Monday, October 8, 2012

2012 ICC World Twenty20 - Colombo, Sri Lanka - September 30/October 2, 2012

Moving to Singapore has turned into a blessing in disguise. Although the city itself lacks the regular sports scene that Tokyo had, there are so many nearby destinations with sporting events that were not accessible while I was in Japan. Most notable is cricket, a religion in India and Sri Lanka, which are just a few hours away. When I discovered that the International Cricket Council was holding the 2012 Twenty20 World Cup in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, I immediately booked tickets on discount airline Tiger ($150 return, insanely cheap for a 4-hour flight each way). I have a few friends who are cricket fans and when I mentioned my plans, they eagerly agreed to join me. Even my girlfriend couldn't resist the lure of a new destination, although she went for shopping instead of sport. At any rate, the five of us had a blast regardless of what we were doing.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island just east of the southern tip of India. Sadly, it is most famous for its vicious civil war that stretched over 25 years and cost nearly 100,000 lives. The war ended in 2009 when the government finally killed off the rebel leaders and since then, Sri Lanka has begun to see new opportunities, both economically and as a tourist destination. The people are friendly and have yet to develop the skill of ripping off visitors, but there is still decent infrastructure and plenty of natural beauty, making Sri Lanka a great place to visit, regardless of the reason. The capital city of Colombo is an assault on your senses, with the colourful colonial architecture combining with the cacophony from the streets, the spices from the markets, and the humidity on your skin to complete the sensory overload. What amazed me most was the lack of air pollution which allowed the sunlight to reach the earth unimpeded, making everything brighter than I had ever seen before.  Doubtless I will be back to explore more of Sri Lanka, but on this occasion, it was sport that had brought me and thus sport that I went to see.


Before I go on, a quick overview of cricket. It is like baseball, but it isn't. Sure, batters bat against a bowler and score runs while avoiding outs. But that is where the similarities end. In cricket, the diamond becomes a pitch that separates two wickets and two batters run between these wickets to score runs. (In the photo below, the pitch is the dirt portion in the middle.) When a batter swings, he is under no obligation to run unless he feels confident he can make it to the other side of the pitch for a run. Balls that reach the boundary (equivalent to the outfield fence) on a bounce score 4 runs, while those that clear the boundary (a home run) are called sixes. I won't detail the many different ways a batter can get out, but a ball caught by a fielder without a bounce is one that is similar to baseball. Although in cricket, they don't use gloves.

Cricket matches originally were 5 day "tests" in which each team batted through 2 innings of 10 wickets (outs), scoring as many runs as possible. The problem is that outs can be very difficult to obtain and teams could bat through an entire day of 90 overs and only make 1 or 2 outs. As well, to get a win, a team had to get their opponents out all 20 times (assuming all 5 days were played and there were no declarations). Far too often this was not accomplished and the result was a draw, a very unsatisfying conclusion after nearly a week of action.

To get more results, the powers that be invented one-day cricket, where each team batted 50 overs or 1 innings (i.e. 10 wickets), whichever came first. An over is 6 balls, so each team had 300 balls to get as many runs as possible. These one-day internationals (ODI) would last about 7 hours and draws were much rarer.

Still though, seven hours is not a suitable length for TV, so along came 20-over cricket, known as Twenty20 and abbreviated T20. Initially frowned upon by the establishment, it has been made popular by the Indian Premier League. Now a match can be over in 3 hours, and with wickets no longer an issue, batters can take risks that they would not take in a normal match. Offense is measured by run rate, the number of runs per over. A typical test match RR might be 2.5, where as in T20, 7.5 is considered a reasonable RR (150 runs in 20 overs).  Much like how the NFL has used rule changes to improve scoring and hence popularity, national cricket boards realized that fans like lots of offense and T20 was their answer.

I still prefer the test version as it is the most intriguing game, as wickets are the key rather than runs, but T20 has its own appeal and I was more than happy to venture to Sri Lanka to see the fourth World Cup in this format.

The Tournament

For sports travellers, cricket is probably the only reason to visit this area of the world. They are mad about this fascinating game down here and as such they get to host major tournaments on a regular basis. Last year Sri Lanka co-hosted the 2011 World Cup (the 50-over variety) with eventual champions India, and this year they were the sole host for the T20 version. Twelve teams entered, but four of them were qualifiers, so the first round was meaningless as it just eliminated these four weaklings. The other teams entered the Super 8s, divided into two groups. England, New Zealand, West Indies, and the hosts played in Group 1 in Kandy, while India, Pakistan, Australia, and South Africa comprised Group 2 with matches at R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. Each squad played the other once in a round robin over three match days, meaning doubleheaders were on tap each day. The top two finishers would make the semi-finals and those winners would contest the final, also at Premadasa.

R. Premadasa Stadium

Built in 1986 on swampland next to the Khettarama temple, Premadasa is named after the Prime Minister who pursued the idea of creating a world-class cricket facility and who, as President, was later assassinated as part of the civil war. After its completion, the stadium held just 14,000 fans, but recent renovations have increased capacity to 35,000, making the stadium a suitable host for the 2011 Cricket World Cup and the 2012 T20 version as well.

The stadium is located northeast of the main tourist area in Colombo, about 30 minutes from Galle Road by tuk-tuk, the small 3-wheeled taxis that dominate local traffic. We were dropped off about 150 meters from the stadium where we had to clear two separate security checks, before walking to gate 11 behind the stadium.

Although the immediate vicinity was not particularly impressive, it was nice to walk to the back entrance, where we saw Khettarama Temple. It is certainly incongruous to see this beautiful white structure (above) next to such a large sports venue. The road here borders the Sebastian Canal across which you can see some true local neighborhoods, along with the occasional cow chewing on the grass.

Tickets were insanely cheap with grandstand (above) seats the most expensive at $18, while those in the C block (below) cost only $3. Ticket prices were kept low to encourage the locals to attend, since their national team was playing in the other group, whose matches were about 3 hours to the east. We spent the first matches in the C block, which was crowded and chaotic with concessions a bit crazy.

For the second set of matches, we were in the Grandstand, which is roomier, has fewer fans and far less waiting at the concessions. Sitting here also gives you a straight-on view of the hand-operated scoreboard, which is important in a game as complicated as cricket.

There wasn't a huge variety of food here, with KFC providing a few chicken choices such as 5 hot drumlets for 260 LKR (LKR is the symbol for Sri Lankan Rupee, 130 LKR = US$1). There were also chicken hot dogs (pork and beef are generally not served here) that seemed quite popular. Bags of Lay’s potato chips were available at 80 LKR for small or 170 LKR for large, with Magic Masala my recommendation. There were even ice cream sandwiches in a few select spots. Soft drinks and bottled water were easily available and equally affordable, but the best offering was the beer. Lion, the local brew, was on tap at just 120 LKR per cup (that’s less than one US dollar!), and you could buy 6 at a time using a fancy carrying case that held the cups in holes and folded up with a handle for carrying. Given the packed crowds, this method of transporting beer from the concession to your seat was much more practical than the cardboard holders that you get in U.S. stadiums as you don’t have to worry about having the cup knocked over. Yes, the cups weren’t that big but with the heat and humidity beating down during the afternoon matches, having plenty of cheap beer made the event much more enjoyable.

In some areas, the lower sections were mostly cement blocks, but the upper sections were seats that were with sections alternately colored yellow and blue, representing the colours on the Sri Lankan national team uniform. It made for a beautiful sight on a bright sunny day.

Cricket used to be a staid sport, but T20 is changing things. One clear sign here were the dancers who appeared after every four, six, or wicket. Clad in bright outfits, they performed a brief jig to loud, blaring music. They may not have been quite as talented as NFL cheerleaders, but full marks for effort.

The highlight though were the fans. Cricket fans are unique in the world of sport; when it comes to supporting their nation, they are without equal in finding innovative ways of dressing up in team colors, making noise for the entirety of the match, and generally having a good time. Despite some fierce rivalries between India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka among others (the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked by terrorists in Lahore, Pakistan in 2009), fans from each country were well behaved and friendly with their opposites, taking pictures with each other and engaging in a bit of good-natured trash talk. Of course, with armed security everywhere, any trouble would have seen you removed immediately.

The Matches

Frankly, the three matches I saw were secondary to the atmosphere in the stadium. The first match saw Australia pitted against South Africa, who batted first and notched 146 runs, a fair total. But Australia had no trouble beating that behind Shane Watson's 70 off 47 balls as they hit 147 with 14 balls to spare. Above is Pat Cummins bowling, while below is Michael Hussey (45 not out) watching one of his two 6's clear the boundary.

The match started at 3:30 and although fans of both nations were active and cheering, they were outnumbered by the locals, as well as the Indians and Pakistanis waiting for the evening affair when these two enemies would face each other in what may be the most heated rivalry all of sport.

For three solid hours fans of both squads chanted, cheered, screamed, swore, and sang as the match moved along. Unlike U.S. arenas where fans are exhorted to “Make Noise”, everything here was based purely on emotion. Add on the blaring music after every 4, 6, or wicket, dancers, and a stadium MC, countless flags from both nations, and and there wasn’t a moment of quiet. This may sound unbearable, but it was truly incredible to be part of it. This was like a Stanley Cup, World Series and Super Bowl rolled into one, an unforgettable combination that needs to be seen to be believed.

The match itself was quite interesting, as Pakistan finished 128 all out after a fast start (that's opener Mohammad Hafeez swinging above). This should have been an easy total for India to beat, but they started slowly, scoring only 36 runs in their first six overs. My friends who are ardent Indian supporters were worried, but Man of the Match Virat Kohli (below) quickly turned anxiety into exhilaration, managing 78 not out as India cruised to 129 with 3 full overs to spare. Once it became clear that India would win, my friends and their compatriots erupted with a joyous celebration. For them, there is nothing better than beating Pakistan in cricket (like us Canadians beating the Americans in ice hockey) and for them see it live was the highlight of the trip, if not their entire lives.

After a day touring Colombo, we ventured back for the last day of the Super 8s, this time enjoying the relative relaxation of the grandstand. Pakistan took on Australia in the afternoon match and batted first, running up a surprising 149 runs, giving Australia a tough total to chase.

They then used a spellbinding spin attack to completely stifle the Aussie bats. Opener Shane Watson was the first to go (above), bowled lbw by Raza Hasan (below) after managing just 8 runs. Lbw, for those not familiar with cricket, is an abbreviation for "leg before wicket", which is when the batter misses the ball with his swing but his leg blocks the ball from hitting the wicket, which is an out.

Although the Australians were not in trouble wicket-wise, they were unable to score many runs and after 14 overs they were just 68/5. This is where things got very interesting. It was clear that Australia was going to lose, but as long as they scored 112 runs, they would advance to the semifinals based on net run rate (i.e. their run rate less their run rate against), which would then be better than Pakistan's. When they scored 33 runs in the next three overs it looked like a done deal, but they actually had to wait until their last over to acquire that critical 112th run and a place in the semis, much to the relief of their fans.

Personally, I thought they allowed Pakistan to score so many runs as they wanted them to advance in place of the Indians, who are the better squad but had been annihilated by Australia in the first match. Both teams had beaten South Africa so they finished the round robin 2-1, which India would duplicate if they beat  South Africa in the nightcap. However, Australia allowing Pakistan such an easy victory meant that India would need a nearly impossible blowout to edge Pakistan on run rate.

Sadly, I had to return to Singapore so was forced to listen to the match on the way to the airport. India won what seemed to be an exciting battle, scoring their winning run on their last ball. Of course, it was not enough to make it to the semifinals and Australia went on to meet the West Indies, while Pakistan faced hosts Sri Lanka.

The sporting gods did not look kindly on that Australia/Pakistan farce, causing both to lose in embarrassing fashion in the semis. The final featured the West Indies beating Sri Lanka to win their first major trophy since 1979. That happened to be the same day I was in Japan watching the Formula 1, but more on that in a future post.

Despite the somewhat mundane cricket, this was a fantastic trip that made me remember just how much there is so see, not only in the world of sport but in the world as a whole. With the NHL lockout continuing, I've already decided to forgo the Winter Classic and a trip home for Christmas. Instead, I'll be traveling somewhere new here in Asia, and probably avoiding sports altogether. Too often we do the same thing day after day and forget that there are new experiences to be had if we just take a chance. For me, moving to Singapore was that chance and so far, I've enjoyed many new experiences both as a sporting spectator and as a tourist. Keep checking back to see what might happen next.



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