All it took was a tweet from cricketing legend Mahela Jayawardene. Within five days, the Sri Lankan government did a virtual U-turn, putting on hold its decision to build a cricket stadium near Colombo.
Last Sunday, media reported Cabinet Minister Bandula Gunawardena’s announcement that Sri Lanka’s biggest international cricket stadium, with a seating capacity of 40,000, would come up in Homagama, about 20 km southeast of Colombo. Visiting the site, where the government had allocated 26 acres, he said the construction would be completed in three years. The estimated cost was $30-40 million.
However, the announcement and its timing drew instant reactions from citizens. While some questioned the government’s priority, when the country’s economy is struggling in the face of the coronavirus ( COVID-19 ) pandemic, others, including top cricketers, argued that the money could be used in better ways, within the scope of improving cricketing standards in the country.
In what seemed like a casual reaction at that time, former Sri Lankan captain Jayawardene said in a tweet: “We don’t even play enough international cricket or domestic first class cricket in the existing stadiums we have... Do we need another one?,” accompanied by shock-face and face-palm emojis. The tweet went viral in no time. His message also drew critical responses and attacks from government supporters.
But Mr. Jayawardene was not alone. Former Sri Lankan opener and ex-ICC match referee Roshan Mahanama told the media that instead of putting in large amounts of money into a plush stadium, Sri Lanka could opt for a good programme to develop the game. This position drew more political attention when they received support from unlikely quarters — Namal Rajapaksa and Yoshitha Rajapaksa, sons of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Namal Rajapaksa, a former MP from the southern Hambantota district, tweeted that Mr. Jayawardene had a valid point, while Yoshitha Rajapaksa called for greater focus on finding and honing talent.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka Cricket, which manages the sport in the country, issued a statement noting that the project was an entirely private investment from the Board, and that no funds will be sought from the government.
But for icons like Mr. Jayawardene, the disagreement was not so much about the source of the funds, or the cost itself. It was more about where the funds could be better used in Sri Lanka, a nation where the craze for cricket begins at school and never stops. The country reserves the title “big matches” not for some big international tournaments, but for those played between well-known, mostly urban schools annually. These games — some played for over a century now — attract huge crowds, including from past pupils living abroad, who travel to Sri Lanka every year to watch their school team play.
All the same, those more invested in lifting standards nationally, have been calling for greater investment in infrastructure and training, especially in rural areas where talent seldom finds attention.
Mr. Jayawardene too found SLC’s explanation, making a case for the stadium to boost Sri Lanka’s chances to host international tournaments, unconvincing. In a twitter thread, he noted that Sri Lanka had already hosted a World Twenty20 and co-hosted a 50-over World Cup, with its existing venues. “You first bid for the WC and if you get it, then with the financial assistance from the @ICC you construct infrastructure,” he told the Board, adding you don’t build a stadium for $40 million “hoping to get a WC in 10-15 years’ time.”
Already, the 35,000-capacity Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in southern Hambantota district, built with billions of rupees in time for the 2011 World Cup, has remained what critics call a “white elephant” that has hosted just 28 matches in nearly a decade. On Thursday, PM Rajapaksa convened a meeting, with Mr. Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Roshan Mahanama, Sanath Jayasuriya and Lasith Malinga. The players weighed in, making a case for better infrastructure and training across the country, over one plush stadium.
Following the high-level meeting, the government announced suspending its decision to build a new stadium. One of the most prolific batsmen in the world with a combined international tally of 25,957 runs and a personal high of a 374 in Tests, the highest innings by a Sri Lankan, had scored another big one. This time with a single tweet!
( Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent )