Major sporting events are following me on my travels at the moment. First there was the Commonwealth Games in India and then after Pakistan lost the right to co-host the cricket world cup, Sri Lanka took over the role. Perfect timing. With tickets for Sri Lanka vs Pakistan as well, the game verses Canada was very much a warm up to the big game in our eyes. I think it is now safe to say that we underestimated it. A brilliant day was to ensue but I will give a health warning at the start of this post. As great a day as it was, it’s impossible to blog about it without slipping into many a rant as seems to be the case when watching sporting events in third world countries.
So the recurring question of the day is quite simply ‘is there anyone in the world who knows where the Mahinda Rajapaksa Cricket Stadium is?’ Sri Lanka has a number of stadiums that meet international standards but they haven’t got the prints of the President, Mahinda Rajapaksa (see what he did there?) on them, so of course he has to build a new one, dedicated to him, in the middle of nowhere. Ok, we could handle that but not when no one seems to know where the middle of nowhere exactly is!
We traveled to Hambanbtota, the Presidents home town, as it stated on the tickets. This tiny finishing village, has a brand new international airport, thanks to their favourite son, so we felt safe in the knowledge that he would not have thought twice about building a cricket stadium there too. Except the locals claimed it was over thirty kilometers away. The tickets were referring to Hambantota the district not the town. We weren’t the only ones to make the mistake, the Canadian team were also in residence in pretty much the only hotel in town! We searched the internet for clues. The official websites directions suggested it was one kilometer outside Matara (a long way from Hambantota), Google maps placed it five kilometers outside Tissa (where we had just come from!) No one had a clue! We eventually settled on a return to Tissa. So jumping back on the bus we traveled back and sorted out a jeep with Nirlin to take us to the ground.
So at 10am the following morning, myself, Alex, Tom and Gen, all in Sri Lanka shirts and draped in the flag, piled into the back of an open jeep, with a number of locals and a crate of beer. The sun was blazing hot. Things were looking up! The journey was one of the coolest I have done. Cars, vans, bikes and buses all went mad as we went past them. Horns sounded, flags flew and wigs were quickly put on behind the driving wheel, it was mad! The 5 kilometer Google maps journey took nearly two hours! Where’s the middle of nowhere again? The one downside to the journey was witnessing one of those things that would never make it onto the news but left you pretty shocked. Just as we were about to enter the ‘car park’, the Canada team bus decided to ignore the police escort and plowed straight into the motorbike next to us, knocking the man and woman flying. Thankfully they got up but there was a fair bit of blood. The team bus continued as if nothing happened.
We arrived at the ground one hour in advance of the game. The ‘car park’ does not exist but is rather a dirt track, whilst the stadium itself has around three of it’s stands missing, but hey those are minor issues and add to the fun of the occasion! Getting into the ground however was not so fun because the Stadium did not understand what an e-ticket was. We walked for an hour, up and down dirt banks to each gate hoping someone would welcome us in rather than devolve responsibility to another random entrance. Asking every policeman, soldier, official organisers, even an elephant (yes one did stroll in for a look before returning to the trees) where we could get our tickets. Every person was as polite as we had come to expect from Sri Lankans but they just hadn’t got a clue in regards to these tickets. In the end we put up a fuss and got an escort by a policeman to a guy hidden under a tree who gave us four tickets. We got to the gate and found that this quiet low key game happened to be a sell out and then some. 35,000 attendance, no chance! They let half the country onto the grass banks (where the stands should have been!) and boy was it fun.
People wonder what it is like to feel like a celebrity. The answer is tiring. After the solid Sri Lankan innings, we collapsed on the fence by the bar in exhaustion. We were adopted by so many supporters it was an amazing experience. A minute didn’t go by without someone introducing themselves, their mates, their family etc. Photos in their hundreds were taken. Our voices were being lost due to the number of conversations being had. The atmosphere was unforgettable. Passionate and sporadic, but it was missing something…a Mexican wave! Now we thought every country understood a Mexican wave but not the people of Hambantota. Whilst as knowledgeable as anyone on cricket, the stadium was pretty much full of people watching their first ever live cricket game! That didn’t stop us trying to get one started. We spread ourselves around the grass bank and got pockets going but they seemed far more fond of our song build-up than the wave itself.
With Sri Lanka setting such a big total, the game was dead, although everyone was surprised at quite how bad Canada’s Indian team was. On driving out of the ground the roads were lethal. The Sri Lankan’s took the party into their cars. We asked each other ‘what makes such a sensible nation go so crazy?’ The answer is pretty simple. It’s called cricket and arrack!
The following day we left Tissa and returned to Midigama. On the way through we passed Hambantota and then a long time after, the ground (but nowhere near Matara). We are still none the wiser as to where it is but we can pretty much rule out all the options considered. Brilliant day!