x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Cricket plays its part in helping unite the subcontinent

Freedom on the streets of Colombo and the strengthening of ties between India and Pakistan have people on the subcontinent feeling hopeful for the future

Muttiah Muralitharan is held aloft by Sri Lankan players after his last game in the country on Tuesday – a semi-final victory over New Zealand in the World Cup. Next up is India today.
Muttiah Muralitharan is held aloft by Sri Lankan players after his last game in the country on Tuesday – a semi-final victory over New Zealand in the World Cup. Next up is India today.

It is a familiar alarm call for residents of the hotels around the Galle Face Green in Colombo's financial heart: the whirring rotor blades of Chinooks taking off from the army base.

It is the morning after the night before, and most people could probably do with a little more sleep. A few hours earlier, Muttiah Muralitharan had waved goodbye to Sri Lanka's cricket supporters for the last time.

The great spinner's farewell party had been rocking, coinciding as it did with Sri Lanka marching past New Zealand in the semi-final of the World Cup.

The significance of reaching a final at the first opportunity since the civil war in Sri Lanka officially ended two years ago, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists were defeated, was not wasted on Kumar Sangakkara, the captain. "Cricket is the panacea which heals all our wounds," he said with typical eloquence immediately after the game. It may not be as catchy as "The Cup that Counts", but Sangakkara's choice of words would be a far more suitable slogan for Asia's World Cup.

"Cricket's effect is unbelievable," Sampath Siriwardena, the general manager of the Galadari, a city-centre hotel in Colombo, said.

"Even during the war, the LTTE leader watched all the matches and supported the Sri Lankan team. For every match, the war would stop. That is how much the game means to people."

The Galadari suffered much during the war, and Siriwardena was lucky to escape the crossfire of three attacks by Tamil Tiger rebels.

In 1992, five New Zealand cricketers left a tour to the country after a Navy commander's car was bombed opposite the Taj Samudra, a hotel which hosted most teams when they played in Sri Lanka at this World Cup. When the World Cup was last in Asia, in 1996, West Indies and Australia forfeited matches against Sri Lanka as they did not want to risk playing in Colombo.

The following year, seven Galadari security staff were killed when a lorry laden with explosives was detonated in the hotel's car park.

Siriwardena was just getting ready to start his work day when the assault happened. "I was trying to get into my trousers to go when the bomb exploded," he said.

"During that period, attacks were so frequent, it was like something was happening once per month somewhere in the country."

The war ended in May 2009, but the wheels of change are taking time to turn, and the army base is a ready reminder of the conflict.

Stickers on the Galadari's windows warn guests: "Due to security reasons, we advise you to refrain from using your binoculars or cameras to view or take photographs of the surrounding area." So much for paying extra for a room with a view.

The city-centre base is the most obvious relic of the war, but that, too, is moving on. The land has been bought by Shangri La, and a five-star hotel is planned to replace the barracks by 2014.

"For almost three decades we were not sure what was happening," Siriwardena said. "If you went out to work in the morning, your family would not know if you would come back in the evening.

"There was fear for people coming to the city because it was such a high-security zone. There was a lot of tension, but now you are free.

"Freedom alone is a huge thing for the people. Put that together with the joy the cricketers are bringing in and … I cannot express the feeling."

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Mumbai does not do quiet starts to the day. But it is the morning after the night before and, as such, this is about as sedate as this city is going to get. The sun must be up already because the cricket matches have started on the scrappy patches of land beside Mahatma Gandhi Road.

Hundreds of boys wearing neatly pressed whites cram into an unfeasibly small space to play their games. In the busiest areas, the grass has been worn down to the red earth on which this city is built.

As the boys play, others take a moment to loaf. Behind the barbed-wire fence which separates the open area from the footpath passing through it, a man sets down his crutch and prosthetic leg, sits and draws on a cigarette.

