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All eyes on tiny Lanka


Sixteen years ago, in March, Sri Lanka and its cricket suffered their lowest moment. The 'pearl in the Indian Ocean' was one of the co-hosts of the 1996 World Cup, with India and Pakistan being the other countries staging the mega tournament. After a bomb went off in downtown Colombo, the Australians and the West Indians decided against touring the island nation because they thought it was unsafe for their cricketers and citizens to tour that part of the world. At that point in time, Sri Lanka was caught in the biggest civil war heard of in the world. The World Cup was an attempt to show things were safe, but the explosion ruined all hopes. Ultimately, India and Pakistan played an exhibition game to cheer the people up, and in a case of poetic justice, Sri Lanka went on to win the World Cup. Eventually, in 2009, the war ended, and a couple of years later, Sri Lanka successfully co-hosted the World Cup.

However, nothing can match the joy Sri Lanka is feeling upon single-handedly hosting the World Twenty20, which began last week here. Twelve top teams of world cricket are here, and there is not a soul that is feeling unsafe. That, more than anything else, is the single-biggest reason why the Lankans were keen on hosting this championship.

"We wanted to show the world that we have moved on from suffering three decades of an ethnic war, and are now focused on development. And that is why we requested the International Cricket Council to let us host the World T20, " Nishanta Ranatunga, secretary of the Sri Lankan Cricket (SLC) tells TOI-Crest.

The only glitch now is that Sri Lankan cricket still faces a battle - the battle for survival in the face of a severe financial crunch. The nation, madly in love with cricket, spent millions of dollars in constructing cricket stadiums in Hambantota and Kandy (Pallekele to be specific ) and renovating the age-old Premadasa (previously called the Khettarama) ahead of the 2011 World Cup. All that money was spent but no one knew how the returns would come. The stadium at Hambantota, especially, seems a needless indulgence, situated as it is in the absolute interiors towards the extreme south of the island nation. Last heard, Sri Lankan Cricket (SLC) was reeling under debt worth $69 million. The national team players weren't paid their salaries for more than a year in this period. "They are paying Sri Lankan Rs 400 million every month to the banks merely as interest for having borrowed heavily from them, " informs a local.

"We have got ourselves into a mess and we don't know how to get out of it, " says Brian Thomas, who was the media manager of the Sri Lankan team in the 2011 World Cup, and was also the media manager of SLC. Ranatunga, however, doesn't agree there is a mess in the first place. "There is not a single player who can say that his salary has not been paid. We are in a bit of financial difficulty, but we will find our way out of it. We are ready with our plans to deal with that, and we have been successful in implementing them, " he says, exuding confidence. "Look, the ICC wanted us to improve and build our infrastructure, so that we could host the World Cup last year, " says Thomas. "The government, led by Mahinda Rajapakse, helped us build the three stadiums, " says Ranatunga.

The Sri Lankan Premier League (SLPL) wasn't too much of a success. "It was a disaster. The stadiums were empty. People want to see the local Sri Lankan team in action, not this sort of cricket, " said a Lankan fan. "With no Indian stars around, it was always going to be a flop, " says Thomas. There were stories coming out about players complaining that they hadn't been paid by the franchises. "The champions Uva Next threatened to stay put in Kandy if they weren't paid soon, " reveals Thomas. "It was bad for the WorldT20 too, since they didn't use it to build this event, " says a fan. "It was a hit, and was an excellent dress rehearsal for hosting the WorldT20, besides giving us two talented youngsters (Akila Dananjaya and Dilshan Munaweera) who are now playing in WorldT20, " says Ranatunga.

So, have the Lankans warmed up to World T20, the biggest event they had hosted alone, so far? "There wasn't even an opening ceremony, which defied logic. People here know T20 is a lottery, so there won't be big interest in this type of cricket, " says Thomas. "It will give our tourism a major boost. Many fans would travel to our land for this event. There is huge excitement in Sri Lanka about the World Cup, " says Ranatunga. "There are parties being planned around watching a World Cup game, and lots of schemes and discounts are on. The cricket fever would catch up at the Super Eight stage, " says a fan.

There are conflicting theories of how much crowd came for the first game in Hambantota on Tuesday, in which hosts Sri Lanka thrashed Zimbabwe. "There were people who came in trucks and even tractors to watch that match, " says an Indian fan who was there. "Except the club house, every other stand was packed, which is good for a weekday, " says a local cricket fan, who travelled to Hambantota from Colombo. "On TV, it is easy to show that the stands are full, " says a smiling Thomas.

"We want to showcase our country, get the administrative experience of hosting a World Cup and give our players the chance to perform in front of our fans. We have a $2 million commitment from the ICC for ticket sales, " says Ranatunga. Things can definitely get better. "Hambantota should get better developed in another five years, " says Thomas. "There are many projects coming up there, " informs a local.

The WorldT20 may not help Lankan cricket overcome financial woes, but it is making them fall in love with the latest version of favourite sport. Slowly but surely. Most of all, it is helping them erase the pain they suffered 16 years ago. Forever.

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