Former Lankan cricketing greats to the rescue


by Sanjeewa Jayaweera

Leading up to the Presidential Election in November 2019, I recollect watching a video recording of Gamini Wijesinghe, the former Auditor General of Sri Lanka. In highlighting the extent of corruption pervading in our country, he recounted his personal experience. He had asked the Ministry of Education if they could allocate funds to provide some computers to a rural school. After a couple of weeks, an official had informed of the ministry's inability to fund the purchase but could finance the construction of a building to house the computers!

Wijesinghe opined the financial consequences to the country would be less dire if project initiators are paid their 5% - 10% commission even for unviable projects. The savings that would accrue from unviable projects not being allowed to proceed would be immense and would be a better alternative! A tongue in cheek comment from an outstanding professional who had seen it all!

Wijesinghe's wisdom came to mind while following the much-publicized recent controversy over a 40,000-seat cricket stadium in Homagama. Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) and Minister Bandula Gunawardena's project proposal would cost USD 40 million.

I watched a television news clip on May 17 of the Minister and SLC officials visiting the site and was flabbergasted. Initially having taken it for an April fools day joke, I quickly realized we were in the middle of May! The sheer audacity to even discuss spending money on building a cricket stadium amidst the current economic and a humanitarian crisis was simply astounding.

However, two former Sri Lankan cricketing greats, Roshan Mahanama and Mahela Jayawardena, expressed their disapproval within a few hours of the news clip. Their criticism of the project went viral within a matter of hours.

Roshan, in a comment to a newspaper, stated: "It is an utter joke to spend millions on a new cricket stadium when not only cricket but the entire country is going through such difficult times."

Mahela wrote on his twitter handle, "we don't even play enough international cricket or domestic first-class cricket in the existing stadiums we have … Do we need another one?" accompanied by shock-face and face-palm emojis.

Together with newspaper editorials and negative public opinion, the former player's biting criticism resulted in Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa hastily convening a meeting. Former cricketing greats Roshan, Sanath, Mahela, Sanga, and Lasith Malinga, along with some cabinet ministers, former parliamentarians, and SLC officials, were in attendance.

The presentations made by Roshan, Mahela, Sanath, and Sanga in the recorded form are now circulating in the public domain. I understand, Lasith too, expressed his disapproval of the project. They were united in their message of the need for SLC to fund the development of school cricket infrastructure. They opined standard of cricket in Sri Lanka had declined in the last 15 years due to the neglect of school cricket, considered as the nursery for breeding national players. The former national players were of the view, Sri Lanka had sufficient international cricket stadiums. The former cricketers stated, Sri Lanka had been the venue for two world cup tournaments, and several high profile ICC tournaments with existing infrastructure.

The group emphasized the need for a long term national plan to develop the sport. The absence of a swimming pool and indoor practice facilities at Premadasa stadium that was disclosed by the former players was shocking.

Unfortunately, the presentation made by the President of the SLC to justify the massive investment for another cricket stadium is not available to me. I gather he had made a case for going ahead with the project. He had defended the decision based on its importance for Sri Lanka to have a large stadium to bid successfully to host a world cup event in Sri Lanka. However, SLC President's views had been countered by Roshan Mahanama, who has functioned as an ICC Match Referee in different parts of the world. He had reportedly said, "I have officiated World Cup matches the world over, and only one cricket ground in New Zealand has a capacity of more than 40,000 fans. Even in other places like South Africa and England, there are smaller stadiums in which World Cup games have been played. I am pretty certain the facilities we have at the moment are more than adequate if we win a World Cup bid." Mahela, too, had stated Sri Lanka should consider the feasibility of building a stadium only if we win the right to host a world cup and not before. A case of the horse before the cart syndrome at the SLC!

The PM announced the suspension of the plans for the new cricket stadium in Homagama immediately after the meeting. I would have been much happier had he abandoned the project rather than merely suspending it.

Our experience in developing cricket stadiums has been atrocious. They are invariably poorly planned and mired with controversy and corruption. The concept of learning from mistakes seems to be alien to those who hold office at the SLC.

In 2001 a cricket stadium was built in Dambulla, located in the dry zone. The original rationale behind the project was it provided Sri Lanka with the potential to host one-day matches throughout the year. The 16,500 seater stadium, constructed in just 167 days, was inaugurated with the one-day international game played between Sri Lanka and England in March 2001. Financial and ownership disputes plagued the project from its inception. There were complications with the lease from the Rangiri Dambulla Temple. Whereas the project's estimated cost was Rs 60 million, the final bill to SLC amounted to Rs. 600 million!

In 2001 the then Minister of Sports appointed a committee to look into both the cost overrun and also the lease issue. The committee headed by Hemantha Warnakulasuriya made several recommendations including;

= Each of the former Executive Committee members to be held responsible for commencing the project without a watertight lease agreement for the land beside the massive cost overrun utilizing BCCSL funds.

= The State to acquire the land after payment of compensation and funds to be deposited with the Public Trustee.

= Amend the constitution of the BCCSL to prevent any one power group, being elected to office with unfettered power.

As is the case in our country, the recommendations of the committee were never acted upon. Infact many of those guilty of mismanaging the project wormed their way back to the Executive Committee of the SLC.

In 2010 the 35,000-capacity Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in the Southern Hambantota district was built with billions of rupees in time for the 2011 World Cup. It has remained what critics call a "white elephant," with only 28 matches played in nearly a decade.

An article by Andrew Fidel Fernando for ESPN Cricinfo in 2013 says it all. "There are no hotels or guest houses near the ground. Fans have no option but to stay in places between ten and 30km away like Tangalle, on the coast, Tissamaharama to the east, Kataragama northeast, and Ambalantota. The district's lists only two hotels under the Hambantota town area, one of which hosted Sri Lanka and Pakistan teams recently. Construction of the swanky Shangri-La Hambantota began in February and was due for completion in 2014. Most of the region's hotels are in the seaside town of Tangalle, at least an hour and a half from the stadium. Where else would one dodge meter-long cobras on the way to a press conference? Or throw nervous glances either side of the road, hoping an elephant won't suddenly charge out of the bush. A local photographer saw the vehicle in front stop with an almighty thud while heading back to his hotel after a recent ODI. and then felt the night around him begin to move like thunder. The two-car convoy had hit a herd of water buffalo, their black hides closeting them in darkness. The animal died immediately. The car didn't fare much better. Thankfully, passengers and driver were unhurt. Bars and restaurants are the settings for a thousand great touring stories, but there's nothing quite like being stuck in a stampede."

The article, written in 2013, makes no bones, the location for the construction of a cricket stadium was patently ill-suited. The need for constructing the stadium in Hambantota was for non-cricketing reasons.

The construction cost of the stadium also is mired in controversy. A review by COPE revealed the Government valuer had valued the stadium at Rs. 950 million. The cost, for some inexplicable reason appearing in the books of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), amounted to Rs.5,838 million. Interest due to the Contractors on late payments as of December 31, 2016, amounted to a further Rs.2,881 million. The SLPA and the Contractor reached agreement on December 29, 2017. The transaction would be closed upon the payment by SLPA of Rs .2,957 million for construction and a further Rs.993.8 million as interest payment amounting to a total of Rs.3,950.8 million.

As to how the contractor agreed to a 50% discount on the contract value, is there a sufficient reason for a further investigation?

Another astounding feature of this transaction is that there was no contractual agreement for the construction of the stadium between SLC and the contractor. The SLPA raised a variation order as part of the contract between the SLPA and the contractor who built the Hambantota port. It is still unclear why the SLPA got involved in the construction of a cricket stadium in the first place. Those familiar with construction contracts will appreciate that a variation order is not a suitable document for new development.

It is evident we the public have been saved from another "white elephant" by Roshan and Mahela bravely denouncing the project publically. Their comments went viral in social media within a few hours of the television news clip galvanizing the public.

Arjuna's comments against the project must be acknowledged. However, his political affiliations compromise his independence.

Sanga's presentation was a class act, but then, nothing less was expected of him. Sanath and Lasith, too, need to be commended for their forthright views.

The Colombo correspondent of the Hindu newspaper in India has stated, "All it took was a tweet from cricketing legend Mahela Jayawardene. Within five days, the Sri Lankan government did a virtual U-turn, putting on hold its decision to build a cricket stadium near Colombo".

I hope the efforts of our cricketing greats will act as a catalyst for our corporate leaders, professionals, and other civic conscious individuals. Hopefully, they, too, will express forthrightly and voice their opposition to all ill-conceived ventures by the present and future governments.

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