Nearby, people with places to go, people to see and rupees to make take an early pit stop. Sugarcane is squeezed through a mangle and its juice poured into cups for workers who want to top up their energy levels before their day at the office.

Barely 500 metres away, across the train tracks, the floodlights and grandstands of the reconstructed Wankhede Stadium soar into the sky. Thanks to the previous night's match against Pakistan, India will now play there for the biggest prize in one-day international cricket, against Sri Lanka.

There is a fair bit of gloating to be found over the victory; one newspaper has "5-0, India whitewash Pakistan" as its front-page headline, referring to the World Cup record in matches between the two.

Yet the celebrations are not solely for the result. The fact Pakistan played on these shores for the first time since 2007 is regarded as a triumph.

The latest round of "cricket diplomacy" is being cautiously welcomed. To borrow a sentiment from Sangakkara, India and Pakistan need cricket to heal their collective wounds.

This city remains a symbol of the division between the two nations. At the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, which was one of the targets of the 2009 attacks on Mumbai, business is back to normal but appearances have changed.

The World Cup team hotel is a fortress. The roads surrounding it are barricaded, and armoured patrol vehicles labelled "Marksmen" are parked by the entrance.

Just down the corridor from the lifts, which are guarded by five soldiers with machine guns and bulletproof vests, Ahmed Khazir Mohammed continues to work in his family business selling Kashmir carpets within the Taj's arcade of bespoke shops.

"There were two tourists hiding in my shop, one Australian and one South African," he recalled of the ambush. "They stayed with me in this corner for hours.

"The South African man was very scared, shivering and sweating, and we were trying to tell him to be calm, and that everything was OK.

"I locked the shop from inside and switched off the lights. We stayed in here until 5am, then a security officer came to tell us we could move."

Like every other Indian, Mohammed was enthralled by the "mother of all matches" between India and Pakistan, and hopes it will help heal the rift.

"Cricket brings everyone together," he said. "At yesterday's match, everyone was calm. There was no anger within the crowd. Whenever these two sides used to play, you could see anger, people throwing bottles and things like that.

"There is a big rift. This was the first match in which Pakistan have come to India in a long time.

"Now both teams were smiling with each other. They accept each other and I think they want things to be calmer."

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Pakistan's cricketers have been the ghosts of the feast at Asia's World Cup. Never will their continued exile from their homeland have been as keenly felt as it was over the past month.

Yet, while their underestimated playing XI inspired optimism by winning their group and reaching the last four, so hope is starting to emerge off the field, too.

Sri Lanka are scheduled to play Pakistan in an away series later this year. The Test leg of the encounter is likely to take place in the UAE again, which is well established as Pakistan's second home.

However, the two boards are discussing the prospect of Sri Lanka becoming the first side to play in Pakistan since their own team bus was attacked by gunmen in March 2009.

The solidarity between the nations is inspiring. A few months after the attack, when the sides met in the World Twenty20 at Lord's, the players stood shoulder-to-shoulder, rather than opposite each other, when the national anthems were played. Last month, when Pakistan played a World Cup match in Colombo on the two-year anniversary of that attack, they were cheered as if they were the home team.

The world of cricket had come a long way since the first World Cup final took place in 1975 in England.

Back then, Australia tried and failed to break the West Indies monopoly, and Dickie Bird, one of the standing umpires, had his hat stolen during a pitch invasion.

Asia, meanwhile, barely warranted a place on cricket's map. How times have changed. The winner of today's game will become the first Asian nation to have won the trophy twice. England, creators of the game and hosts of the first three World Cups, are still looking for their first.

No matter today's result, having two of their sides competing for the title confirms that the game steadfastly belongs to Asia now.

"This has been a great tournament," Sangakkara said. "I always say the subcontinent is the only place to play cricket. There's no other place that can match the buzz and excitement, the passion and the love for the game. When you play a tournament of this magnitude here, it lifts the entire occasion and makes it a lot more glorious."

pradley@thenational.ae