Cricket makes return to tsunami-hit stadium

England and Sri Lanka will mark one of cricket’s most poignant moments when they contest the third Test at the previously tsunami-ravaged Galle International Stadium from Tuesday.

The stadium, situated close to the Indian Ocean in the country’s coastal south, was destroyed by the Asian tsunami in 2004, which killed an estimated 300 000 people in a dozen countries.

About 31 000 people in Sri Lanka alone perished in the December 26 disaster.

It was rebuilt from scratch with a $500 000 funding package from Sri Lanka Cricket and, nearly three years to the day since it was decimated, is ready to host a Test match again.

When Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse inaugurates the new stadium on the eve of the match on Monday with both teams in attendance, one man in particular will struggle to hide his emotions.

Former Sri Lanka Test spinner Jayananda Warnaweera, the stadium’s long-time manager, still finds it hard to believe that his ambition to bring cricket back to Galle has been realised.

“I can’t tell you how I feel to be able to return this beautiful ground to Test cricket,” said Warnaweera, who played 10 Tests between 1986 and 1994.

“I had promised myself that Test cricket will be played here again and I have lived up to that vow. It’s a very emotional and exciting time for me.”

Sri Lankan captain Mahela Jayawardene said he was delighted to return to one of his favourite venues, which lies at the foot of the historic 17th century Galle Fort, a Unesco world heritage site.

“It is one of my favourite venues. It’s definitely going to be an emotional time for most of our guys.
Lots of them in the team are from this part of the country,” Jayawardene said.

Like many people around the world, Jayawardene remembers exactly where he was when news of the devastating tsunami began to filter through.

“We were playing in New Zealand when the tsunami struck and the first pictures we saw were that of Galle and we saw the ground under water.

“But we have moved forward as a nation and a team, we just need to concentrate on the cricket in hand.”

At least four Sri Lankan cricketers were personally affected by the catastrophe.

Sanath Jayasuriya’s mother was saved by clinging to the branches of a tree, three relatives of fast bowler Dilhara Fernando were drowned when their train to Galle was submerged, leg-spinner Upul Chandana’s mother was rescued by a young man and Upul Tharanga’s home was destroyed.

The record-breaking bowler Muttiah Muralitharan, who left Galle just before the tsunami struck, raised funds and distributed aid to the survivors as an ambassador for the UN World Food Programme.

The star, who surpassed retired Australian Shane Warne’s world record tally of 708 wickets in the first Test in Kandy, also persuaded his spin rival to visit Galle and raise funds.

The stadium is a special place for both men. Muralitharan claimed his 400th wicket here and Warne took his 500th.

England vice-captain Paul Collingwood, who made his Test debut at the ground in 2003, hopes the Test will put smiles back on the faces of local fans.

“Emotional is a fitting word to use,” said Collingwood. “The events that happened here three years ago means you have to put everything into perspective and give them a lot of credit for what they’ve done to the ground.

“It is going to be a very sad occasion in many ways but we have seen how the Sri Lankan people have reacted to such a disaster. They are trying to rebuild their lives and we will try to put some smiles back on their faces.”

Controversy, however, threatens to mar Galle’s moment of celebration. The new pavilion housing the players’ dressing rooms, media centre and VIP boxes may be demolished after the Test because any construction within 500m of the Dutch Fort is considered a violation of the country’s antiquities ordinance.

Urban Development Minister Dinesh Gunawardena was quoted in media reports last week saying he had got “Cabinet approval” to demolish the pavilion building once the Test was over. - AFP

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