Douglas Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson were present in spirit, though certainly not in person, on a typically sweltering day in what is meant to be the monsoon season, at an impeccable cricket ground in the deep south of Sri Lanka. The Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium might well be described as the ground at the end of the universe, and if you were not a player taking part in the ICC World Twenty20 2012 – choppered in from Colombo in army helicopters – you would strongly disagree that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.
It’s tempting to say ‘Welcome to Hambantota’ for the start of the ICC World Twenty20, which begins with Tuesday’s opening game between Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, except that the locals point out this would be factually incorrect. The MRICS, using the acronym for convenience and with apologies to the President of the country after whom this venue is named, is actually in Sooriyawewa, rather than Hambantota, which is about 38 kilometres away. To get to Hambantota, most plebs endure a seven-hour road trip from Colombo. The first 110 kilometres on the expressway, built by the Chinese to connect Colombo to Galle, is a modern marvel, a surface so smooth and path so straight that few can resist the temptation of breaking the 100 km/hr speed limit. From Galle onwards, though, it’s back to traditional Sri Lankan roads, hugging the coastline and as beautiful as anything you might see, if your nerves are calm enough from having to watch out for wandering buffaloes, the odd cyclist with a skinful of arrack in him, and government buses hammering at you in the opposite direction with little regard for driving etiquette.
After you go past Matara – a sleepy fishing village that Sanath Jayasuriya singlehandedly introduced to the world – what you might encounter trying to cross the road gets a bit more serious, and heavy. Repeated reminders that the road is wending through elephant corridors are disregarded till you see the amount farmers have invested in electrified fencing. For most, the journey to MRICS does not end there, for there’s little suitable accommodation in Sooriyawewa, and tourists move on to Tissamaharama, traditionally the base from which trips to Yala National Park are made. But if it’s cricket you’re stalking, rather than leopards, then you’ll find yourself in the unique position of having to travel 50 to 60 km each way to get to the action.
When you finally do get to the ground, you can’t help but be awed by the audacity of it. Not long ago, the region was scrub and scree, and today, in the middle of nowhere is a cricket ground that can compete with the best. An imposing, but by no means ugly, main pavilion sits opposite a grandstand, with a giant scoreboard towering over one quadrant. But the rest of a massive playing area – and this ground is bigger than most of its modern counterparts – has gentle stands behind it. Two expansive grass banks make the overall capacity, officially pegged at 35,000, a bit flexible. The lack of concrete stands ensures that the swirling winds the region is famous for have an unobstructed run of the arena, and if quality fielders are occasionally left looking silly, there’s a good reason for this.
While playing at the venue presents logistical challenges to all those involved, the fact that top-flight cricket has reached this far south is a sign of the progress the country has made in recent times. Indeed, while many may wonder why cricket has come so far from Colombo, the real point of curiosity is how someone from these parts went all the way to become president of the country.
If there’s some adjustment needed from all those who come to the cricket at Sooriyawewa, it’s best done with a smile, as is the practice in this part of the world. Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka’s captain, certainly sees the point of playing here, rather than merely being comfortable in Colombo. “It’s significant playing here in that this is a unique venue and we enjoy tremendous support here in a developing area,” said Jayawardene. “We first played here in the World Cup and since then we’ve been playing against all the touring teams. The facilities, as you can see, are world class.”
There’s no doubting that final statement, and the important thing is that enough people take the trouble to make the effort to come and see for themselves what is possible.