Cricketers deliver message of hope to Sri Lankan survivors

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Amid the anguish and pain of a refugee camp was a smile. It came courtesy of sport. Anura Shantha had come to help out at the temple from his nearby village in southern Sri Lanka. He spoke of the tragedy of the wave and then, suddenly during a brief pause in the conversation he spontaneously imitated a cricketer's bowling action.

It was a small hint of what normally dominates this country and prompted a swift, instinctive reaction from a small boy who, grinning, pretended to whack an imaginary ball away.

Such is the passion for cricket in this country that even in desperate times it generates joy. And now the sport's stars are determined to bring more.

Famous players from around the world gather in Melbourne for a charity match between Asia and the Rest of the World on Monday, with all proceeds going towards helping survivors.

The move comes as Sri Lanka's cricket authorities this week launched an aid programme that promises new housing for those robbed of their homes by the killer wave. Already some of Sri Lanka's leading players have been touring the stricken country, helping to distribute aid to the worst affected areas. The players enjoy such a high profile here that children in the camps cannot believe what they are seeing when the stars arrive.

Sri Lanka's tour of New Zealand was postponed last week so the players could return home as some of them were personally affected by the tragedy. Batsman Sanath Jayasuriya's hometown of Matara, was one of the worst hit and his mother was among the injured. She only escaped death by desperately clinging to a tree.

Matara is just along the coast from Galle, which had a stunning Test venue, overlooked by the town's Dutch fort. Yet the cricket ground, like much of the town, is shattered, with only two stands remaining. Just last week bodies were left lying next to it and buses had been tossed onto the field by the tsunami.

Jayasuriya said yesterday: "My homeland in the south was devastated by the tsunami which wreaked havoc over most of our coastline. I have seen the destruction and the suffering. My heart goes out to all the victims and it is time we, as responsible citizens, responded to the call of our people." The spin bowler Muttiah Muralitharan is an ambassador for the UN's World Food Programme. He led team-mates on a visit to three emergency camps in the east coast district of Trincomalee.

Yesterday, Muralitharan warned the government and donors to guard against political favouritism as aid is distributed. "I'm very concerned about corruption," he said. "The food aid won't last for long and it's vital that what we have been given is used responsibly and fairly." His comments came as the Sri Lankan government banned the adoption of children orphaned by the tsunami amid unconfirmed reports that some were snatched in the wake of the disaster.

Most of the players, though, have steered clear of politics and used their profiles simply to appeal for help for their nation.

Although no international stars died, many lost friends and family and some league players perished. Marvan Atapattu, a batsman, said: "Many who lost their lives were ardent fans who cheered us throughout the years. It is our duty to return the gesture by assisting them in their time of need."

Efforts to revive the nation's cricketing dreams were not limited to sportsmen. A group of Australians living in the southern city of Galle have joined forces to launch a programme to rebuild the devastated Galle international cricket ground.

Karl Steinberg, the owner of the Galle Fort Hotel, said the idea came about when he offered local children an impromptu tour of the remains of the stadium. "It would mean the world to the entire nation [...] because the spirit of a place is also important when you rebuild a country," he wrote on his hotel website.