Return to Galle is giant step on road to recovery for a nation

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The Independent Online

By Stephen Brenkley in Galle

The Third Test between England and Sri Lanka which begins in Galle on Tuesday is not just any cricket match. It matters less than usual who wins or loses, though both sides will be trying their socks off, one to level the series, the other to win it.

All that counts is that it takes place. This is the first match on the ground since the tsunami almost three years ago that wreaked havoc in this country and cost 40,000 lives. Nobody is sure of the precise number.

At times like this, when sport, and what passes for normal life, resume after tragedy or disaster, it is customary to talk of the triumph of the human spirit. But that is exactly what is afoot here.

The Sri Lankans got on with their lives pretty soon after the devastation, and after a word which had meant virtually nothing to anybody had become chillingly commonplace. They quickly rebuilt roads, houses and shops. Outside aid at first poured in and then trickled in. Many wonderful projects were funded. MCC, for instance, yesterday opened a centre of excellence, including a medical surgery, classroom and women's centre, and a new cricket ground.

This Test match, the 1,853rd of all, represents a final step on the way to recovery and renewal. It will show that there is a future, that there always must be. Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka's admirable captain, put it appositely the other day.

"It is going to be an emotional thing for a lot of guys who come from down south and who have lost relatives," he said. "But I think we have moved forward as a nation, as a team, so we just need to concentrate on the cricket in hand. It's going to be more of a celebration. Yes, we will remember the people and the Galle Stadium, but it's a new stadium, so that means we're going to move forward and make sure we enjoy the outing. It's going to be a fresh new start for us in that province."

It is, then, a pity that the new stadium, built on the same site in the shadow of the old Dutch fort, is far from complete. In truth, it would probably not be fit to stage an international match in another month.

There are few seats, there are no grassy areas, toilets are hard to find, the main pavilion is just about fit for inhabitation but none of the frills which would make it a signature building have been put in place. In short, it is a building site. And it has rained very hard indeed for two days. This has delayed further work that was always going to belast-minute. The ground is extremely wet. No longer under six inches of water, it was still a quagmire yesterday.

Yet none of these things should prevent the match taking place, unless the rain, unwanted and unseasonal, intervenes. Reportsthat the Test may be moved to Colombo are uninformed and plain discourteous.

Goodwill is required from all involved: players, officials, spectators, media. It would be easy to criticise the Sri Lankan administration for failing in their promise to finish the ground. Very easy, because the least that was deserved here, as a memorial to those who died so close by and to show the way forward, was a brand spanking new stadium. But recriminations are pointless.

Paul Collingwood, England's vice-captain, who made his Test debut here four years ago, said yesterday: "On the bus here the mood changed the further we came down. It was quite a sombre atmosphere. The events here three years ago put everything in perspective.

"Credit has to be given for what they've done to the ground and we're just going to have to get on with it. You see how Sri Lankan people have reacted to such a disaster, they're trying to rebuild their lives and we're trying to put smiles back on their faces."

The weather is a genuine threat. Sri Lanka have recalled batsman Tillekeratne Dilshan and introduced the uncapped Chanaka Welegedara. England may have Matthew Hoggard (pictured left) fit to replace (probably) Stuart Broad and must be worried about Monty Panesar's form. It will be tough to win, but no matter. Play up and play this game.

Have your say on our blog and listen to Angus Fraser and Stephen Brenkley discussing the tour: