HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka, September 18 – Hosts Sri Lanka open cricket’s World Twenty20 against Zimbabwe Tuesday, kicking off the country’s biggest ever sports event just three years after the end of a bloody civil war.
Mahela Jayawardene’s men will take the field in Hambantota, the southeastern home town of President Mahinda Rajapakse, with hopes high they can end a 16-year wait for their second global title in front of their cricket-obsessed fans.
The match, at 7:30 pm (1400 GMT), starts a three-week cricket fiesta involving 12 teams in coastal Hambantota, hill town Pallekele and the capital Colombo, where the fourth World Twenty20 champions will be crowned on October 7.
The tournament offers the “Teardrop Island” the chance to showcase its lush landscapes, beaches and temples, and turn the page on the 37-year ethnic conflict that claimed up to 100,000 lives.
In 2009, Rajapakse’s government declared victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels, a group notorious for suicide bombings. The brutal final offensive prompted a UN Human Rights Council resolution against Sri Lanka earlier this year.
Elite commandos and bodyguards have been deployed to guard players as part of a security operation would be usually reserved for visiting heads of state.
Camillus Abeygunawardena, the top security officer for the tournament said it was the biggest security operation ever in Sri Lanka for a sporting event in the country emerging from nearly four decades of ethnic bloodshed.
“We had this level of security at last year’s (cricket) World Cup, but this time we have more teams and the scale of the operation is a lot bigger,” Abeygunawardena told AFP, referring to the 50-over tournament co-hosted with India and Bangladesh.
Sri Lanka also co-hosted the 1996 Cricket World Cup, but Australia and West Indies kept away after Tamil rebels bombed the Central Bank in Colombo, killing 91 people and wounding 1,200 just two weeks before the tournament.
The authorities have also launched an undercover operation to ensure there is no corruption by players themselves after international cricket was rocked by a fixing scandal in 2010.
“Both local and international detectives have checked into hotels where the players are staying,” a top security source who declined to be named said. “We are keeping a close watch on the players and their visitors.”
Sri Lanka start the tournament as one of the favourites, although predictions are notoriously difficult in cricket’s shortest format, which has revolutionised the sport and divided opinion since its introduction in 2003.
Home advantage will help the hosts, who have a well-balanced side including the newly crowned cricketer of the year, wicketkeeper-batsman Kumar Sangakkara.
Sri Lanka won the 50-over World Cup in 1996 and have reached the tournament’s two most recent finals, along with the 2009 World Twenty20 title match which they lost to Pakistan.
“Lots of people have asked us why we have choked in the finals,” skipper Jayawardene said. “I’d rather be in that situation than being knocked out in earlier rounds.”
Defending champions England arrive with a youthful squad shorn of star batsman Kevin Pietersen, who is in international exile after a sequence of bust-ups with team management.
South Africa, the number one Test team, are seeking their first ever limited-overs world title, while the West Indies, powerful in this format, would be a popular winner.
The World Twenty20 is the one major trophy to elude Australia.
India, schooled in Twenty20 cricket in the lucrative Indian Premier League, won the inaugural event in 2007, while mercurial Pakistan will hope to reprise their 2009 title run.
The teams have been divided into four pools of three for the preliminary league, with the top two from each advancing to the Super Eights round.
If the seedings go to plan, fans can expect exciting cricket in the Super Eights — a week-long race to the semis and final.
England, the West Indies, Sri Lanka and New Zealand are seeded to meet in group one of the Super Eights, with the top two teams making it to the semi-finals.
Group two is already being billed as the “Group of Death”, with arch-rivals India and Pakistan seeded to face Australia and South Africa.