Cricket coming to rescue for Sri Lanka

Cricket coming to rescue for Sri Lanka

COLOMBO - Agence France-Presse
Cricket coming to rescue for Sri Lanka

A man rides his bike past billboards advertizing the ICC Twenty20 World Cup series in Hambantota. The tournament will be held between Sept 18 and Oct 7 in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is banking on cricket to repair the damage to its blood-stained image after the brutal end to a 37-year ethnic war as it stages the biggest tournament in the nation’s post-independence history.

Since declaring an end in 2009 to a conflict that claimed up to 100,000 lives, President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government has had to battle accusations that its troops killed thousands of civilians as they crushed Tamil rebels in the finale.

But as hosts of the World Twenty20, which begins today in Rajapakse’s hometown of Hambantota, Sri Lanka is looking to rebrand itself as an island of sun-kissed beaches and ancient Buddhist temples rather than as a hotbed of conflict.

“The T20 World Cup program will provide an excellent platform to endorse the new Sri Lanka brand during the next three weeks,” said Nivard Cabraal, the central bank governor and a key figure in promoting Sri Lanka as a sporting destination.

“I am confident that this trend will continue in the future, and those so-called international calls for (war crimes) investigation will fade away,” he told AFP.

Teams from 12 nations, including those from Australia and England - two nations which have been highly critical of Sri Lanka’s government - are taking part in the World Twenty20. It is the first time Sri Lanka has been the sole host of such a major tournament and underlines its progress since the height of the conflict between government troops and the Tamil Tigers.

Sri Lanka again co-hosted last year’s 50-over World Cup with India and Bangladesh, but lost the final to India in Mumbai.

Sri Lankan authorities have often turned to the cricket team as an example of ethnic unity in the face of allegations that Tamils were discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese community.

The country’s most famous player, record-breaking spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, is a Tamil - albeit often the only one in the team before he retired last year.

Tiger rebels fought for outright independence for Tamils concentrated in the island’s northern and eastern regions, but they were eventually defeated in a no-holds-barred onslaught in May 2009.