning my Hambantota leg of Pakistan's tour took the most time and attention. My hotel, in Tissamaharama, was an hour and a half away from the ground. Though the hotel didn't host any fans for this series, I was told that a few did stay in town during the World Cup.
Hambantota isn't the only cricket venue in the world that is located inconveniently. In India, state-of-the-art stadiums in Pune and Nagpur are situated outside town, creating difficulties for those who cannot afford to drive down.
Despite the inconveniences, Hambantota's matches have been well-attended overall. The World Cup games had the best crowds, but the T20s against Pakistan were also buzzing, especially around the grass embankments where the tickets were considerably cheaper than those in the grandstand, which had several empty seats. There seemed little to complain about in terms of the facilities. The food stalls and beer tents were more than sufficient. Flags and replica team jerseys were available. Army and security personnel were around to ensure nothing untoward happened.
Where are the fans coming from? Many are farmers from the surrounding districts. Colonel Shanaka Ratnayake, who coordinated the construction of the stadium and now manages the venue, says the purpose of building the stadium was to decentralise cricket from urban centres like Colombo and to give people in far-flung areas the chance to watch live matches without having to travel too far.
"This stadium covers four major districts - Hambantota, Monaragala, Matara and Ratnapura. People coming from these districts need to travel maximum one and a half hours to reach. Rather than travelling to Colombo, this is more economical for them," says Ratnayake.
How do they get there? "Most people here are farmers," Ratnayake says. "Some of them arrange their own transport. There are private bus services. We also arrange night transport, after speaking to the government bus services. The Southern Province has a public and government transport society. I speak to the society head and arrange around ten to 15 buses. This is a free service as these buses are government-owned. People assemble at various bus depots in the district around two hours before the game and avail the service. They are dropped back after the game."
Ratnayake says many travelling fans plan short holidays around matches. Some spend an evening at the game before heading to places like Kataragama (a popular place of worship) or the national parks - Yala and Bundala.
He points to the grass embankments, which can seat up to 7000 each. They are packed. Whether Sri Lanka win or lose, it's a treat for the rural folk. After Sri Lanka's defeat in the second T20, a group of teenage boys sang what sounded like a sad Sinhala ballad.
However, the administrators must be worried by the lack of takers for the more expensive seats and corporate enclosures, which cost LKR4000 (nearly US$30) and above. Ratnayake says there are plans to cover the seated stands on either side, but nothing has been finalised.
The World T20 is expected to see bigger crowd figures, but a trip down south will remain an expensive proposition for fans. Those hiring vans or cabs are best advised to keep the service for the return trip.
A lot has been invested for the sake of the fans, but at a price. The construction of this stadium and the one in Pallekele left Sri Lanka Cricket out of pocket, thereby holding up the national players' salaries for several months. The venues were then handed over to the military - in Hambantota's case, the army.
Despite the enormous costs and spillover issues Sri Lanka Cricket has had to deal with, the board is happy with its investment in the region. "The stadium is in a dry zone, where it's possible to play cricket for nine to ten months in the year. It has progressed well in the last year," says board secretary Nishantha Ranatunga. "We need to understand the mentality of the people living in the area. Everyone should get an opportunity to watch cricket. This stadium is good for promoting outstation cricket."
For all its facilities, the stadium is yet to host a top-level domestic game, though it has held school games during the off season, and the region may start churning out quality players in the years to come.
The ground may be a hit with the locals, but if the administrators want to put bums on all seats and recover some of the costs, support systems for the fans need to be in place. That isn't going to happen overnight.