COLOMBO (Reuters) - Cricket fever has gripped Sri Lanka after their team secured a place in the World Cup final, diverting attention — at least for the time being — from a worsening civil war.
Cricket-mad fans sat glued to their television sets until the early hours of Wednesday morning to watch Sri Lanka defeat New Zealand by 81 runs in Jamaica.
The success of the cricket team in the Caribbean has provided a welcome distraction from the worsening military conflict between the government and Tamil Tigers, which has left a 2002 ceasefire agreement in tatters.
The two-decade civil war, which has claimed around 68,000 lives, has intensified in the past year with almost daily battles, denting business confidence and contributing to spiralling inflation.
But for now, cricket was in focus.
“You can feel this great sense of excitement and growing feeling of confidence that Sri Lanka really can win this tournament,” former Sri Lanka batsman and selector Sidath Wettimuny told reporters.
“Victory will be a huge boost to everybody considering the country’s situation, giving all Sri Lankans a great sense of pride.”
Multi-faith religious ceremonies are being planned in the lead-up to Saturday’s big game to bless the team, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa will even fly to Barbados for the final.
As the excitement has built, businesses are cashing-in on the team’s success, especially bars, clubs and restaurants that have erected giant TV screens to show the matches live.
“Everyone is getting behind the team and that has ensured record sales for us during the past month,” said Harpo Gooneratne, the owner of the popular Bay Leaf restaurant in central Colombo.
The Excise Department has even delayed the start of an alcohol sales ban for Buddhist Wesak holidays by one day. It will now come into effect after the World Cup final.
An estimated 14 million people, or 65 percent of the island’s population, watched Sri Lanka thrash New Zealand, said a spokeswoman for state broadcaster Rupavahini, which owns exclusive terrestrial television rights for the tournament.
Advertising sales have soared, with the price of a 30-second spot increasing by 150 percent, she said.
Even many Tamil Tigers, who control swathes of land in the north and east of the country and are fighting for independence, are watching.
“There are people in the controlled areas watching,” rebel military spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiraiyan said by telephone.
But he added: “Our activities will not change because of these matches. These matches are not going to make any difference.”
Sri Lanka will face Australia or South Africa in their first World Cup final since winning in 1996.
Win or lose, the team will get a ticker-tape reception when they return home, with plans already underway for a public parade from the airport and a ceremony in Independence Square.
An attempt earlier in the tournament by Amnesty International to use cricket as a vehicle for drawing attention to the deteriorating Human Rights situation in the island created a public furore.
Additional reporting by John Ruwitch