Ian Botham has joined the efforts of Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne to help tsunami victims in Sri Lanka with a whirlwind fact-finding tour of the south coast that left him both "shocked by the devastation" and "inspired by the resilience of the people". Botham now wants sport to play a crucial role in helping some of the area's local communities bounce back from a natural disaster that killed over 30,000 across the island.
Botham's visit was organised in association with the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, a charity that aims to bring about positive social change through sport; the Shane Warne Foundation, a charity set-up to help sick and under-privileged children; and the Muralitharan-Vaas-Gunasekera Foundation, a community-based charity that has been running a major tsunami reconstruction project on the west coast.
Despite a significant improvement in the on-ground situation after the Boxing Day tragedy, Botham was left visibly moved by the trail of destruction after flying in a seaplane down from Colombo to Galle, a southern town that was swamped by the tsunami waves. On his drive from the Koggala military airbase he passed the luxury beach villa, now flattened, where the Sky commentary team stayed during England's last tour in 2003 and then saw the wreckage that is now the Galle International Stadium, once one of the world's most picturesque venues.
"I was last here 18 months ago for the England Test match and I remember it in all its splendour but now it's like the surface of the moon," Botham said on arrival. "We all saw the pictures on television, but until you come here and see it first-hand you don't realise the scale of what happened - it is like something out of a disaster movie. Where there was once a hive of activity there is now nothing. The fishmongers, the boats, the shops...they have all gone."
Botham was on a fact-finding reconnaissance to see the situation on the ground and assess how the Laureus Academy could contribute to the region's recovery. The charity now runs 37 sports projects worldwide and Botham's immediate response was emphatic: "Everyone seems to have been affected in the area in some way or another and there are a lot of emotions still flying around. The sooner that sport is brought back into the area the better because it will help the younger generation in particular to unleash some of those emotions."
"Nelson Mandela pointed out to us six years ago at the inaugural Laureus Academy meeting in Monaco that sport has the unique capacity to bring people together and break down barriers. Sport bonds people together and could play a really important role here. Sri Lankans have a rich love of sport, especially cricket which runs in the blood, and it is logical that it plays a part now."
After meeting with the media, Botham strolled out to a freshly prepared strip in the middle, the first to be cut since the tsunami, to hold a workshop for local aspiring fast bowlers. Provided translation assistance by Ruchira Perera and Lasith Malinga, Sri Lanka's newest bowling star, he preached the value of a high front arm and urged them to aspire to a place in the national team before jumping back into his minibus.
The next stop was Seenigama, a small fishing village that was severely hit by the disaster. It also happened to be the home of Murali's manager, Kushil Gunasekera, who narrowly escaped death by sprinting away from the tsunami waves seconds before the village was engulfed. Over 300 homes were severely hit or completely destroyed. The first house has just been reconstructed and 25 more are to be completed shortly. In all, Murali's charity will rebuild 150 new homes in the coming months.
Botham's appearance was an occasion for serious celebration. Hundreds of villagers turned out in their best dress to greet him and a loudspeaker announcer worked himself into a frenzy announcing "the legend's" arrival. While young lads showed off their softball cricket skills, blasting tennis balls out of the park, Botham toured around the village, listening to a mixture of tales about heartbreaking losses or miraculous escapes.
"Everyone seemed to have a story to tell," said Botham. "There were a lot of tales about lucky survivals but also many sad tales. But you have to take your hats off to the amazing resilience of the people here and the way that they have jumped back on their feet. The guts and determination they have shown is magnificent. Everyone in this village has been helping each other, building almost everything on their own - even the bricks have been manufactured in the village."
Botham will return home and report his findings to the academy members. A decision will then be made as to how the Laureus Academy can best make use of their substantial resources to aid the reconstruction process. Their money will not be spent on development or infrastructure projects but on an actual sport programme that they will directly oversee. The charity has achieved considerable success in other countries: for instance, projects in America that have cut gangland crime, and a football project in Kenya slums that snowballed into a 600-team league.