x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

New Zealand happy to keep a low profile as they take on Sri Lanka

The Black Caps are focused on beating Sri Lanka in the semi-finals of the Cricket World Cup as their presence goes unnoticed, even by security officials.

A security guard takes position right outside the nets during New Zealand's practice session.
A security guard takes position right outside the nets during New Zealand's practice session.

It may be a few machine guns light of the quantity over in Mohali, but the World Cup's Other Semi-Final, in Colombo this afternoon, is not exactly a tea party either.

Cucumber sandwiches on Galle Face Green this is not.

As Sri Lanka's players trained in the nets at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo yesterday morning, soldiers bearing AK67s casually kept watch. Under a nearby tree, the team's bus was parked next to a caravan which acts as a mobile kennel for police dogs.

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There is space in the kennel for around 12 sniffer dogs, which were being employed yesterday and today to root out explosives potentially being carried in any vehicles entering the ground.

Today's match between New Zealand and Sri Lanka will be watched over by three separate security groups: the army, who are the ones with the clearance to carry guns, the police and Avant Garde, one of the country's leading private security firms.

Avant Garde provide around 300 security personnel to bolster the already sizeable contingent of approximately 1,000 soldiers and police officers.

Despite the visibility of the armed guards, their presence at the stadium is no more obvious or suffocating than on every major road in Colombo.

The remnants of the security operation necessitated by Sri Lanka's civil war, which ended in 2009, means there is still a heavy military presence in the city.

Road-side spot checks by armed soldiers on vehicles are regular and indiscriminate.

Given that 30,000 people are expected to attend today's game, the high security is not surprising.

In the Venue Security Operations Room at the ground, 11 high-definition television sets, all at least 36 inches in size, monitor the ground via 180 closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras. The man who fitted out all three of Sri Lanka's World Cup venues (Hambantota and Pallekele only had 161 CCTV cameras each) is a former Major in the Sri Lankan Army.

Mohan de Silva served for 20 years in the signal communications division of the army, six of which were spent in the northern city of Jaffna, where the civil war was centred.

"We know about terrorists and guerrillas better than any other country," he said. "Myself and the head of security for Sri Lankan Cricket [General Lawrence Fernando] were involved in the battle against the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam], and we are well conditioned to cope with securing this cricket ground."

Despite the catch-all security, New Zealand's cricketers have managed to mooch into this stage typically unnoticed.

As Daniel Vettori put it at his captain's press conference yesterday, Test cricket's least talked about side like to fly below the radar, and they have become pretty good at it over the years.

"It is something that sits relatively well for us," Vettori said. "We are used to it but we have high expectations of ourselves. It is really irrelevant what other people think, it is about what is going through our heads.

"[Reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup] is an amazing achievement for a small country, and hopefully we can draw on our recent experiences of ICC [International Cricket Council] tournaments. We went to the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy then went one step further. Hopefully that can be our starting point for going past semis."

There is no doubt New Zealand are gatecrashers at Asia's party.

With one subcontinental finalist guaranteed to come from India's encounter with Pakistan, Sri Lanka know they have to keep up their end of the bargain and dispose of New Zealand.

They have previous to draw on. Four years ago, a sublime century from Mahela Jayawardene laid the platform for semi-final success over the Black Caps in Jamaica.

Sri Lanka could conceivably start with eight players who played in that match. New Zealand, by contrast, are likely to have just five.

Vettori suggested this match will be an even tougher proposition given they are playing Sri Lanka on their own patch, but Kumar Sangakkara, their captain, said his players are solely focused on the present.

"What we have to do is make sure we get our heads down and start from square one," he said. "We have to make sure when we go out there we are realistic, we stay in the moment and make sure we focus on what we have to do.

"You understand the challenge that is going to come our way, we are going to accept it and we are going to enjoy it."

 

pradley@thenational.ae